Gestalt theory was developed in 1940-50 by Fritz and Laura Perls. From the beginning, it was used together with Gestalt therapy, then in 1980, organizational consultants got educated based on the same theory. Gestalt is still today developing thanks to continued research.
From the Gestalt theory viewpoint, organisms can only fully be understood when they are seen as a field, a context, a surrounding. The relationship between the organism and its surroundings has both a theoretical and behavioral significance .
In the field theory you look at forces and counter forces, for example between those who want to preserve and those who want to create change. While studying something with a field theory perspective you look at the whole and how the energies move on the field. On the field there are different energies that attracts and repels. While studying a group it might be questions as: who affects who? Who or what participates? According to field theory we co-create each other in every second. The complexity is already high when there are two people. Also the non present people affect the field.
The system theory show systems and their limits. Every system is acting in its context and is searching for balance. To understand a system that you are working with, you need to go up and down a level of the system. To for example understand a group, you need to know something about the organization which the group is a part of, as well as the sub groups that the group have. This viewpoint is used both by organizational consultants and gestalt therapists.
More about the roots of Gestalt:
Existentialism is a lot about taking responsibility.
Some participants that take part in workshops about feedback, group development or leadership development think that it is their personality that is faulty and need to be changed. They discard everything with “I-am-who-I-am” and therefore “I-act-as-I-act”. A more open approach is that an individual can change her behavior if she is aware of it and – if she wants to. This is one of the most important messages of the existentialism. When someone (a colleague, manager, co-worker or process leader), enlightens the consequences of the individual’s actions, the individual is given an insight about how he can change his behavior. Existentialism is one of the corner stones of the Gestalt theory.
The psychotherapist Emmy Van Deurzen has formulated it in an expressive way: “the Earth is a place between heaven and hell, where you can experience a lot of pain and a lot of joy and where a certain amount of insight might be essential.” This is valid both for people in private relationships as business people – employees and managers.
A field is an interacting whole where all mutually affect each other and the whole. It is impossible to exclude the context where the whole is found and the one where every part origins from. Every single group participant has with them their unique life story, previous experiences from finished and non finishes events. They also bring with them their unique talents, communication skills, their level of responsibility and their ability to be in contact with others. Every participant will act differently based on their story, their momentary needs and based on the field in which they find themselves.
The participant affects the group and the group affects the participant (Yontef, 1993). The gender, age, religion, education, body language, family status, sexual orientation, political belonging (and so on) of a participant affects the field. The participants’ behaviour is a result of their subjective interpretation of the field (based on individual needs) and the field is a result of the participants behaviour. The only thing that affects ones behaviour in a certain moment is the field in that same moment. The field is a product of ones story, but it’s only the field in the here and now that affects you. Kurt Lewin calls it ”the Principle of Contemporaneity” (Lewin, 1997). To say that an organism is in a field suggests that the organism can exist independently of the field, but an organism cannot exist without a field and is therefore a product of the field itself (Yontef, 1993). The field is in constant change and therefore never static, ”The field is becoming”. Because of this reason, it is important that the process leader follows the constant process. When organizational consultants work with group development they are often called process leaders. The word might just as well be field leaders. The process leaders are to the highest grade a part of the field and therefore they both affect and become affected by the participants of the group.
We break down the whole in pieces to create an understanding of it. Though, it is important not to lose ourselves in the pieces and forget that it is the whole that we are trying to understand. If a course participant is strongly questioning the layout of the course, which is something that affects the whole field, it is likely based on the combination of the participant’s history, her needs and the the impact that the field has on her. If she would leave the group, it would naturally affect the field, that in its own turn affects the other members. Maybe the field has another person that will start questioning. Parallel processes, where what is happening in the organization of a client and then is repeated in the process between leaders and participants, is a good example of how the contexts and the different parts affect each other.
Field theory is a framework to investigate and clarify happenings, experiences, objects, organisms and systems as meaningful parts of a known amount of forces that together create an ongoing, interactive whole (Yontef, 1993).
Buber’s dialogical principle
When we are in contact and communicate it can be on different conversation levels.
We can also talk about contact quality when we communicate either on a more shallow or on a more faithful level. The shallow can be every day topics such as the weather. Then, we can become more trusting and speak, based on our role, about every day things. In the next level, we speak trustingly with each other and in the end we can have a me-and-you meeting.
A metafore is to say that communication is like an onion. You peel yourself into the middle. In the outermost layer we communicate on a shallow, introducing level. This works as an icebreaker (I don’t bite and you don’t bite so let’s move on). The other level is a basic level. Here we speak about basic things, often coming from a professional role. The communication is often not very personal and trusting. In the third level there is more trust but not enough to speak about the self with the other person. Here we see examples of indirect communication, I can for example speak in confidence about a person that is not present. Reaching the innermost layer, which is a prerequisite for full contact, I speak with the other person. It is what we call direct communication or “me-and-you”-communication. Martin Buber also says that it is in the meeting with the other that we are created (Buber, 1994). In the meeting with the other, he is not an object but a subject that is active in creating his “I”. In the same way, I’m active in creating the other persons “you”.
Contact and dialogue is two of the corner stones of Gestalt, a good contact and a working dialogue is as important in the work place as in private relationships.
In the phenomenology the interest lies on what is, on what is created/appeared here and now.
A process leader or coach that used the Gestalt Theory might be more attentive to what is happening here and now than that which the participant/s tells about the past. Both what is happening here and now in this room and that which the participant/s express create an informative whole. While giving feedback, it is important that the observations are based on phenomenology and not on interpretations and presumptions.
The psychoanalysis was created by Sigmund Freud, a doctor from Austria in the century between 1800 and the 1900s.
Psychoanalysis is a group of psychological theories and methods that have in common that they assume that the human psyche has an unconscious part, in the unique way it was defined in Freud’s theory.
Gestalt theory was created by Fritz Perls as an alternative to psychoanalysis, with great help from his wife Laura Perls and also from Paul Goodman.
The big difference from psychoanalysis is that Gestalt theory encourages experiments that are held by the participant himself, instead of the psychoanalyst’s interpretation of the “patient”.
In the Gestalt Theory there is a great focus on the meaning of the whole. We need to see the whole before we step in and put energy in the details. For it to be meaningful to engage in details, we first need to see the context.
A person that gave inspiration to the Gestalt theory’s holistic thinking was the french philosopher Henri Bergson with for example the quote: “The whole is perceived prior to the perception of its parts” (Bergson, 1988). It is therefore reasonable to presume that a course member has a need to understand the course program early. They have a need to perceive the whole.