I. Theory: Gestalt principles and key concepts

The emergence of a Gestalt coaching approach

A Gestalt coaching approach finds its theory and practice in four main places: Gestalt psychology; Gestalt therapy where the primary focus has been on individual in-depth work; more recent applications to larger systems such as pairs, couples and families; and organisational consulting where the development of individual leaders, their teams, and the organisation as a whole has been the focus of attention.

Gestalt focuses on people’s experience in the present moment (known as phenomenological enquiry), the environmental context or ‘field’ in which this takes place (the Field perspective), and the creative adjustments individuals and larger systems make to achieve healthy equilibrium and optimal functioning (self-regulation). The Gestalt coach is interested in how their client - be that an individual, group, or team - understands their needs and meets (or fails to meet) them; assists them to better understand their personal process - their habits, behaviours, and relational patterns; and then to choicefully make changes if necessary.

The German word Gestalt, which does not easily translate into English, most nearly approximates to words/terms like ‘pattern’, ‘shape’, ‘configuration’, or ‘meaningful organised whole’.

Gestalt’s main applications

If you are new to Gestalt your main association may be Gestalt in the clinical context, and until recently this was by far its best-known usage. Gestalt therapy has been practiced since the 1950s, and you

Table 1.1 The evolution of Gestalt: 1920s to current time

Gestalt psychology

Gestalt therapy

Gestalt in organisational, family, and community contexts

Research into

Individual therapy

Pairs, couples, and family


for growth,



healing, and

Leadership development.

process, unfinished situations, selfregulation, creative adjustment, and self-actualisation

Field theory


process consulting, vertical development, executive coaching, team coaching, and organisational development (OD) Community development, education, political process, social and ecological change

can find training institutes and Gestalt therapists all over the world. What’s less well known is how Gestalt has been applied in couples and family intervention work, and in non-therapeutic contexts where it has a significant influence on organisation development, leadership development programmes, and coaching. Beyond these contexts, Gestalt has also been applied in political systems, communitybuilding, and social change.

Gestalt in the organisational context

Organisational development

It’s in the field of organisational development that Gestalt has made some of its most significant contributions, notably through the influence of Kurt Lewin. His vast body of work - which includes field theory, stages of change, group dynamics, action research, sensitivity training, leadership styles, and experiential learning theory - has led many to conclude that Lewin is the seminal figure in the development of OD.

The T-group methodology, which Lewin helped to develop, is an example of the experimental approach in action. The purpose of the workshop experience is to increase awareness of self and others through facilitated group dialogue and feedback. Valuing and appreciating difference is at the heart of the method. Whilst this methodology has grown to be mainstream in management and organisational development, it was a breakthrough in the mid-nineteen-forties when it was founded.

Management and leadership development

Some of the earliest applications of Gestalt within leadership programmes are attributed to Richard Wallen and Edwin Nevis. Beginning in 1959, they used awareness-raising techniques within sensitivity training groups for managers, and this work can be seen as a forerunner of today’s workshop-based emotional intelligence and vertical leadership development programmes. Nevis went on to play a leading role in the application of Gestalt principles to organisational consulting, setting up the Organisation Development Centre at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland in the USA, along with John Carter, Len Hirsch and Carolyn Lukensmeyer, and writing the seminal text on the subject, Organizational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach (1987). Lukensmeyer went on to bring a Gestalt consulting approach into her governmental work with the US Administration.

Process consulting, individual coaching, and team coaching

Throughout the world, there have been a growing number of Gestalt organisational development practitioners who have taken their own Gestalt styles into process consultancy, team development, mediation, leadership consultation and, more recently, vertical development.

The emergence of a Gestalt coaching approach can be traced to the mid-nineties, though there has never been one Gestalt OD approach or one Gestalt coaching approach. Rather, a number of templates have emerged depending on the backgrounds of different practitioners. Gestalt therapists moving into the organisational setting have inevitably brought a more in-depth psychological approach to their work, in particular the intrapersonal forces in play. Those coming from organisational development settings have approached the work from different perspectives, paying greater attention to leadership, context, systemic influences, power and hierarchy, relationship, and group dynamics.

Gestalt in social and political contexts

Since the earliest days of the Gestalt tradition, many of its practitioners have had a strong interest and involvement in social issues, whether they have been practicing as psychotherapists, organisational consultants, coaches, or community activists. Those who have specialised in social and political contexts are often people who care deeply about making a difference at the macro levels of cultural and societal change.

Today, there are numerous Gestalt practitioners, working in diverse continents and countries, and with complex issues such as AIDS reduction, poverty alleviation, political conflict, recovery from trauma, social injustice, and natural disasters. Some of them work through the United Nations or act as advisers to senior government officials, whilst others work through NGOs and more informal networks.

Many have never trained as psychotherapists or Gestalt practitioners. Instead, they have integrated Gestalt principles and methods into their existing professional backgrounds in education, social work, community development, political process, and social activism.

Perhaps this is shaping up to be next-generation Gestalt: the application of a powerful set of principles and an awareness-raising methodology that helps improve relational connection, quality of dialogue, level of co-operation, and more effective collaborative action around critical issues of political and social justice, including the climate and ecological crises. If so, at the broader societal level, it may prove to be Gestalt’s most significant and consequential contribution yet - whilst, at the same time, continuing its radical tradition.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >