The Paradox of Change – A Gestalt Perspective

I recently revisited the work of Paul Barber¹, a recognised authority in Gestalt facilitation. It reminded me how much my work with individuals, groups and organisations has Gestalt theory and practice as a core strand. It also reminded me just how powerful Gestalt approaches to personal and group change can be, but also how paradoxical they can at first seem.

Gestalt is a German word with no English equivalent. It can be summarised as the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form²”. In simple terms, Gestalt methods when applied to personal or group development, seek to understand the whole picture or “field” affecting the individual or group. This field is made up of five “realities”:

  • physical/sensory – what we think and what our bodies sense
  • social/cultural – what societal or organisational norms, values and cultures we are exposed to
  • emotional/biographical – how our past experiences and emotions influence us
  • imagined/projective – how what we imagine is projected into the world as perceived reality, our unconscious biases and the metaphors that shape our language and thinking
  • intuitive/transpersonal – our meaning making, spiritual values, unknown potential and purpose in life

Gestalt methods seek to understand and work with all these internal and external influences (our intrinsic and extrinsic motivators). Gestalt theory and practice developed as a challenge to the behaviourist approach to change that focuses solely on extrinsic motivators (the carrot and stick) to bringing about changes in behaviour.

In practical terms, Gestalt facilitation or coaching leads to exercises that focus on physical movement, sensing, dialogue and creatively expressing thoughts and feelings. This is why my children, when younger, wondered whether I went to work to actually work, or whether I actually went to play. It can seem like that at times, but the power of these methods has been proven time and again in my groups and those of others.

When approached from a Gestalt perspective, workshops where experiential methods are used, where there are no formal agendas, objectives or prescribed outcomes, can yield significant, tangible outcomes in terms of personal and cultural change.

The challenge Gestalt practitioners have is explaining what it is and how it works. Most often, delegates have to experience it to appreciate it’s power. Invariably, I never refer to the underpinning theory and practice. Delegates leave knowing they have changed or have started a journey. That’s all that matters most of the time.

This challenge to ‘getting’ Gestalt lies in what Beisser³ referred to as “Gestalt’s ‘paradoxical theory of change’, which suggests that change:

  • Best occurs when you become more fully ‘what you are’ rather than when you ‘try to become what you are not’
  • Does not occur through force or pressure but through abandoning what you would like to become and being more fully appreciative of how you maintain your world view
  • Is resisted when a person has two warring voices in them saying ‘what they believe they should be’ and ‘what they are’ and shifts continually between the two warring identities.”

Focussing on ‘what you are’ and not ‘what you want to be’ in order to change, is indeed a paradox.

Essentially, it is about understanding how we perceive the world, feeling more comfortable with ourselves as we are, warts and all, and relaxing into a comfortable sense of self. This comfort reduces anxiety, strengthens self-confidence and reduces the fear of what is new. It is about relaxing into the change once we have a firm grasp of and feel secure with, our current reality.

When I was being coached in this way, before I had studied Gestalt, I was somewhat perplexed when it was suggested I focus on becoming who I already was and stop trying so hard to become something I was not. I trusted my coach and the process, and it worked.

I’ve come to realise that this focus on what I already am in order to better facilitate subsequent growth, is the essence of being grounded and embodied. It is also at the heart of developing personal presence.

¹Barber, P. (2012) Facilitating Change in Groups and Teams: A Gestalt Approach to Mindfulness. Libri Publishing, Faringdon, UK.
²http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_psychology
³Beisser, A. (1970) quoted in Barber, P. (2012). See http://www.gestalt.org/arnie.htm for the original text.
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