Gestalt Coaching
October 19, 2020

How Gestalt Coaching can help leaders change without changing

By Paul Laughlin

As a break from our focus on Vision, I’ll share a book that I’ve found very helpful for practising Gestalt Coaching at work, “The Fertile Void” by John Leary-Joyce.

I intend this to be the first of two posts focussed on the topic of Gestalt. The reason is that this philosophy or worldview spans two different areas of interest for me & many leaders. It has bearing on both leadership coaching (or mentoring) and data visualisation.

Gestalt is a German word with no direct equivalent in English. It means something close to “whole“, “complete” or “pattern“. The early Gestalt psychologists were concerned with perception. They concluded we are hard-wired to ‘join the dots’. To see whole meaningful patterns (gestalt) rather than the individual incomplete data or patterns actually there.

I’ll come on to what that means for data visualisation & design in my next post. For now, it means that self-awareness of what we perceive and our need to complete patterns or cycles of experience can be powerful for leaders. Having already read extensively on leadership coaching, it often feels like the Gestalt branch is somewhat esoteric and more difficult to grasp. John’s book really helped me get my head around it.

Understanding how Gestalt Mentoring can help leaders

John presents both an easier book to navigate on Gestalt coaching than many published & one packed with exercises to try and practical examples.

The basic structure of “The Fertile Void” is three key parts:

  1. How Gestalt theory applies to coaching rather than therapy
  2. Ways you can use the Gestalt approach when coaching/mentoring
  3. Signature Presence & ongoing Supervision

The important third part is included as a focus on what a coach working in this way will need to develop & sustain their capability.

I will focus this review on the models, tools & exercises that helped me grasp what John was sharing in each of the above parts. I hope this review will both encourage leaders to see how this approach could help them & will encourage mentors to read the book.

Grasping the theory through 3 key models

One of the challenges of writing a book on Gestalt coaching or mentoring is that working this way is so experiential. For both mentee & mentor, most of the learning happens through doing, through the experience of what emerges as they both look at the world in this way. I acknowledge that is part of the challenge other authors have wrestled with.

However, in part 1, John Leary-Joyce shares 3 models or key concepts for Gestalt coaching that really helped me get it.

1) Figure & Ground

The first is Figure & Ground. If you have ever seen those images that can be seen one of two ways, you’ll have a clue what I am talking about (one from Edgar Rubin appears on the cover of this book). The key concept is that at any point in time we are paying attention to only part of the stimulus we are receiving. For instance, right now you are reading the words in this blog post. They have become the Figure standing on the Ground of the whole of this page or your field of view.

Edgar Rubin image on cover (see vase or faces)

Likewise, for self-aware leaders, different aspects of their work & world become figural at different times. A Gestalt approach goes with this and helps the leader work with what is currently the Figure to achieve some completion (more on that later) so that other figures can emerge later.

At the very least, a recognition of this bias and the need for us all to be somewhat myopic in our experience is a useful caution for leaders.

2) The flow of Continuous Experience

John’s model here is an adaptation of the traditional Cycle of Experience model developed by the Cleveland School. John has chosen to use a sine wave model rather than a circle, to better show the progress over time.

The Flow of Continuous Experience, John Leary-Joyce

This model helps us understand that there is a natural ebb & flow to our experiences win life and there can be problems if that flow is blocked. The model is based on the foundation of the Ground referenced in previous section & explains more what happens as a Figure emerges. It identifies the stages of:

  • Sensation
  • Awareness
  • Mobilisation
  • Action
  • Contact
  • Resolution & Satisfaction
  • Completion & Closure
  • Withdrawl

Perhaps the most potent example that John uses to help us understand this process is sexual intercourse. We can all relate to how we might become aware of sensations of arousal, choose to mobilise ourselves to act on those feeling, climax in very intimate contact and hopefully experience the resolution & satisfaction of orgasm before appropriate closure with the other person & withdrawl. One can think of that as a metaphor for some many other stimuli and potential contacts in our lives.

For leaders being mentored or coached, think about all the information & interactions around you during the day. Gestalt coaching or mentoring can both help you become more aware & thus intentional about your contacts and recognise blockages. Where have you been unable to resolve an issue, nurture a relationship or deliver a project? What impact has that lack of completion had on your morale & focus?

3) The Paradoxical Theory of Change

Although John shares a lot more in the first part of this book, the next model that really struck me was this one. The Gestalt ‘Paradoxical Theory of Change’ was originally written by Arnie Beisser. It proposes a perspective that at first can sound very counter-intuitive.

In summary this theory states:

“Change occurs when you become who you are, not when you try to be what you’re not.”

Arnie Beisser, The Paradoxical Theory of Change

This runs completely counter to the goal-orientated approach to mentoring which can push the individual to act differently just to achieve an imposed goal. Too often that can slip into either living up to others expectations or starting something the person will not be able to sustain as a practice. In either case, over time, the leader will discover a deep internal resistance.

With Gestalt mentoring or coaching, the focus is not on a goal but on self-awareness. The client can instead be helped to become more aware of what is really going on both around them & within. Often when a client lets go of seeking to force something & engages with accepting the current reality and choosing how they really want to respond to that, more lasting transformation can result.

Interestingly, I think this is really timely (for the current crises that leaders face). All around them are calls to be more flexible and resilient in the face of an unpredictable future. The skills needed to achieve that are not determination & the fixing of best guess rigid goals, rather it will help leaders to know themselves and their teams well & to stay aware.

Learning how to take action as a Gestalt Mentor

All the theories and models in the world won’t help a coach or mentor if they can’t grasp how to apply them in real-world practice. What sets this book apart from many other esoteric books on Gestalt is the next two parts.

In Part 2, John walks the reader through four ways to apply the above theory in practice with their clients.

a) Active Experimentation

This section brings to life how creative & artistic this way of working can be. John shares examples of a wide range of experiments that coaches might try to help their clients become more self-aware or make choices to move along that flow. There are great examples here including the use of art & objects, use of metaphors & use of intra-personal dialogue (e.g. empty chair). John’s suggestions for using exaggeration are also insightful.

b) Bodywork & Hellinger Constellations

This section is full of examples of how to help clients become more aware of what their bodies can tell them. This includes exercises to try using breath, voice, movement & touch (tougher in virtual work). John’s advice related to Somatic Resonance & Hellinger Constellations would take too long to explain in this review but are worth reading. In short, the idea of constellations is to take a more systemic view of your relationships.

c) Strategic & Intimate Interactions

In this section, John builds on some earlier work on a continuum to propose a two by two grid to guide mentors. This considers what might be the right balance for each client of two dimensions of how they interact at work:

  1. Intimate = based on equality, openness, self-disclosure, spontaneity
  2. Strategic = based on hierarchy, calculation, planning, preparation
Matrix of Strategic & Intimate Modes of Engagement, John Leary-Joyce

This matrix can be used creatively with the client to help them become aware of their current modes of interaction. It can also provide a stimulus for experimenting with what might mean to change modes. The goal is to help the client achieve effective functioning. That means to be both self-aware and environmentally-aware. Able to choose what would be effective & appropriate for both in each circumstance.

Team Coaching

This book also contains a helpful ‘guest chapter’ on what Gestalt coaching means for Team Coaching. Those working in that way with their clients will find plenty of helpful suggestions from Marion Gillie in this chapter.

Final Part – sustaining a Gestalt Coach

This book finishes with an equally important couple of chapters focussing on sustaining your practice. Beyond all the models and exercises above, how can a coach or mentor sustain effective practice when working this way?

The penultimate chapter covers Signature Presence. Here John goes into depth about what this term means for a Gestalt mentor and how crucial it can be for them to focus on being not just doing. He once again includes a helpful model for self-reflection in this area, breaking presence into:

  • Context for the relationship
  • Communication style
  • Capability & Credibility
  • Confidence in Self
  • Centred and being present

There are obvious links to mindfulness practice here but also plenty of prompts for preparation & questions for reflection or supervision. I found that a number of suggestions here also put me in mind of the excellent book by Marie Iliffe-WoodCoaching Presence” which will help any coach.

The final chapter turns our attention to supervision. Marion Gillie returns with this great guest chapter. Building on the structure of Prof Peter Hawkin’s 7-eyed-model, Marion proposes 7 foci for review with your supervisor. Working through this allows plenty of opportunities to identify any transference of counter-transference with the three people involved (client, coach & supervisor). It also struck me that this chapter would be well worth sharing with a supervisor less familiar with Gestalt. It will help them hold up a mirror to your practice in a way that works for this approach.

Should you consider Gestalt coaching or mentoring?

Thanks for reading this review. I guess the exam question is whether this book convinces me that you should consider Gestalt coaching. I think it does that. For either clients or mentors, this book will enable them to both better understand what can sometimes be a very theoretical subject. I am grateful to John for offering all of us such a book & to Ty for recommending it to me.

Whether this way of working is right for you both depends on you. But, consider the possibility that a greater focus on self-awareness & what is naturally emerging might be more suitable at this time than goals.