The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion once claimed that in any genuinely therapeutic encounter, there should be two rather frightened people in the room. The analyst, who knows they must contain emotions and anxieties in both self and patient, and the patient (while talking freely, patients often surprise themselves with unexpectedly painful insights).
As a Gestalt consultant, I can testify that Bion was onto something. A typical moment of potential contact breakdown arises when giving 360-degree feedback from a client’s colleagues. Some of this can be hard to hear.
The Gestalt approach places considerable emphasis on remaining present as an experiencing subject in moments of intense vulnerability. However, these are the very moments we most want to flee, breaking emotional contact with emotions stirred up and the degree of contact during coaching between coach and client. I’ve watched an executive astonish herself at her own painful response to feedback, burst into tears, then become intensely embarrassed and very rapidly shut down emotionally before excusing herself and leaving the room.
Other typical (defensive) reactions include breaking emotional contact by diving into intellectual explanations (highly intelligent executives are very adept at this) or using that intellect to verbally attack the messenger for the message (i.e. the coach).
The art is to stay in a place where the emergence of vulnerability leads to stronger intimacy between coach and client. One executive seemed impervious to the feedback I put to him, making it plain that he’d heard this stuff before and wasn’t planning on taking heed of it. Gestalt consultant Herb Stevenson recommends gently inviting such clients to consider how not changing had served them, and how not using the feedback of their colleagues had not served them. It worked.
Anxiety can’t be evaded if change is to occur, but it can be contained and transformed into productive change if the coach is prepared to stay tactfully present and in contact with the emotions of the moment.