A Beginning

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Thoughts II:
The Next Step: A Calling

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Thoughts III:
Creating The Container

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Herb Stevenson
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Gestalt Principles

by Herb Stevenson

The Beginning

Gestalt is a German word that does not easily translate into English. Its central meanings include form, shape, manner, aspect, kind, and character. These meanings were adapted in Gestalt psychological and psychotherapeutic theory to signify a pattern, a whole, a discernible configuration or constellation. However, for a description of the word, the essence, if you will, “three phenomena must be considered: a thing, its context or environment, and the relationship between them. We perceive something that constitutes a part of the reality of our world in terms of the context in which it occurs. For example, the color and texture of a rosebud in the context of a vase in a room are perceived differently from the same rosebud when its context is many other rosebuds on a bush in a garden.” Our response to the rosebud is quite different in the two contexts. “Although the rosebud is the focus, the gestalt of the rosebud depends on, and cannot be separated from, the environment in which it appears.1” (Kolb, Gorrell, & De Riet, 1989, p.1)

Gestalt theory is best known for identifying and working with structural entities that are both different from and more than the sum of their parts. In keeping with Gestalt's original roots in psychology, where it was argued that perception is best understood as an organized pattern rather than separate parts, (Kohler, 1992) "[t]he aim of the Gestalt approach is for a person to discover, explore and experience his or her own shape, pattern and wholeness, . . . leading to the integration of all disparate parts." Through such discovery, the individual is helped to fulfill "the central human activity," which for Gestalt is "people's need to give meaning to their perceptions, their experience, and their existence" (Clarkson, 2000, pp. 1, 5).

Gestalt is a theoretical and methodological adaptation of several philosophic and scientific schools and movements that either predate or are contemporaneous with its development. These contributory factors influenced Gestalt to varying degrees, but all nurtured Gestalt's distinctive focus on individuals' perceptions of and responses to their environment (i.e., not only the physical situation, but also interactions with other people) in the present moment. The following schools and movements are important for understanding Gestalt in both its original and expanded "therapeutic" applications: phenomenology, existentialism, holism, systems theory, and field theory.


Edmund Husserl believed a “descriptive psychology”2 that incorporated a “science of experience” was needed. As developed by Husserl, “phenomenology is the study of essences; and according to it, all problems amount to finding definitions of the essences: the essence of perception, or the essence of consciousness, for example.” It presumes that “the world is always ‘already there’ before reflection begins—as an inalienable presence; and all its efforts are concentrated upon reachieving a direct and primitive contact with the world...” (Merleau-Ponty, 1995, p. vii) “Seeking the essence of consciousness...will consist in rediscovering my actual presence to myself...Looking for the world’s essence is not looking for what it is as an idea once it has been reduced to a theme of discourse; it is looking for what it is as a fact for us before any thematization. (p. xv) Therefore, “[t]he phenomenological world is not the bringing to explicit expression of a pre-existing being, but the laying down of being.” (p. xx) Applied to everyday situations, phenomenology “implies that process which one experiences as uniquely one’s own.” (Zinker, 1977, 77) For example,

reality as I experience it is my actuality. No one else can experience my inner life for me. The sensitive person may express what he experiences when he is with me, and this experience of his may touch something close to me. But if he were to make an interpretation of the “real” meaning of my statement or behavior, he would lose the purity of my experience. He would remove himself from me by utilizing what Fritz Perls called the “computing function” (Zinker, 1977, p. 84)

Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt psychotherapy, labeled Gestalt "the therapy of the 'obvious'. Description is considered more important than prescription or interpretation. Clients are [supported] to find their own meaning through this process" (Clarkson, p. 15). For example, the validation of another’s experience without judgment enables that person to take ownership of their experience, to become curious and, possibly, to develop new awareness by paying attention to one’s self. Generally, while focusing on the descriptive experience of being, “the longer [the client stays with] ongoing awareness, the greater the possibility of heightening, expanding, deepening...awareness.” (Zinker, 1977, 85).

Perls also explained that finding meaning through the Gestalt approach embraced explicit, unique relational connections: "[A]wareness of and responsibility for the total field, for the self as well as the other, give meaning and patterns to the individual's life" (1976, p. 49).


Existentialism is a philosophical theory which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. In psychotherapy, existentialism addresses the conflicts that flow from the individual’s confrontation with concerns and intrinsic properties that are an inescapable part of being human, of one’s very existence in the world. (Yalom, 1980, p. 8) In basic terms, existentialism brings each person into direct contact with an awareness that is stark like a naked truth that reveals the paradoxes permeating death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.

Basic Paradoxes

At some point, each person confronts the paradoxical tension between the awareness of the inevitability of death and the innate desire to continue to be, that is, to continue to exist. Similarly, in the depths of the soul as would an awareness of an existential conflict be likened, freedom does not denote simply choice. Rather, it is the awareness that the individual is “the author of his or her own world, life design, choices, and actions” (Yalom, 1980, p. 9) and therefore nothing exists except that which we have constructed from our experiences. This leads to the paradoxical tension between the desire for structure and ground and the absolute groundlessness of life.

Isolation is the awareness that we enter and leave the world totally alone. The existential paradox is the stark awareness of our absolute isolation colliding with the inborn wish for contact, for protection, and to be apart of a larger whole, that is, of something more than oneself. Meaninglessness reveals itself like a naked truth through an awareness that, in the end, we die and leave a world of our own creation as we came into it in total isolation. At this point, the paradoxical tensions reveal that each of us seeks meaning in a world that at the most core level of existence has no meaning. It simply “is”.

Gestalt Application

Fritz Perls, and therefore gestalt therapy, focused heavily on existentialism, in particular, existential freedom, which includes responsibility and choice. As a basic tenet of Gestalt therapy, existentialism extended the application of phenomenology into a description of the “here and now.”As noted by Joseph Zinker (1977) , “the experiential here and now...does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it is owned, by a self, a person, a me.” (p. 85)

Perls believed that most people disclaim any responsibility for their difficulties in life, even though “no one makes me do what I do; no one else can be held responsible for my behavior.” (Zinker, 1977, 84) Hence, he focused on developing personal responsibility for one’s plight in life.3 One way that he attempted to create responsibility was to engage people to own their statements through use of first person pronouns. It was his belief that people disown or disclaim responsibility by making the problem something outside of themselves and therefore the cause of their helplessness. To overcome this situation, Perls forced people to use “I” statements to begin the shift towards responsibility for creating one’s own predicament4. Once people are able to shift from “it happened” to “I did this”, Perls focused on shifting the avoidance of responsibility, interpreted as helpless, to a reframing of the situation to one of being unwilling to assume responsibility for the personal malaise. (Perls & Baumgardner, 1975, p. 45-46) He felt that “we choose each of our symptoms” and therefore ‘unfinished’ or unexpressed feelings find their way to the surface in self-destructive, unsatisfying expressions. “Perls attempted to help patients to complete their gestalts—their unfinished business, their blocked-out awareness, their avoided responsibilities..” (Yalom, 1980, p. 247) Often, he would ask the patients to produce or augment or grossly exaggerate the symptom. In doing so, the patient became aware that the symptom is literally that of the patient and therefore, he or she was responsible for the creation of the symptom.5 This approach extended into Perls dream analysis. Perls called dreams “the existential messenger”. (Perls & Baumgardner, 1975, p. 117) Through a form of role-playing of each person and object within the dream, he sought to clarify the individuals appreciation of his or her own authorship of the dream and to reassemble the scattered part of the personality into a whole, thereby completing the gestalt(s) involved. In brief, Perls believed that individual must assume responsibility for all feelings, including the unpleasant and/or disclaimed. “By reclaiming all previously disowned parts of oneself, the individual’s experience becomes richer: one is at home within oneself and within one’s world.” (Yalom, 1980, 249).



Jan Christian Smuts (1926) was one of the first to use the term "holism" to reflect that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Smuts elaborated that “a whole... has something internal, some inwardness of structure and function, some specific inner relations, some internality of character or nature, which constitutes the more.” (p. 103) He believed that this “more” consisted of a field that synthesized the parts into the whole. “Holism”, then, “is not only creative, but self-creative, and its final structures are far more holistic that its initial structures.” It “is a process of creative synthesis,” whereby “the resulting wholes are not static but dynamic, evolutionary, creative.” (p.87) As such, a whole, whether it be an organism or the personality of a person, “is really a ‘synthesized’ event in the system of Relativity” and therefore “is really a unified, synthesized section of history, which includes not only its present, but much of its past and even its future.” Hence, the whole, Smuts prophesied, “can only be explained by reference to its past and its future as well as its present; the conception of the field therefore becomes necessary and will be found fruitful in biology and psychology no less than physics.” Moreover, he believed that “this is a universe of whole-making” (Smuts, 1926, p.87)


Perls (1969, p. 28-29) applied holism to psychological processes, whereby the individual is perceived to be more than simply the sum of his or her experiences, just as an organization is perceived to be more than the sum of the individuals within it. However, the structure that identifies an entity (e.g., an individual, an organization) determines which parts are or can be included in that entity. Hence there is at once a reciprocal and deterministic relationship between the whole and the parts, and one cannot be fully understood without the other. Furthermore, Perls focused heavily on Smuts’ concept that the past and future are fully present in the moment, which contributed to the present-centered focus of gestalt therapy and coaching.

Koestler & Wilbur

Arthur Koestler (1978) expanded the discussion of holism with his development of the concepts of “holons6” and “holarchy7”. In simple terms, a holon is "any entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole" (Wilbur, 1996, p. 20). For example, letters joined with other letters form a word, words joined with other words become a sentence. Each level of formation consists of both wholes and parts. When we look at an individual, a group, or an organization, we can perceive a holon: entities that are whole in themselves (an individual) yet that are also a part in relationship with other wholes (a group or organization). Koestler further distinguished this relationship by indicating that holons are “Janus-faced. The face turned upward, toward the higher levels, is that of a dependent part: the face turned downward, toward its own constituents, is that of a whole of remarkable self-sufficiency.” (27). As such, according to Koestler, every holon has two opposing “tendencies or potentials: an integrative or self-transcending tendency to function as part of the larger whole, and a self-assertive tendency to preserve its individual autonomy” (56) The tension between these opposing tendencies or potentials suggests a third aspect of complexity—the whole, the part, and the tension between the two.

The holistic approach used in Gestalt interventions is rooted in the concept that an individual's search for meaning cannot be reduced to the sum of his or her experiences; the individual must be considered within the larger reality in which this individual plays the role of a part. "By keeping an eye on the context or field or whole in which a phenomenon is embedded," Perls argued, "we avoid many misunderstandings" (1969, p. 29).

The importance of this concept deepens when we understand that in an intervention, the Gestaltist is a holon joining with the client, another holon, to create a third holon: a dyad that is more than—and different from—the sum of its parts, i.e., the Gestaltist and the client. Furthermore, the structure created—a dyad—determines the nature of the relationships of the two individuals included in it. The Gestalt intervener therefore needs to sustain an awareness of the wholeness of each holon as well as the dynamic relationships between self and client in the dyad entity they form. Furthermore, the intervener needs to be mindful of each holon having the capacity to self-transcend and self assert like a Janus face–each part, the whole, and the tension between self assertiveness, as in maintaining one’s identidentyand self transcending, as in expanding into something larger than oneself.

Holism as Structure and Function

Two explanations can help us understand the complexity inherent in holism. As a structural phenomenon, holism is a type of hierarchical growth from simpler to more complex. Wilber, like Smuts, states that "virtually all growth processes, from matter to life to mind, occur via natural holarchies, or orders of increasing holism and wholeness—wholes that becomes parts of new wholes—and that's natural hierarchy or holarchy" (p. 28). As a functional phenomenon, holism is the dynamic interplay between container and contained (similar to Wilbur's holons). Describing group psychological processes, Billow (2000) refers to this underlying dynamic as multilevel nestings, where each level simultaneously functions as container and contained:

The container at one level of symbolic formation serves as the contained at another. [For example,] on one level the structure of the thought, the symbol itself, serves as the object or container; the individual's unformulated ideas and emotions are the contained. On the level of the self, the individual serves as the container of the symbols, which become the contained. On the interpersonal level, the pair and group serve as container, while public expressions of the individual—symbols, emotions, thoughts, self-presentation, and action—are the contained. The nesting process is a developmental achievement. Until the nesting process is intact, the process of meaning-making remains incomplete. . . . (p. 246)

Systems Theory

Systems theory, extends the concept of holism. (See: Bailey, 1990; Berrien, 1968; Bertalanffy, 1967 & 1868; Laszlo, 1972, Phillips, 1976). It is used in the social sciences to explain the arrangement or working of a unified whole. The overall objective, reason for existence, or purpose determines what is included and what is excluded from the system. Hence, the defining objective, reason, or purpose for existing determines and establishes the boundaries of the system. Hence, where holons describe the natural complexity between the coming together of whole/parts, systems theory suggests means to understand, the complexity by examining what brought the whole/parts or parts of the system together.

Open versus Closed Systems

The degree to which a system is open or closed depends on the extent to which the system is permeable at its boundaries. In social systems, this would mean the extent that information, influence, people, and action move back and forth across the system’s boundaries.

No system is totally open or totally closed. If a system were totally open, there would be no selective process and there would be no difference between the system and the environment. If a system were totally closed, it would not be permeable whatsoever and therefore would have no contact, whatsoever, with the environment. Hence, the defining purpose creates the boundary that filters what is inside the system and what is in the background, outside the system.

Open Systems Process

All systems have three primary processes. An open system consumes some form of resource, often referred to as input, whether it is information, money, or energy, that in essence fuels the system. The system by its definition modifies or transforms the input into something predetermined and consistent with the defining purpose of the system, such as manipulating information into patterns, converting cash into assets, or running/operating machines. This is known as the throughput process. The final process is output, where the system has created something of value, such as in creating reporting systems, accruing profits, or selling products, that is exported from the system.

An open system includes a feedback loop that continually informs the system of deviations from the defining purpose and the three processes. This feedback can be used to make corrective action and decisions that maintain the defining purpose and the efficient completion of the three processes. For example, when sales slow down, the input of reduced cash impacts the creation of products, which in turn impacts the creation of profits. Feedback informs the system to reduce the production of products and to cut back on expenses so as to try to maintain profits.

All systems are impacted by the natural process of entropy. Entropy suggests that all systems move toward disintegration and therefore death. An open system is able to import/input more resources and/or energy from the environment to stem the disintegrative process. If it is able to create resources and/or energy that can be converted into input, such as building large cash reserves to cover periods of economic decline, it has attained negative entropy or negentropy as it is often called.

All systems move toward greater complexity through the process of differentiation. Differentiation is like an implosion of intension leading to action to refine and redefine the efficiency and effectiveness of the systems operations. As such, greater specialization of functions is developed. Expertise becomes defined in more minute details of singular functions without necessarily understanding the defining purpose of the overall system and/or how the specialized processes contribute to the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the system. For example, automobiles were originally developed by a small team of interchangeable laborers. Specialization created assembly lines as a division of labor, where individuals produce a specific, repetitive act in the process of building a product, such as a car. It now takes hundreds or thousands of employees to create one car.

Equifinality, generally, applies to open systems. It means that there are many ways or paths to the same end or result. In other words, there are many roads to Rome, each with its own unique curves and turns and overall distance. Moreover, equifinality is a reminder that there is no one best way to perform anything. Hence, when a system becomes locked into behavior patterns, it has lost its ability to examine the possibility of another way to perform and still complete the intended task. Generally, when a firm no longer is able to constantly find new ways to operate, it tends to be entranced with the feedback information and the possible ways to respond to the feedback. An example is the railroad industry lack of response to the creation of personal transportation via automobiles and dock-to-dock transportation of freight via trucks. Entranced with its own way of understanding of the environmental feedback, it moved into an entropic near-death knoll.

Steady state and dynamic equilibrium are terms that indicate the tendency of the system to create stability and predictability with the systems operations. A steady state means that the three processes—input, throughput, output–-are in a steady state of flow in and out of the system consistent with the defining purpose of the organization, such as profits are produced that are reinvested into resources that become inputs that produce products that are sold for profits, ad nauseam. Dynamic equilibrium, or dynamic homeostasis as sometimes referred, is the ability of the system to adapt to disruptions from within or from the environment and return to its stable state. Generally, dynamic equilibrium reflects a system’s attempt to grow by ingesting greater resources than required by the systems steady state or by acquiring or neutralizing threats from the environments that have the potential or are in fact destabilizing the system.

Implications for Understanding System Behavior

Characteristic Open System Closed System

A point of reference of understanding system behavior

Attention is focused on system-environment interdependence. To understand the system, it is necessary to understand the environmental forces.

The behavior of the system is explained in terms of internal structures, the environment is relatively unimportant.

Approaches to variance or irregularity in the system

Will view variance as essential to the self- regulating properties of the system, i.e., the system has to vary behavior in order to respond and adjust to environmental changes. Growth toward greater complexity and heterogeneity is seen as a natural development.

Will view variance with the system as a disruptive force to be controlled and minimized in order to maintain stabiloty.

Amount of uncertainty experienced by the system

Is always subject to environmental influences and is consequently always facing some degree of uncertainty as to appropriate behavior. The goal is to do the best it can in the face of continuing uncertainty. The open system emphasizes gaining information from the environment. A correlated and major strategy, then, is for the system to influence the environment in order to increase certainty.

Focuses on the certainty already present within the system, and is relatively unaffected by the environment. The closed system pays attention to information existing within the system, and assumes a high degree of rationality in system behavior.

Structures of
the system

Assumes there is no one best way to structure the system in order to reach its objectives. The effectiveness of a particular structure depends on the environmental circumstances at that time. The system feels free to modify the structure in order to reach its objectives.

Focuses on the single best way to structure the system in order to reach its objectives. The closed system seeks a maximally structured system to produce specified outcomes, and uses structure itself to create and maintain stability.

Adapted from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, Organization and Systems Development Program manual, 2000-2002, OSD 14, 40-41

Systems theory is fundamentally concerned with the patterns and problems of relationship, structure, and interdependence. The general principle that characterizes all open systems is that there is no determined need for a single method in order to achieve any given objective. Consequently, we cannot understand an open system without studying the internal and external forces that impinge upon it.

Gestalt Theory and Change

Systems theory permeates gestalt theory. Each of the core concepts of systems theory are dynamic gateways to understanding the client system. However, homeostasis and dynamic equilibrium are the foremost concepts used toward understanding change. Homeostasis is the predisposition of the individual, group, or organization to maintain some semblance of stability or pre-determined sense of well-being; e.g., the body seeks to maintain a normal temperature. Equilibrium, as noted in the Oxford University Press Electronic Dictionary, is a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced, such as the state of being physically balanced or in a calm state of mind, or as in chemistry, a state in which a process and its reverse are occurring at equal rates so that no overall change is taking place, or as in economics, a situation in which supply and demand are matched and prices are stable.

Gestalt seeks to understand the “what is” of dynamic equilibrium. As such, it is able to see that by ingesting disruptions and threats, it is actually a self correcting system of countervailing motions that continuously adjust to create a form of self protection to ensure self preservation. As such it is like an “an immunity to change.” (Kegan & Lahey, 2001, 6) When applied to the internal functioning of an organization, we begin to realize that the implosion of differentiation consistent with the tendency towards complexity inherent in almost all organizations creates a dynamic equilibrium that is immune to change. Hence, when a change initiative is introduced, this immune system is part and parcel of the organization and therefore preprogrammed to acquire, neutralize or destroy the attempt to destabilize the system. We cannot see and often are not aware of these immunities to change because “we live inside them. We do not ‘have them’, they ‘have us’. We cannot see them because we too are caught up in them.” (Kegan & Lahey, 2001, 6) The gestaltist seeks to help the client to surface these immunities.

Field Theory

Gestalt theory was influenced by the work of Kurt Lewin. Lewin developed field theory in psychology, wherein "all behavior (including action, thinking, wishing, striving, valuing, achieving, etc.) is conceived of as a change of some state of field" (1951, p. xi). The psychological field is defined as the "life space" of the individual, group, or organization; that is, the space occupied by "the person and the psychological environment as it exists for him [or her].... The life space of a group . . . consists of the group and its environment as it exists for the group." If the theory had gone no further, it would still have been a major contribution to Gestalt theory in the development of a holistic orientation. However, Lewin further noted that field theory was a methodology for analyzing "causal relations [that] can be expressed in the form of certain general statements about the 'nature' of the conditions of change" (p. 45). These conditions of change became the more consequential contribution8.

To frame these conditions of change, Lewin developed five principles of field theory.

1. Principle of Organization. Lewin explains that the manifestation of a particular behavior is not dependant upon a single fact or set of facts, but upon "the constellation (structure and forces) of the specific field as a whole." Any single fact or set of facts is given meaning by it's "position in the field." That is, "the different parts of a field are mutually interdependent" (pp. 149-150). Meaning is thus derived from surveying the complete environment, and by taking into account the totality of the interdependent and/or coexisting facts (Parlett, 1991, p. 71).

2. Principle of Contemporaneity. According to Lewin, the present moment determines "any behavior or any other change in a psychological field. . . (p. 45). However, this psychological field holds within itself not only the psychological present, but the psychological past and future as well, i.e., the character of a given situation at a given time may embrace the past as remembered now or the future as anticipated now, which form part of the person's experiential field in the present. Nothing, then, exists beyond the here and now (Parlett, p. 71).

3. The Principle of Singularity. William Blake said that "to generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit. General knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess." As applied to field theory, Lewin believed that to generalize is to risk not seeing that each moment is unique; that each construction of meaning is unique, even when it contains past influences; and that each person's situation is unique. Moreover, generalizations tempt one into finding exactly what one was looking for in the first place (Parlett, p. 72).

4. The Principle of Changing Process. Theories satisfy our need to impose order on the facts we collect, and to use this order to allow us to derive a "predictive value" from our experiences. Nevertheless, Lewin warned, "a given state of a person corresponds to a variety of behavior and can, therefore, be inferred only from a combined determination of overt behavior and the situation" (pp. 241-242). Experience is provisional, never permanent, never fixed or static. The psychological field undergoes continuous change so that no moment is the exactly same, no experience is exactly the same, no situation is exactly the same. This flux is what undergirds the statement that "one never steps in the same river twice" (Parlett, pp. 72-73). Theories, therefore, must embrace and explain the ongoing change process.

5. The Principle of Possible Relevance. Everything in the field is part of its total organization and is potentially meaningful. Instead of documenting or listing what exists in the field, attention is paid to what is momentarily or persistently relevant or interesting, as this will show how the field is organized at the moment (Parlett, pp. 71-73). For example, my thoughts and intuitive judgments are part of the field. I can externalize them—express them—to see what validity they have, or I can choose not to externalize them. Regardless of what I do, however, I will impact the field, whether directly through language or tacitly through behavior influenced by my thoughts and intuitive reactions.

When these principles are applied to Gestalt theory, several significant perceptions emerge and gain clarity. For example, if the field is more than the sum of the situation, and it includes the meaning-making functions of the individual, then we are conceivably participating in the creation of the field. One way of looking at this co-creation phenomenon would be to consider that we engage in a form of "participating consciousness," wherein a unified field exists between the observer and the observed. If we apply this concept to two individuals in a conversation, it could be construed that "we help to create others' realities through the creation of a mutual field" (Partlett, pp. 74, 77).

Swann (1987) supports the notion of the co-creation of a mutual field. He notes that during interpersonal encounters we negotiate our identity. This identity negotiation is the process that occurs between individuals as each seeks to affirm the identity of self, while discovering the identity of the other. These negotiations develop through interactions that involve assimilating the perceptions of the other while at the same time influencing the perceptions of the other. Upon meeting someone, the identity negotiation process would entail both a perceiving of the other and attempts to affirm one's self-identity. Moreover, these negotiations are designed to perpetuate the experientially contrived or known identity that seeks to maintain and stabilize the sense of self.

As Gestaltists, we are aware of the impact made by these conscious and unconscious negotiations. However, "a particularly provocative idea for [Gestaltists is the] notion of reciprocal influence, namely that change in the client may be achieved by the [Gestaltist] changing her or himself" (Parlett, p. 78). If I participate in the identity negotiation while being witness to the process, I have choices that otherwise would not exist. For example, if I consciously form a particular opinion during the identity negotiation process, the expression of this opinion will lead to both my own and the client's ability to see and be together in a different way. The Gestaltist, the client, and the dyad they comprise all undergo change.

Self-concepts are most likely to change when the individual undergoes a major reorganization of perception. Such a reorganization can result from the realization that the existing self-perceptions are what is causing or significantly contributing to the failure to attain a specific and desired goal (Swann, p. 1044). If the Gestaltist experiences a profound change of perception concerning the identity of the client, this shift will require a renegotiation that will impact the client and possibly shift his or her perceived self-identity.

Another source of change is the paradoxical strategy (Swann, pp. 1044-1045). This strategy highlights or exaggerates an extreme and/or unpopular position concerning an issue. Individuals inevitably attempt to move away from that extremism by voicing their opposing positions or views, whereby they begin to develop a different self-view of the issue. The paradoxical strategy is similar to the paradoxical theory of change developed in Gestalt psychotherapy, which proposes that by consciously becoming more strongly "who we already are," change inherently occurs. Such changes also tend to be more long-term if the individual's interaction partners provide feedback that supports the change in self-view.

Parallel Processes. Field theory presents the interesting possibility that parallel processes occur between our self and others, and that these processes are not limited to an originating dyad. Supervision sessions, for example, often entail a re-enactment of the client situation under discussion (Parlett, p. 79; Clarkson, 2002, p. 69).

According to Davies (1997), "what happens in one system has an impact on another," and similarly, a behavior may be played out in sequences that parallel an originating situational behavior." Given the subtle or even hidden nature of these parallel processes, they can indicate an enactment "of experiences that are unresolved and out-of-awareness" (p. 114). Gestaltists who work with the field dynamics between self and other find the concept of parallel processes valuable and insightful, particularly as it reinforces the foundational Gestalt principle of awareness. Successfully putting parallel process to work, whether in the individual or organizational context, is only viable when the Gestaltist "sufficiently aware of her experience to identify and verbalise authentically her process as part of the total field" (p. 115).

In my experience, the parallel process develops in the background of a discussion between the client and the Gestaltist. Often, it has become manifest in the introductory or fact-finding part of the discussion, where the Gestaltist is collecting information to begin formulating and surfacing a common figure or theme. The parallel process unfolds as the content becomes thicker — as the client diligently attempts to explain the situation and the Gestaltist diligently attempts to make sense of the situation.9 At this point, if a parallel process is taking place, I commonly am able to derive a clear image or awareness about my internal process. Sometimes, this is as simple as verbalizing to my client that I don't understand what he or she is telling me; other times, I might simply note that "I feel utterly confused and incompetent at this moment" or that "I am feeling highly agitated without knowing why." More times than not, the expression of my internal process triggers for clients a satori experience—that is, a sudden and insightful "ah-ha!"—that helps them understand their situation better and to change. Typically, reporting my internal experience also impels the release of a figure that had not been formed enough to be able to stay fully in awareness.

A similar yet more complex internal response provoked by parallel processes is becoming aware that I am colluding with the client by not revealing my internal experience or by not revealing something about or to the client that is pertinent to the situation. When the child said that "the emperor had no clothes," the unspoken collusion between the emperor and his subjects was revealed. The emperor chose to ignore the clear facts, and in turn, his pretense was affirmed by his timid subjects. The process of collusion passes from person to person until at last the facts presented simply cannot be ignored any longer. Krantz and Gilmore (1991) suggest that "experiencing oneself as somewhat 'out of character,' or acting in ways that seem slightly odd, is indicative of unconscious communication from the client system" (p. 327).

Rae Davies reports a consulting situation she found herself in that created tremendous anxiety for her. Instead of ignoring her anxiety, she expressed it, trusting in the knowledge that whatever she was experiencing was valuable and relevant.

My words were: "I suddenly feel very alone and exposed and now I feel quite scared with everyone looking on." The client looked to me and exclaimed "That's it. That's exactly what's happening to me. Now I realise what has been holding me back, it's the fear of being alone again." Although I knew my experience was relevant I had not expected the strength of his reaction. The "ah-ha" experience changed his perception of his difficulty, realising that the fear of finding himself alone and unsupported was the root of his inability to make a decision. From that point of view he could take on the necessary action to resolve his dilemma. Contact was made and the field changed. (p. 115)

Noteworthy is the fact that parallel processing is not limited to a single dyad, as in Davies case of the consultant with a single client. The impact of parallel processing can also be seen in the interactions between a consulting team and a client team. Typically, when the consulting team's group dynamic becomes more figural than the client's problem or situation, the team is likely paralleling the unspoken group dynamics of the client team. That is, the consulting team takes on organizational roles that more appropriately belong to the members of the client team. For example, the consulting team takes over an "executive staff role" that relieves the client team members from taking "responsibility for difficult actions" (Krantz & Gilmore, p. 326).

Like the individual consultant's choice to disclose her internal process to the client, the consulting team could of course disclose its internal process to the client team (Krantz & Gilmore, p. 322). For Gestalt teams, one effective method of disclosure is to discuss the process amongst the members of the consulting team in the presence of the client team, which does not participate but simply observes. If a parallel process does exist, the client team should become aware that the consulting team is in fact mirroring their own process. This observation usually results in the client team refocusing on its internal process as a means of resolving whatever issue had initially brought them together.

Conceptual Theory


Figure/ground is one of the core concepts of perception in Gestalt theory. It describes the "emergence, prioritizing and satiation of needs . . . and is the basic perceptual principle of making the wholes of human needs or experiences meaningful" (Clarkson,2000, p. 6). Figure is the focus of interest—an object, a pattern, a behavior—for which ground is the background, setting, or context. The interplay between figure and ground is dynamic and ongoing. The same ground may, with differing interests and shifts of attention, give rise to further different figures; or a given complex figure may itself become ground in the event that some detail of its own emerges as figure (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1971, p. 25). Our attention shifts from one figure of interest to another, and when we are no longer interested in one figure, it recedes into the ground and is replaced by another (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 31). The thoughts we experience as idle and free-flowing, for example, echoes the flow of figures moving in and out of the ground that is the conscious mind. If we wish, these figures can become more fully formed and brought completely into awareness by attending to them more vigorously.

Another important characteristic of perception is the tendency towards closure, that is, towards identifying a comprehensible figure. Provided data, we will instinctively try to make meaning of it or to create some sense of understanding or familiarity. A circle of unconnected dots, for example, will become a complete, bounded image when the perceiver mentally fills in the gaps (see Figure 1.0). However, the desire for closure is often thwarted by our personal difficulties or by social constraints imposed upon us. When actions necessary for closure are not undertaken, they take root as "unfinished and uneasy" in the background, where they disturb present work needing to be done (Polster & Polster, p. 30). The result is a "fixed gestalt," which reflects unfinished and unsatisfied needs and which blocks in-the-moment contact required for meaningful work (Clarkson, 2000, p. 7).

The ground, on the other hand, does not incite movement towards closure. The ground is generally considered unbounded and formless, but it provides the "context that affords depth for the perception of the figure, giving it perspective but commanding little independent interest" (Polster & Polster, p. 30). Ground evolves from our past experiences, from our unfinished business, and from the flow of the present experience. In a sense, one's entire life forms the ground for the present moment (p. 32). The past and the present color the variety of the individual's closed and unclosed experiences: "All experience hangs around until a person is finished with it," the Polsters insist. Although individuals can tolerate the internal existence of a number of unclosed experiences, the experiences themselves, if they become compelling enough, will generate "much self-defeating activity," and will essentially demand closure (p. 36). Once closure with an experience has been reached, either through a return to old business or by relating the experience to the present, "the preoccupation with the old incompletion is resolved and one can move on to current possibilities" (p. 37). Change is a function of closing out one experience and moving on to "current possibilities." Gestalt has a high regard for "novelty and change, . . . a faith-filled expectation that the existence and recognition of novelty are inevitable if we stay with our own experiences as they actually form" (p. 48).

Paradoxical Theory of Change

At the center of Gestalt theory is the paradoxical theory of change, which is the touchstone for most Gestalt interventions. First and foremost, the theory assumes that "within the client is a uniquely personal theory of change waiting for discovery, a framework for interventions to be unfolded and utilized for a successful outcome" (Duncan & Miller, 2000, p. 180). This uniquely personal theory of change in fact supports the paradoxical theory of change as well: change occurs when an individual, group, or organization becomes what he, she, or it is rather than continually trying to be what one is not. Hence, "change does not take place by trying coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the [client] abandons, at least for the moment, what he [or she] would like to become and attempts to be what he [or she] is" (Beisser, 1970, p. 77).

Echoing the concept of parallel processes, Duncan and Miller explain that the "exploration for and discovery of the client's theory [of change] is a co-evolutionary process, a crisscrossing of ideas that generates a seamless connection of socially constructed meanings" (p. 182). Gestalt theory rejects any directive role for the change agent, and instead encourages the client to be where and what he or she is, to take the time and make the sincere effort to be fully invested in his or her situation. The implications of this theory are that the individual, group, or organization needs to risk identifying and being itself instead of accepting other- or socially-constructed expectations, roles, or practices.


Gestalt theory presupposes that consultant-client interaction will be a dialogue, not a discussion. Discussion and dialogue operate by opposing processes: "dialogue is about gathering or unfolding meaning that comes from many parts, while discussion is about breaking the whole down into many parts" (Ellinor & Gerard, 1998, p. 20). Discussion denotes "break[ing] things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, where everybody is presenting a different one" (Bohm, 1996, pp. 6-7). Discussion focuses on persuading others, as in a debate; therefore, the discussion easily becomes a war of wills. Conversely, genuine dialogue suspends judgment in the pursuit of creating shared awareness, meaning, and understanding; the dialogue becomes a container of curiosity where the conversation becomes more than the sum of its participants. More importantly, dialogue engenders both "inquiry within and between people" and the novelty of uncovering through conversation ideas or responses that "neither party could have imagined before starting" (Isaacs, 1999, p. 9). Figure 1.1, below, contrasts the two conversational modes.

Figure 1.1

Two Conversational Modes


Breaking the issue/problem into parts

Seeing the whole among the parts

Seeing distinctions between the parts

Seeing the connections between the parts

Justifying/defending assumptions

Inquiring into assumptions

Persuading [through declaration and assertion]

Learning through inquiry and disclosure

Gaining agreement on one meaning

Creating shared meaning among many

(Elinor & Gerard, 1998, p. 21)



In Gestalt theory, the belief is deeply held that "we are wired to think and perceive in temporally linked sequences of meaning—'first this, then that,' or 'that means (or leads to) this.' . . . The idea of temporally linked sequences of meaning, raised to complex interactive levels, is a close working definition of story." In terms of self-identity, the story precedes the self (cf. the existentialist credo, "existence precedes essence"): "We do not first exist as individuals, then know ourselves, then form a self story and finally tell it to another. Rather, we find and create our story in the telling of it to another person and that act is the same as the creative construction of the self" (Wheeler, 1998, p. 123).

Much of the verbal exchange between the client and the Gestaltist during intervention is the telling of stories. These stories report the critical events of the client's life as seen, ordered, and interpreted by the client, and as such they "reveal personal qualities, replicate previous experience, accentuate conflict, communicate a connectedness among people, and evoke the drama of the experiences from which the self is formed" (Polster, 1995, p. 108). Clients' troubles or problems—their sense of being "stuck"—often arise from an experiential storyline that has over time been pruned and rehearsed, until the self constructed from this abbreviated story is severely constricted. The Gestaltist seeks to expand the client's storyline by providing descriptive data of what has been heard, enabling the client to hear her story in a different voice and in a different vocal register. Through listening closely, asking for clarification, and offering descriptive feedback, the Gestaltist brings to the client's attention the contradictions and lapses in her story, and helps the client construct a storyline with greater breadth and depth. "By adding new events to the . . . [client's] repertoire, the [Gestaltist] reintroduces struggle between conflicting events and conflicting selves, replacing the one-sidedness that has gotten the person stuck" (Polster, p. 112). The awareness that results can redirect the perceptions of the client and increase the client's contact with the self, others, and the environment, leading to significant change.

The client's story unfolds "by fits and starts, often fragmented and unskillfully presented. [Yet the events] nevertheless . . . represent extraordinary experiences and characters" (Polster, p. 117). Experiences and thoughts and responses that recur throughout the story, either verbatim or in slightly altered contexts or scenarios, "provid[e] implication and mobilization for the [client's] continuity and orientation" (p. 123). Recurring fragments are in relation with one another in the matrix of the client's storytelling as theme, which is defined and functions much like motif in a musical composition. Polster and Polster state that "[w]hile some themes will reappear again and again during the entire lifetime of a single individual, others may be played out during a specific period, never to repeat themselves. . . . [Regardless,] the recurrence of themes represents the piecemeal exploration of psychologically unclaimed territory" (pp. 193-194).

Through the interactive dynamics of intervention, Gestaltists become the client's "coauthor or editor, not only of the storyline itself but also of [the client's] developing sense of self" (Polster, p. 123). Once a theme has been identified, work can begin in assisting the client to become "unstuck" in the story of her life, and to change in sometimes surprising ways. A "unifying storyline is a vehicle for connection. Stories are the gathering of experiences; through their thematic development, they transform otherwise unconnected events into a meaningful unity." Furthermore, new thematic connections encourage new perceptions of self, other, and environment, that is, new perceptions of "reality."

In the older view, . . .meaning and reality were sharply separated. Reality was not supposed to be changed directly by perception of a new meaning. Rather it was thought that to do this was merely to obtain a better "view" of reality that was independent of what it meant to us, and then to do something about it. But once you actually see the new meaning and take hold of your intention, reality has changed. No further act is needed. (Bohm, 1998, p. 94)


Appreciative inquiry explores changing the organization through social construction of a new reality, and thereby creating a new way of making meaning. David Cooperrider realized that most organizations are predisposed to focusing on "what is wrong" within the organization. He attributed this predisposition to the inculcated problem-solving mentality of the scientific method, which tends to ignore the "what is working," "what has gone well,", and the "what does not need to be fixed" components of the organization. In other words, the organization needs to be refocused from an analytic critique of organizational failures to a more supportive, more optimistic understanding of behaviors within the organization at large. Copperrider seeks to harness untapped creative energies by redirecting attention away from object-relations and problem-solving towards an Appreciative Inquiry into organizational stories of success. A sense of community is created through such an inquiry, as common themes and imaginative outlooks are discovered and put to positive use. The end result is a new perspective on the organization and of what is possible (Cooperrider & Dutton, 1999; Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999; Cooperrider, et al., 2000) and a new story is created.

Applied to Gestalt, assessing the “what is” of an organization would reveal any predisposition to focusing on "what is wrong" within the organization. Rather than direct the focus of the organization toward a positive psychology as created in appreciative inquiries, Gestalt would create a container for the situation until the fullness of the theme is revealed including possible subplots. For example, assuming that a predisposition toward “what is wrong” can be corrected or reversed by focusing on “what is right” ignores the base assumption or belief that initiated the original predisposition toward “what is wrong.” Gestalt explores how focusing on “what is wrong” has served and dis-served the organization, suggesting a “both/and” approach to creating awareness and understanding of the internal dynamics of the organization. Once this awareness is developed, the organization can choose to move toward a positive psychology as indicated by appreciative inquiry or toward a new or different psychology that incorporates the serving aspects of the primary belief system while adapting to the changing needs and environment of the organization.


From its inception, Gestalt therapy has been "present-centered" (Perls, 1992; Perls Hefferline, & Goodman, 1994). The focus on present-centeredness is founded on the concept that all of life exists in the moment, here and now. For example, even a memory is re-lived in the moment, and therefore is better served if that memory is brought fully into the vibrancy and immediacy of the moment rather than being fixed in the mind like an old tale, told over and over (Latner, 1992, p. 16; Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1994, p. 281).10 The significance of present-centeredness is particularly illustrated in the realm of character. Gestalt defines character as "what we do characteristically," that is, "the typical ways in which we function emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually" (Latner, p. 47). The usual, the habitual, and the unconscious can be retrieved into our present awareness, where they can be reconstructed, re-experienced, and re-examined freely and at length.

Gestaltists examine what the client says and does, here and now (this focused examination is usually described as paying attention to what is). Latner explains,

The present contains everything. Memories, dreams, reflections are all present activities. They take place in the now. They concern events which occurred at some other time, as do anticipating, planning, preparing. But remembering is done in the present, planning is done in the present, reflecting is done in the present. It cannot be done otherwise. (pp. 16-17)

The power of present-centered awareness is clarified by examining one of the sources of the concept. In Buddhist traditions, what we call present-centeredness is known as bare attention. Bare attention is concerned only with the present. Living with full awareness in the "here and now" permits us to be the quiet, observing witness of our experience of our self and of our client (Nayapnika Thera, 1962, p. 41). Moving out of the here and now invites projections of the past and anticipations of the future to move in. The past or the future, because it is not present-centered, becomes an "illusion [that] ensnares us in its recurrence" (Claudio Naranjo, 1993, pp. 22-23). The illusion is created by a nanosecond leap across the present into preconceived perceptions from the past or about the future, thereby short-circuiting the reality of "what is" actually happening at the moment.

A subtler yet perhaps more powerful aspect of bare attention is serving as the client's witness. As we focus on the "here and now," we become witness to the client, or more appropriately, we witness the client. "The presence of a witness," Naranjo argues, "usually entails an enhancement both of attention and of the meaningfulness of that which is observed.... The more aware an observer is, the more our own attention is sharpened by [the observer's] mere presence, as if consciousness were contagious..." (p. 55).


From the time the umbilical cord is cut, our sense of being with others "depends paradoxically on a heightened sense of separateness and it is this paradox which we constantly seek" (Polster & Polster, pp. 98-99). The paradox between separateness and union can be temporarily bridged where and when the walls of individuality remain strong enough to hold the sense of self together, yet permeable enough to allow the sense of what is other to be experienced—at that point, contact is made. Contact is the psychological process whereby I allow myself to meet my self (as in memories and imagination); to meet a person, group, or organization; or to meet the environment: a sunset, a cat, my office, my bedroom. And I can most effectively make such contact by staying present-centered.

To understand contact, we need to look at how we relate to the world. Gestalt theory presupposes that each person, group, or organization is not an independent entity, "but together...constitute a functioning, mutually influencing total system":

Without your environment you—your feelings, thoughts, tendencies to action—would not organize, concentrate, and have direction; on the other hand, without you as a living, differentiated organization of awareness, your environment would be, for you, nonexistent. Your sense of the unitary interfunctioning of you and your environment is contact." (Perls Hefferline, & Goodman, p. 73)

Contact, then, is not togetherness or joining, but actually a heightened awareness of the distinction between you and what is "outside" of you; contact occurs at a porous boundary, one that simultaneously holds the two concepts of self and other apart, but permits interaction and exchange: "The contact boundary is the point at which one experiences the 'me' in relation to that which is 'not me' and through this contact, both are more clearly experienced" (Polster & Polster, pp. 102-103).

Our self-concept is constructed from our experiences, which are in part determined by the range of our "capacities for assimilating new or intensified experience" (p. 108). The individual maintains a sense of self through "I-boundaries," that is, through establishing "bounded limits" that determine how he or she "either blocks out or permits awareness and action at the contact-boundary" with what is not me, and that thereby "govern the style of life, including choice of friends, work, geography, fantasy, lovemaking, and all the other experiences which are psychologically relevant to his [or her] existence" (p. 109).

We often find that "within the same individual there will be both the mobilization to grow in some areas and the resistances to growth in others," so that the I-boundary is inconsistent in blocking out or opening up to the other (p. 110). Conscious and unconscious emotions, symbols, and thoughts that are typically split off from the self and/or projected onto others can emerge from within the client. Frequently, these emotions, symbols, and thoughts serve the function of not only establishing meaning, but also of containing (framing and holding in place) anxieties. To help the client meet with or extend appropriate contact boundaries, the Gestaltist makes that contact tolerable for the client by first containing (framing and holding) and then gradually re-presenting to the client the emotions, symbols, and thoughts in the form of words or silence and, when necessary, boundary- maintaining action (Billow, p. 247). Hence, the function of containing is primarily transformative.

Gestalt experiment is also frequently associated with expanding the individual's, group's, or organization's contact-boundary while still maintaining contact with self and others. The Gestalt experiment seeks to draw out and stretch the habitual sense of boundary. In the experiment, the Gestaltist encourages the client to "try-on" behaviors that feel alien, frightening, or unacceptable within the secure container of the intervention. "A safe emergency is created, one which fosters the development of self-support for new experiences" (Polster & Polster, p. 112).


During the early years of theoretical development in Gestalt psychology, Perls, Hefferline and Goodman conceived of resistance in terms similar to those of the psychoanalytic theorists, that is, as the opposition to change. Resistance was perceived as the avoidance of contact and as a problem to be worked through, indicating an unhealthy blockage to or refusal of contact. An important aspect of resistance is the realization that "all resistances have an intrapersonal and interpersonal aspect. . . . It reflects an internal conflict or difficulty that comes into play with a given [individual]" (Milman & Goldman, 1987, p. 4). This conflict or difficulty generally arises to avoid some form of pain, real or imagined. Conceptually, the internal mechanisms of resistance identified in Gestalt are Introjection, Projection, Retroflection, Deflection, Confluence, and Desensitization. Figure 1.2 below describes how these mechanisms work for the individual.

Figure 1.2


introjection - Taking in or swallowing an experience "whole." Not filtering experiences for what resonates with personal truth. Being naïve or gullible.

projection - Attributing one's own feelings or actions to another. Blaming.

retroflection - Doing to yourself what you want to do to others, or what you want others to do to you. Swallowing anger to avoid conflict or physically or verbally stroking oneself.

deflection - Avoiding direct contact with another person. Using jokes to block the seriousness of a situation or to ignore a compliment.

confluence - The inability to differentiate oneself. Merging with others' opinions to avoid having to take a position.

desensitization - Numbing sensations. Avoiding awareness. Dissociating.

In 1991, however, Wheeler expanded the concept from "resistance to contact" to "the dimensions or functions of the contact process" (p. 119), which effectually shifted the perception of resistance from negative to positive, even to the position where these internal defenses illustrated a range of creative and adaptive contact styles for the individual, group, or organization (p. 126).

Wheeler offered a continuum of contact styles, as portrayed in Figure 1.3 below.

Figure 1.3

Contact Styles

Differentiation vs. Confluence
Projection vs. Retention, literalness
Introjection vs. Chewing, destructuring
Retroflection vs. Exchange, encounter
Desensitization (or Egoism) vs. Merging, yielding
Deflection vs. Focusing, concentration

When the contact style moves to either extreme of this continuum, it becomes dysfunctional to varying degrees. But this shift in the view of resistance from a defense mechanism to a style of contact enriched our ability to understand and work with resistance in the change process. Resistance to contact, under Wheeler's taxonomy, is now defined as resistance to awareness or to other ways of being in the world, and therefore to growth (pp. 127, 129). Once adequate support is developed within the individual and/or from the environment, greater awareness is possible.11

Nevis (1987) adapted S. Friedlander's concept of "creative indifference" in his work with contact styles in organizations, expanding on Perls's understanding of creative indifference as an effective strategy for untangling and recontextualizing differentiated poles (or polarity):

[E]very event is related to a zero point from which a differentiation into opposites takes place. These opposites show in their specific context a great affinity to each other. By remaining alert in the center, we can acquire a creative ability of seeing both sides of an occurrence and completing an incomplete half. By avoiding a one-sided outlook we gain a much deeper insight into the structure and function of the [individual, group, or organization]. (Perls, 1969, p. 15)

The Gestaltist strives to occupy the neutral territory between the poles, the "center" of the polarity, where both poles can be perceived and both can be understood without regard to either pole being preferred over the other, that is, with creative indifference. Hence, “creative indifference is full of interest, extending towards both sides of the differentiation. It is by no means identical with an absolute zero-point, but will always have an aspect of balance12. (Perls, 1969, 19)

Applied to the organizational context, Nevis saw resistance to change as an expression of the differentiation of opposites. His observation is that "any instance where one or more persons do not seem to be 'joining' is a manifestation of multi-directed energy. This term conveys the notion of multiple forces or desires, not all of which support each other, and many of which pull in different directions" (Nevis, p. 147). Over the years, the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland has augmented Nevis's concept of multi-directed energy in the system by arguing that all change is rooted in opposing forces: a force for change, and a force for sameness. Change viewed as a polarity allows for the effective application of creative indifference, offering a more complex understanding and use of the tension between the two poles. More importantly, Gestalt theory recognizes that a system is acting in a healthy manner when these two forces appear. Unlike past conceptions of change that demanded pushing through or leaping over or banishing the forces for sameness, Gestalt focuses on unfolding differing kinds of awareness within the system.

Recent theoretic developments have further shaped our understanding of the forces for sameness and for change as a form of competing commitments. Kegan and Lahey (2001) find that while individuals may overtly accept and embrace a change agenda, they often unconsciously exert equal but underground energy to not changing. This resistance is not a factor of opposition, nor is it a matter of apathy or "inertia." Rather, the "resulting dynamic equilibrium [between the forces for change and for sameness] stalls the effort in what looks like resistance but is in fact a kind of personal immunity to change" (p. 85). Within this framework, the individual's resistance is founded on what Kegan and Lahey call "a big assumption": "Because big assumptions are held as fact, they actually inform what people see, leading them to systematically (but unconsciously) attend to certain data and avoid or ignore other data" (p. 90). Consistent with Wheeler's focus on raising awareness about personal contact styles, they affirm that bringing the big assumption into awareness is transforming, and provide a humorous example of the consequences of not becoming aware of the assumption.

A woman we met from Australia told us about her experience living in the United States for a year. "Not only do you drive on the wrong side of the street over here," she said, "your steering wheels are on the wrong side, too. I would routinely pile into the right side of the car to drive off, only to discover I needed to get out and walk over to the other side." "One day," she continued, "I was thinking about six different things, and I got into the right side of the car, took out my keys, and was prepared to drive off. I looked up and thought to myself, 'My God, here in the violent and lawless United States, they are even stealing steering wheels!" Of course the countervailing evidence was just an arm's length to her left, but—and this is the main point—"Why should she look?" Our big assumption creates a disarming and deluding sense of certainty. If we know where a steering wheel belongs, we are unlikely to look for it some place else. If we know what our company, department, boss, or subordinate can and can't do, why look for countervailing data—even if it is just an arm's length away? (p. 91)

Whether the term is resistances, competing commitments, big assumption, or something else, the process underlying contact styles is a function of deeply ingrained and hidden thinking patterns. Although individuals are capable of holding in mind two different or opposing patterns, one or the other will dominate depending on the environment or context (Brytting & Trollestad, 2000, p. 70). Moreover, these deep-seated thinking patterns "tend to be self-sealing . . . precisely because they lack self-critical elements" (Weick & Bougon, 1986, p. ). One common organizational example is captured in the gradual popularity of the metaphor thinking outside the box. Organizations and industries have a tendency to develop and institutionalize their own particular pattern of thinking regarding business strategies and ways to approach problems. When the pattern of thinking no longer effectively served the organization, by becoming repetitive and "self-sealed," new approaches and conceptions were needed—that is, it became necessary to think other than or "outside" the established internal organizational pattern. Once this awareness became explicit, the cliché of thinking outside the box was born and rapidly adopted throughout a range of contexts and settings. From a Gestalt perspective, creating an awareness of the customary thinking pattern frees the individual(s) from their "self-sealed" perceptual and cognitive worlds.


"Many phenomena could not exist if their opposites did not also exist" (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, p. 43). We glean both the manifest and the nuanced meaning of one from the other: day helps to define night and vice versa; hot helps to define cold and vice versa; old helps to define young and vice versa. The individual is himself or herself "a never-ending sequence of polarities. Whenever an individual recognizes one aspect of him [or her] self, the presence of the antithesis, or polar quality, is implicit" (Polster & Polster, p. 61). People bear within themselves the latent and potential opposite of their external character, for example. The person who demonstrates kindness to others does so with the sense or knowledge of its obvious polarity, cruelty, or even of many possible related polarities, e.g., "insensitivity or callousness toward another person's feelings." Erving Polster has named these several related polarities "multilarities" (Zinker, 1978, pp. 196-197).

To more fully appreciate the tension built into a polarity, Rittel (1972) noted that there are tame problems, which are solvable, and there are wicked problems, which are unsolvable. Wicked problems are not evil, even though they might seem so. In this context wicked problems are ones that become more complex and possibly more unsolvable with each attempt toward resolution—paradoxical. The wickedness of the situation is the developing awareness of the complexity of the web that the organization has spun in creating itself. In many ways, it has created a catch-22 wherein no matter which way it turns to find a solution, the organization runs into itself.

Rittel (1972) developed a list of traits that correspond between tame (solvable) problems and wicked (unsolvable) problems.

Situation Tame Problem Wicked Problem

Problem Formation

can be exhaustively planned and written down on paper

has no definitive conceptualization

Relationship between problem and solution

can be forged separately from any notion of the solution

cannot be articulated separately from the solution. Understanding the problem is synonymous with solving it


the solution can be tested and mistakes can be pinpointed and corrected.

there is no single correct answer. There is only the degree of good or bad of each solution in comparison to one another.


Have a clear solution; an endpoint, closure

with no clear solution, it is an endless loop of trying to improve upon what cannot be solved


Known steps can be used to solve the problem

exploring the known in attempts to define let alone solve the problem

Explanatory characteristics

“what is” versus “what ought to be” is clear and correctable

multiple perspectives leading to multiple explanations leading to multiple solutions

Level of analysis

the root cause is clear and where to address the problem is clear.

the root cause is unknown and therefore where to attack the problem is unknown; e.g. individual, group, etc.


the problem can be isolated and attempted to be solved until final solution is found

no trial and error. Each solution is live, cannot be undone, and impacts the entire organization


the problem may occur over and over.

basically a unique situation


blame is not burnished onto someone for not solving a problem, but acclaim is given to those that do.

responsibility is clearly borne and blame is burnished onto someone for failing and praise is never granted as it is not clear the problem was ever solved.

Rittel, H. (1972) On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and Second Generations’. In Bedriftsokonomen. No. 8. pp. 390-396.

“Opposites come into existence by differentiation of ‘something not differentiated’...[T]he two (or more) branches of a differentiation develops simultaneously, and..., generally, the extension is equal on [all] sides. (Perls, 1969, 19) Preferring one pole of a polarity over another, either on an individual or organizational level, can make the polarity itself a bone of contention. In attempting to define and assess the poles, one might discover that "competing commitments" based on "big assumptions" underlie the conflict. However, moving beyond the presumption of Gestalt resistance theory and of Kegan and Lahey—"awareness creates resolution"—one might also discover that the competing commitments are actually sufficiently based in organizational reality to be something other than merely "big assumptions." In this case, we have competing realities whose resolution cannot be reached through the "either/or" format of problem solving, but rather demands the "both/and" format of managing a significant polarity (Johnson, 1992).

The significance of the polarity to be managed can be gauged by the degree or extent that the warring parties tend to disown, or at a minimum to discredit the validity of, the opposing reality. Since both poles of the polarity are founded in organizational reality, to reject or close off one pole inevitably means that the organization is diminished. The ability of the organization (or the individual, or the group) to realize its greater or full potential is seriously crippled. "The organization does not see how it creates its own difficulties by blocking expression of parts of itself. It is unaware of how it 'interrupts' itself" (Merry & Brown, 1987, p. 154).

Since both poles have their own particular values and strengths, re-establishing contact between them is the crucial first step in being able to use all their values and strengths in the best interest of the individual, group, or organization. Creating an awareness that "a polarity to manage" exists instead of "a problem to be solved" helps to open the doors to a “both/and” solution. As Polster and Polster point out, this awareness allows the warring parties to "become allies in the common search for a good life, rather than uneasy opponents maintaining the split" (p. 248). Once the situation is clearly established, the focus turns towards unfolding how the opposing forces of the polarity depend upon each other.

In organizations, more often than not, polarities are viewed as problems to be solved, whereby the polarity seems to demand choosing either one pole or the other as the "best" or the "right" way to go. But true polarities are never solved — they can only be managed. "It is a 'both/and' difficulty. Both one pole and its apparent opposite depend on each other. The pairs are involved in an ongoing, balancing process over an extended period of time. They are interdependent. They need each other" (Johnson, p. 82)13. For example, a recent organizational focus is on team-directed versus individual-directed project management. Generally, a decision is made to use one or the other, and the organization moves quickly to institute that decision company-wide. However, polarity management would not conclude that an organization must use one or the other format. In fact, both types of project management are useful and are dependent upon each other. The orientation towards polarity management creates an awareness whereby the organization can move to a "both/and" approach to project management: where individual initiative is needed for a specialized project, it might be assigned to a project manager; where a cohesive unit reflecting the larger organization is needed, a project team might be established (Johnson, p. 11).

Bob de Wit and Ron Meyer (1999) continue the application to policy planning and strategy problems, albeit by replacing polarity with paradox. In their analysis, paradoxical problems, Rittel’s wicked problems, reflects that organized complexity inherently becomes more complex with each attempt toward resolution. As such, they exhibit the following paradoxical characteristics.

1. Interconnectedness: Strong connections link each problem to other problems. As a result, these connections sometimes circle back to form feedback loops. ‘Solutions’ aimed at the problem seem inevitably to have important opportunity costs and side effects. How they work out depends on events beyond the scope of any one problem.

2. Complicatedness: Wicked problems have numerous important elements with relationships among them, including important ‘feedback loops’ through which a change tends to multiply itself or perhaps even cancel itself out. Generally, there are various leverage points where analysis and ideas for intervention might focus, as well as many possible approaches and plausible programs of action. There is also a likelihood that different programs should be combined with a given problem.

3. Uncertainty: Wicked problems exist in a dynamic and largely uncertain environment, which creates a need to accept risk, perhaps incalculable risk. Contingency planning and also the flexibility to respond to unimagined and perhaps unimaginable contingencies are both necessary.

4. Ambiguity: The problem can be seen in quite different ways, depending on the viewer’s personal characteristics, loyalties, past experiences, and even on accidental circumstances of involvement. There is no single ‘correct view’ of the problem.

5. Conflict: Because of competing claims, there is often a need to trade off ‘goods’ against ‘bads’ within the same value system. Conflicts of interest among persons or organizations with different or even antagonistic value systems are to be expected. How things will work out may depend on the interaction among powerful interests that are unlikely to enter into fully cooperative arrangements.

6. Societal Constraints: Social, organizational, and political constraints and capabilities, as well as technological ones, are central both to the feasibility and the desirability of solutions. (de Wit & Meyer, 1999, p. 33)


Gestalt psychology evolved from an intimate knowledge of and respect for the philosophic and therapeutic theory of the early nineteenth century. Gestaltists were intrigued by the ontological bases of existentialism, phenomenology, holism, and field theory. Particularly attractive was the potential therapeutic values inherent in these theories' emphasis on understanding the nature of being through observing and describing how a singular organism—the individual, primarily, but also any bounded, identifiable entity, such as a group or an organization—behaves, experiences, and reacts to and with the specific context of its environment.

The conceptual scaffolding of Gestalt has been defined and refined over the years. Some terminology has been adopted and redefined to reflect the distinctly Gestalt approach. Resistance, for example, is turned inside out in Gestalt, assuming a positive and supportive rôle in a system's behavior. As they have been refined and applied, other foundational concepts have grown extraordinarily rich and effective. These concepts have settled deep into the Gestalt understanding and study of human being in the world: figure/ground, paradoxical theory of change, dialogue, theme, present-centeredness, contact, and polarity.

And over time, in keeping with the tenet that Gestalt is not merely a therapy but a way of being, Gestaltists have broadened the reach of intervention to consulting and coaching activities within organizations. The following pages will demonstrate the value of Gestalt in working with client systems as small as one and as large as an organization.


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1According to Max Wertheimer, the underlying theory of perception in Gestalt psychology on the context and relationship of the object to the environment involved three principles about pattern formation. First, the closer the objects, the more likely to perceive a pattern. Second, the more similar the objects in shape and/or color, the more likely to perceive a pattern. Third, “when individual objects form groups or subgroups, such groups or subgroups tend to be established as are, qua groups, particularly simple, symmetrical, and smooth,...often recognized as in simplest aesthetics.” (Kohler, 1969, p. 56-58)

2To more clearly understand Husserl’s comment, he distinguished between explanatory phenomenology and descriptive phenomenology. Explanatory phenomenology was seen as a phenomenology of regulated genesis, where the focus was to explain the origination of the phenomenon. Descriptive’ phenomenology was seen as a “phenomenology of possible, essential shapes (no matter how they come to pass) in pure consciousness” at a point in time. (Husserl, Edmund. 1999, p. 318-319).

3“As long as you fight a symptom, it will become worse. If you take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself, how you produce your symptoms, how you produce your illness , how you produce your existence—the very moment you get in touch with yourself—growth begins, integration begins.” Fritz Perls, cited in Yalom, 1980, p. 246.

4Perls also used structured exercises to increase the acceptance of responsibility as noted in the following: “with each statement, we ask patients to use the phrase, “and I take responsibility for it.” For example, “I am aware that I move my leg...and I take responsibility for it.” “My voice is very quiet...and I take responsibility for it.” “Now I don’t know what to say...and I take responsibility for not knowing.” (Levitsky & Perls, 1970, 146.)

5Viktor Frankl arrived at a similar technique which he called the “paradoxical intention” in which the intent of the patient to create the symptom paradoxically reveals the disclaimed responsibility for the creation of the symptom. (Frankl, 1969, pp. 101-107.)

6Koestler (1978) noted that “the term...holon, from the greek holos=whole, with the suffix on, which, as in proton or neutron, suggests a particle or part” Hence, the concept whole/part. (p. 33)

7Holarchy refers to the innate hierarchy implicit to all life. Whereas hierarchy refers more to a reductionist focus, holarchy includes holons and refers to the tension of whole/parts implicit to all life.

84 "Given the fact that Lewin and Perls focused on different aspects of the total person-environment configuration, it is no wonder that the followers of each have tended to ignore or neglect the work of the other.... Perls acknowledged the contributions of Lewin in Gestalt Psychology, but remained an individualist and an individual therapist throughout his career." Elaine Kepner, "Gestalt Group Process," in Beyond the Hot Seat: Gestalt Approaches to Groups, ed. Bud Feder & Ruth Ronall (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1980), 8.

95 "In the understandable wish to join successfully with the client organization, the consultant tries to be helpful and sympathetic. If this is done uncritically, he or she runs the very grave risk of colluding with the distorted image of the situation the client doing so, and becoming an uncritical mirror of the client's projective process, the consultant can easily help undermine the conditions necessary for organizational change and development." James Krantz & Thomas North Gilmore, "Understanding the Dynamics between Consulting Teams and Client Systems," in Organizations on the Couch: Clinical Perspectives on Organizational Behavior and Change, eds. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries & Associates (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991), 307-330.

106 Fritz Perls added further clarity when he said, "to me, nothing exists except the now. Now = experience = awareness = reality. The past is no more and the future not yet. Only the now exists."

117 Under Wheeler's explication, resistances are useful and in service to the individual. For example, a child is helped by swallowing whole (to introject) the well-known warning, "Look both ways before crossing the street, even if the signal light says walk." Similarly, one would generally find it to one's benefit to accept all policies of a new job at face value until able to determine the "real" rules of the organization. Thinking before acting is a form of retroflection. There are appropriate moments to swallow one's anger, such as in order to complete a project. At issue is when the resistance becomes dysfunctional by giving rise to conflict or by blocking awareness. What is good for the individual is not always perceived (consciously or unconsciously) to be what is good for the group or the organization, and vice versa.

12Here is an example of “thinking in opposites” which may serve to show the advantage of this form of thinking. Let us assume you have a disappointment. Probably, you will be inclined to blame persons or circumstances. If you polarize “disappointment” you will find as its opposite “fulfilled expectation.” You thereby gain a new aspect—the knowledge that there exists a functional connection between your disappointments and your expectations: great expectation—great disappointment; little disappointment—little disappointment; no expectation—no disappointment. (Perls, 1969, 19)

13Similar developments have surfaced under paradox management. Specifically, Bob de Wit and Ron Meyer (1999) note that “a paradox is a situation in which two seeming contradictory, or even mutually exclusive, factors appear to be true at the same time. A problem that is a paradox has no definitive solution, as there is no way to logically integrate the two opposites into an internally consistent understanding of the problem. As opposed to the either/or nature of the dilemma, the paradox can be characterized as a both-and problem—one factor is true and a contradictory factor is simultaneously true. Hence, the problem-owner must resolve a paradox by trying to find a way to reconcile the opposites in the most productive manner.“ (p. 18)

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