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JUNE 2008

In this issue we continue the discussion on parallel processes in organizational situations that can impact the coach, consultant, or consulting team. The focus is on field theory and how we are not only part of the field, we actually co-create it. Guiding principles from Kurt Lewin are discussed.

Highlighted professional and executive development programs are for programs at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland’s Becoming an Effective Organizational Intervener (BEI) and the Coaching Program. BEI is focused on increasing the effectiveness of consultants and executives. The basic issue is that to induce change we must interrupt the system or it will continue as it has been designed. Furthermore, BEI increases the effectiveness by enhancing the skills to influence others (employees, clients, etc.) whether you have formal power or not.

Enjoy the newsletter, and please forward the newsletter, if you know someone who might be interested. If this newsletter does not serve your needs, just click unsubscribe below.

Bountiful blessings

Herb Stevenson


Bottom Line of Coaching....

Parallel Processes in
Organizational Situations

©July 31, 2002, Herb Stevenson
(continued from the May issue)

Field Theory

Gestalt theory was influenced by the application of field theory to psychology by Kurt Lewin. According to Lewin, “all behavior (including action, thinking, wishing, striving, valuing, achieving, etc.) is conceived of as a change of some state of field.” (Lewin, 1951, p.xi)) This field was the “life space” of the individual, group, or organization. In these terms, “life space consists of 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” (Lewin, 1951, p.xi). Hence, while Perls looked to the relationship between the whole and the parts to understand psychological dynamics, Lewin looked to what he described as the “life space” of each situation. It appears that both tried to describe the processes that were occurring to create meaning1. This can be seen in Lewin’s five principles of field theory. These principles act as meta-rules that support how to try to decipher the dynamics of each “life space”. Specifically, Lewin noted that “field theory is probably best characterized as a method...of analyzing causal relations [that] can be expressed in the form of certain general statements about the ‘nature’ of the conditions of change” (Lewin, 1951, p.45). To frame these conditions of change, Lewin developed five principles of field theory—the principles of (1) organization, (2) contemporaneity, (3) singularity, (4) changing process, and (5) possible relevance.

Principle of Organization

“Whether or not a certain type of behavior occurs depends not on the presence or absence of one fact or of a number of facts as viewed in isolation but upon the constellation (structure and forces) of the specific field as a whole. The ‘meaning’ of the single fact depends upon its position in the field; or, to say the same in more dynamic terms, the different parts of a field are mutually interdependent” (Lewin, 1951, pp.149-150). Hence, meaning comes from looking at the total situation, the totality of the interdependent and/or coexisting facts (Parlett, 1991, p.71). If applied to the gestalt predisposition toward descriptive instead of prescription reporting, this principle would apply to figure formation and the process of allowing “what is” to emerge within the meaning-making “life-space”. It is supporting the holistic concept of holons and their reciprocally influencing roles that is unique to each holon.

Principle of Contemporaneity

“Any behavior or any other change in a psychological field depends only upon the psychological field at that time” (Lewin, 1951, p.45). This field “includes the ‘psychological past,’ ‘psychological present,’ and ‘psychological future’ which constitutes one of the dimensions of the life space existing at a give time” (Lewin, 1951, p.27). Hence, the character of the situation at a given time may include the past as remembered now or the future as anticipated now, which will form part of the person’s experiential field in the present. In other words, nothing exists beyond the here and now (Parlett, 1991, p.71).

The principle of contemporaneity is consistent with being “present centered” (Perls, 1992; Perls Hefferline, & Goodman, 1971). The focus on present-centeredness is founded on the recognition that all life exists in the moment, here and now. For example, memories are relived in the moment and therefore are better served if the fullness of the memory is experienced in the moment versus in the mind like an old tale told over and over (Latner, 1992. p.16; Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, 1994, p.281)2.

“A present-centered approach raises different questions: How? What? What is this? What is the experience of this? Of what does this consist? How is this for me? How is this organized? (Latner, 1992, p.16). The power of the present-centeredness can be clarified by examining one of the sources of the concept. In Buddhist traditions, this present-centeredness was known as bare attention. Bare attention is concerned only with the present. By living with full awareness in the “here and now”, we are able to maintain a post of observation as the quiet witness of our experience of our self and of our client (Nayapnika Thera, 1962, p.41). If we move out of the here and now, we tend to project our past or anticipate some future. Because it is not present-centered, it is an “illusion [that] ensnares us in its recurrence.” (Naranjo, 1993, pp.22-23). This illusion is created by the nanosecond response that short-circuits a present-centered experience and replaces it with preconceived perceptions from the past or about the future, thereby overlaying a self-created reality versus the reality of “what is” actually happening.

Moreover, a subtle yet powerful aspect of bare attention is being witness for the client. As we are focused on the “here and now”, we become witness to the client, or more appropriately, we witness the client and our self. “The presence of a witness 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] mere presence, as if consciousness were contagious....” (Naranjo, 1970, p.55). It is as if awareness or both the witness and the witnessed is deepened, such that the pool for making meaning is deeper, richer, and more contactful intrapersonally, interpersonally, and as a dyad.

The Principle of Singularity

To generalize is to risk not seeing “what is” in the moment. Each moment is unique. Each construction of meaning is unique, even when it contains influences from the past, present, and future. Each person and their situation is unique. Moreover, generalizations can lead to finding exactly what one is looking for (Parlett, 1991, p.72).

From this point of view, the past is here, now. It is embedded in the present. 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” (Latner, 1992. pp.16-17). Hence, the rote, the habitual, and the unconscious return to our awareness where it can be experienced and/or examined when we remain focused on the uniqueness of each moment, each situation, each person.

The Principle of Changing Process

“Without theories it is proceed beyond the mere collection and description of facts which have no predictive value...[Nonetheless] 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” (Lewin, 1951, pp.241-242). Hence, we must remember that experience is provisional and not permanent. Nothing is fixed or static. The field undergoes continuous change so that no moment is the exactly same, no experience is exactly the same. It is what gives meaning to the statement “that one never steps in the same river twice.” (Parlett, 1991, pp.72-73). Therefore, our theories must include the ongoing change process, our description must be consistent with “what is” moment, by moment, by moment.

Applied to more traditional gestalt terms, the principle of changing process fits into the concept of figure/ground formation. In basic terms, “‘figure’ is the focus of interest—an object, pattern, etc.—with‘ground’3 the setting or context. The interplay between figure and ground is dynamic, for the same ground may, with differing interests and shifts of attention, give rise to different figures; or a given figure, if it contains detail, may itself become ground in the event that some detail of its own emerges as figure” (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1971, p.25). Hence, our attention floats from one figure of interest to another. When we are no longer interested in one figure, it moves into the ground to be replaced by another. (Polster & Polster, 1973, p.31). For example, the floating thoughts, one to another, that we often experience is a flow of figures in and out of the ground of the mind seeking to become more fully formed and brought completely into awareness.

Another important characteristic of perception is the tendency towards closure. When given data, we will automatically try to make meaning or to create a sense of understanding or familiarity. Moreover, this movement towards closure is often thwarted by our self or by social constraints imposed upon us. “These incompleted actions are forced into the background, where they remain—unfinished and uneasy—usually distracting the individual from the business at hand.” (Polster & Polster, 1973, p.30). “This results in a ‘fixed gestalt’ or an ‘unfinished experience/situation’ which interferes with good contact with self, others, or the environment in the present. Then the unmet needs become incomplete Gestalten which demand attention and prevent the formation of new Gestalten” (Clarkson, 2000, p.7).

The ground has no tendency for closure. It is generally considered unbounded and formless, yet provides the “context that affords depth for the perception of the figure, giving it perspective but commanding little independent interest” (Pollster & Polster, 1973, p.30). In one sense, one’s whole life is the ground for the present moment (Pollster & Polster, 1973, p.32). Nonetheless, the covering up of parts of the ground represents a careful effort on the part of the individual not to tap into...specific characteristics or experiences (Pollster & Polster, 1973, p.33).

Ground evolves from our past experiences, our unfinished business, and the flow of the present experience. The past and the present color the variety of closed and unclosed experiences. “All experience hangs around until a person is finished with it. Most individuals have a large capacity for unfinished situations...Neverthe-less,...these incompleted directions do seek completion and, when they get powerful enough, the individual, [group, or organization] is beset with preoccupation, compulsive behavior, wariness, oppressive energy, and much self-defeating activity” (Pollster & Polster, 1973, 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.” (Pollster & Polster, 1973, p.37).

The Principle of Possible Relevance

Everything in the field is part of the total organization and is potentially meaningful. Instead of documenting what is in the field, there is the attention to what is momentarily or persistently relevant or interesting—and this will show how the field is organized at the moment (Parlett, 1991, pp.71-73). For example, my thoughts or intuitive inclinations are part of the field. I can externalize them to see if I am projecting or if there is some validity to them. Regardless of the answer, I have impacted the field. However, I can choose to not externalize my thoughts or intuitive inclinations and still impact the field for these thoughts and inclinations will impact my behavior.

“The process of moving from moment to moment reflects the existential view that whatever exists, exists only now. Flux is basic to experience, so if one can allow each experience the reality it seeks, it will fade into the background in its turn, to be replaced by whatever next has the force to appear in the foreground. Only psychological hanging-on can maintain the semblance of sameness in life...The gestalt perspective puts a premium on 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” (Pollster & Polster, 1973, p.48). Paradoxically, we change (complete unfinished business) when fully being who we are.

Field Creation

When these principles are applied to Gestalt theory, we begin to see some significant concepts. For example, if the field is more than the sum of the situation, and it includes the meaning-making functions of the individual, it becomes conceivable that we are participating in the creation of the field. One way of looking at this 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 (Parlett, 1991, p.74). 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” (Parlett, 1991, p.77).

Co-Creating Realities

Swann (1987) supports 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 perceptions of other while at the same time influencing the perceptions of other. More specifically, upon meeting someone, the identity negotiation process would involve both a perceiving of each other and attempts to affirm the self identity of each other. Moreover, these negotiations are designed to perpetuate the experientially contrived and/or known identity that seeks to maintain and/or stabilize the sense of self. As a Gestaltist, we will be impacted 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 maybe achieved by the [Gestaltist] changing her or himself” (Parlett, 1991, p.78). For example, if I am able to 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 release of such opinion about the client will lead to the ability to see and be with the client in a different way. Clearly, this will be noticed and therefore will impact the client and the dyad.

Self concepts tend to change when a reorganization of how the person views him or her self occurs. A major reorganization of a self-view can result from the realization that an existing self view is what is causing or significantly contributing to the failure to attain a specific goal (Swann, 1987, p.1044). Hence, if the Gestaltist has a complete shift of perception concerning the identity of the client, this will require a renegotiation that will impact the client and possibly shift the perceived self identity.

Interestingly, another source of change is the paradoxical strategy (Swann, 1987, pp.1044-1045). This strategy indicates that by highlighting or exaggerating an extreme and/or unpopular position, an individual will attempt to move away from the position that has been exaggerated. In so moving away from the unpopular position, the individual will actually state opposing positions or views that they might hold and thereby begin to change their self view of the issue. The paradoxical strategy is similar to the paradoxical theory of change developed in Gestalt theory (Biesser, 1970). Basically, it states that by consciously becoming more of whom we are, change occurs. Swann goes on to note that these changes tend to be long-term or more permanent if the individual’s interaction partners provide feedback that supports the new self view.


1 “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” (Kepner, 1980, 8).

2 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.”

3 Ground was originally background.

In the next issue we move into projective identification to describe how we mirror and co-create our experiences.

Upcoming Workshops
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Becoming an Effective
Organizational Intervener

For over thirty years, the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland has acknowledged and taught that successful leadership requires an indepth awareness of oneself coupled with the capacity to understand organization and system dynamics sufficiently to create effective personal and organizational interventions. Therefore, the basic premise of Personal & Organizational Effectiveness: Becoming An Effective Organizational Intervener is that through better interventions, individuals become more effective leaders.

Learn more on the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland's website, or download a PDF brochure here.

Coaching Workshops
& How to Earn Coaching Certification

The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland specializes in coaching training and offers a wide selection of workshops throughout the year, including certification. Find out more on the Gestalt Institute's website at .