Gestalt is a German word. The closest translation is ‘whole’, ‘pattern’ or ‘form’. It has the sense that meaning cannot be found from breaking things down into parts but rather from the appreciation of the whole. In other words, Gestalt is a holistic process. It regards the individual as a totality of mind, body, emotions and spirit who experiences reality in a way unique to themselves. 

In practice, this means that if we focus on self-awareness: on what is happening from one moment to the next or, as we often say, in the ‘Here and Now, we can increase awareness and understanding. This awareness extends across present, immediate thoughts, feelings, and behaviour and across patterns of relating and behaving and can bring about effective change and new perspectives. 

Previously, when I tried to make organisations or teams more efficient in realising their strategic goals, I resorted to behaviourist, carrot-and-stick approaches. What was now becoming clear to me was that there’s a big problem with this: despite all the scientific-sounding talk of “measurable” KPIs and clearly defined goals, many of these approaches fail to deliver. 

Core to the health of any system is an ability to defend itself, and it is this that we routinely see when any change is rejected. This viewpoint is one of the things that has most attracted me to Gestalt over the years as it allows resistance to change to be positive. It’s a sign that the environment we are trying to change has ways of resisting what we’re doing that will, once we’ve reached an agreement with it around the change we are looking to deliver, protect and sustain the results. 

A slightly different way of looking at this is to step back from the more traditional view of organisations as a collection of systems, processes, and services and reimagine them as living organisms. Any living organism needs a way to protect itself from invasion. To ward off external threats and pathogens that threaten the stability of the whole. And an immune system does just this. 

What if we were then to think about resistance to change in terms of its being an indicator of the strength of the organism’s immune system (or organisation) we were dealing with? In this light, one of the most concerning things we could see would be that changes were not resisted in some way by the organisation, as this would indicate a lack of health, cohesiveness or perhaps even purpose and meaning being experienced within it. 

A Gestalt approach encourages that we become curious about the resistance we encounter. We treat it not as the enemy but as a natural force that can be used to judge the health of the system we’re working with. When working with coaching clients, I sometimes ask the question, what is your resistance telling you? Listening to the resistance we encounter and finding a way to work with, rather than against, can turn this force from enemy to ally, so that means the work we do in rolling out the change we are engaged in will benefit from in the future. 

You can’t change part of an organisation without changing all of it.

Most organisations or systems are balanced, although that doesn’t always have to be positive. One process inevitably links to others. One tool or system relates to its broader environment in its application or use, and should any part of that change, the knock-on effects cascade through the rest like ripples in a pond after a stone hits the water.

This view of interconnectedness can be summed up by the use of the word holistic or holism. Holism is the theory that parts of a system cannot exist independently or be understood without reference to the whole, which can therefore be regarded as more significant than the sum of its parts (as the system is the sum of the components plus the dynamics they create when they come together). There are many ways that this idea has made its way into modern approaches to change. One of the most notable of these is Systems Theory, which states that purpose is the driving force that determines what is included and excluded from a system.

This is an important concept, so I’m going to break it down a bit. To help with this, I will relate the idea to a fictional organisation that we will call Silque Services. Silque Services has a stated purpose of focusing on and serving the needs of their customers, now and in the future, through applying best in class solutions to real-world challenges. Sound ok? Well, think about that purpose in light of what we’ve just said about Systems Theory and Holism if the sum of the parts of Silque Services adds up to this purpose (and so create the whole) and that purpose is bought into and believed by the people who work there, they’re doing pretty well. If, however, they now need to deliver a change that will dramatically improve their processes and make them more secure for the future but is viewed sceptically by their people due to it not being aligned with the core purpose they’ve bought into, it’s unlikely to stick even though it is to the benefit of the organisation.

And now for the bad news. There’s almost nothing that can be done about this. In even a relatively modern workplace, individuals get to make their minds about what they believe and how they behave and operate. The problem with this change is that, at some level, it is asking the individuals involved to become something they may not be, which is hard for anyone to do. If we work with a more Gestalt oriented approach, though, there may be a way to harness this that enables people to come along with a change in a way that works for them. 

The Paradoxical Theory of Change

Most human beings dislike feeling manipulated in some way. It’s hard-wired into us, and many of us react poorly when we suspect that is what is happening. Another strength of Gestalt is that it offers a non-manipulative approach to change that can be scaled to apply to individuals, teams or whole organisations. This approach focuses on supporting people by becoming who they already are and dropping futile efforts to become who they aren’t and probably never can be. Sound like psychobabble? Well, it’s not, and here’s why. 

Most of us absorb the ideals that important authority figures hold out for us as we grow up, or at least, we fashioned ideals out of what we imagined they wanted us to be like. The Paradoxical Theory of Change (which sits at the heart of Gestalt) helps individuals not break these ideals as to break with them and stop being dominated, even tyrannised, by them. In so doing, they’re free to begin noticing talents, aptitudes, interests and desires that had been buried or suffocated under the regime of what they have built up as their Ideal Self. 

Arnold Beisser’s statement, “Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not,” shouldn’t be read as meaning submitting to one’s presumed limitations, but as allowing space for “evocation.” If we step off the treadmill marked “Ideal Self” and allow pause for thought, we see that there are many other options and aptitudes within us that our pursuit of ideals never allowed ourselves to explore. 

This pause for thought is sometimes called “mindfulness”, but I think that’s a little misleading. In Buddhism, mindfulness refers to emptying the mind of distracting false desires to reach a pure state of being. In Gestalt, I think it’s much more to do with releasing suppressed or frozen potentials. If these unexplored potentials are innumerable in any given individual, imagine their scale and magnitude in an organisation. 

The Gestalt approach to organisation development has at its heart the same aims as the Gestalt approach to personal development: to expand the space of innovation, change and experimentation; to release novelty from the convention. 

The organisational equivalent of the individual self is the culture: the ideas, customs and social behaviour of an organisation based on their principles or standards of behaviour, their natural aptitudes or skills, how they conduct themselves and their resolve or determination to stick to these, even when this is difficult. 

When we become more aware of how we relate to one another and how we might alter these patterned interactions, resistance to change eases, and progress becomes a true prospect. In Gestalt organisation development, the process of inquiry into existing organisational culture is itself a form of change. 

This differs radically from the behaviourist approach, which begins with an authoritative (possibly authoritarian) vision of what the desired change should be, and then proceeds to manipulate “behaviours” (i.e. sentient human beings) to fit. Gestalt treats human complexity as an asset to be harnessed – behaviourism as noise to be quietened.


Meaning Making

Look at the image above. What do you see? The image appears to be made up of circles with white lines over them, forming a cube. In reality, there are neither circles nor cubes in the picture, and yet we can see both with ease. In a simple form, this is an example of figure-ground formation or meaning-making in action. We’ve all seen before what a linear image of a cube looks like, and there are enough corresponding similarities in the shapes that could be dots for our memories to supply the white lines needed for the rest of the shape, even though it is not actually there.

So, holding this idea in mind, let’s go back to our fictional organisation Silque Services. Imagine that, as part of the process change that Silque Services are looking to implement, the implied benefit to the organisation of the change that’s highlighted by those leading the project is linked to efficiency. The idea being that if the organisation can more efficiently do the work, it does, then the more stable it will be in the future (perhaps they even take the next step of linking this back to their main purpose around customer services). Sound good? Possibly. In some instances, this might even work out. Success then would then also need to consider the meaning that the individuals who make up the organisation attribute to the use of the word ‘efficiency’.

Like the way memory fills in the cube within the dots, it can also fill in the meaning in a statement. Can you think of other connotations of the word efficiency you have heard or experienced in your working life? For many of us, efficiency can be a code word for redundancy. What effect do you think this would then have on the willingness of the wider organisation to support the project through to implementation? I’m sure there would be many who would agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment when directly engaged, but how likely are they to maintain this enthusiasm once the project team move on?

Our prior experience determines our current perception and reality. This means that when something happens to us that triggers a memory of something similar, we reconstruct what we think of the present based on our past perceptions. And as each of us is unique in our experience, we tend to draw different meanings from the data we’re presented with when handled in groups. This diversity of thought, when working well, is one of the things that gives great strength to teams and organisations that know how to harness it. It is also something that means we need to be careful not to insist on the meaning that others should be drawing from the data we give them and instead allow them time and space to make sense of what they see in their way.

This concept is one of the core components of employee engagement, and so is unlikely to be new to many reading this blog, but it is important and so deserves reflection. How often do we tell others what to think? How often do we provide what seems like an unarguable fact in our eyes only to have people disagree (openly or not) with it and hold a different opinion? How much more bought in would those individuals be if they had been able to contribute to the meaning-making in the first place, rather than being asked to swallow whole what is given to them by others?

Gestalt figure and ground

The phrase used in the Gestalt theory to describe the process just outlined here is figure/ground. This process forms a fundamental principle of how we humans make meaning from the world around us. In this, the figure is the focus of interest against the ground, which can be looked at as the environment, setting or context. In Gestalt, this relationship is not fixed and can change over time as we are operating in shifts around us. It is also possible for the same ground, as we shift our point of focus, create new figures or the figure we hold to become ground in its turn, as we focus on a single aspect of the idea that forms it. Think fractals (or never-ending patterns), and you’ll be going in the right direction with this.

As mentioned in the previous section, we are hardwired to make meaning from our environment (a psychologist calls this pattern recognition). Confronted with any set of data or experience, we will compare it to our experience and attempt to identify a comprehensible figure from it to get some sense of understanding or familiarity with it. We each have our process for doing this, and so, in a genuine sense, we are not the world that we see around us are the process that creates our view of it.

Part of the problem with being hardwired for patterns is that we look for them. On the whole, however, the world we operate in can tend quite easily toward a touch more chaos than that, but it does surround us and provide the context that we draw our figures from. Essentially, we can quickly get it wrong and form patterns out of events and information that don’t exist. It’s part of what it is to be human, and we all trip over it from time to time.

Some of my work as a therapist and coach operates in this space. When the process an individual uses to make meaning from their environment no longer supports their growth or onward progression, it can become a problem. 

Many people have written whole books on the subject (notably Polster and Polster 1973), and should you be interested in finding out more, you won’t have far to look. We don’t need to go into this in much more detail here, although there is one final part of this that I think is useful to highlight, which Gestaltists call unfinished business.

In this process, we all use to make meaning by applying our past to our present; some parts of our past can carry more weight. They tend to be the things that have happened to us that are unfinished for us somehow, as these parts of our experience tend to hang around until we have either reconciled them or fully processed what they mean for us. Until we do, we tend to project them onto our current context in a way that limits the figures we can draw from it. In a sense, you could say that we relive the same unfinished business over and over again by repeatedly drawing figures that form a familiar pattern until we draw what we need from it and, in so doing, grow beyond it.

These examples have been at the individual level, but there is also a way of applying them to whole organisations as with all of these concepts. Again, let’s go back to Silque Services and think about the reaction we discussed to the word efficiency. The linking of this word to potential shrinkage/job losses could be unfinished business from the collective past of those working there. So it comes strongly to the fore when they collectively make meaning from the change in context that a change being linked to it evokes. The ability of Silque Services to accept that this conclusion could be wrong and draw a different, perhaps more positive conclusion is then linked to the resolution of shared experience at the organisational level.

This is a very simplified example but a telling one. Change from a Gestalt perspective works best when we focus on the current context that acknowledges the past but remains curious and almost playful with the present. When we invite others into the process of the change to allow them to recognise new possibilities and form new figures, this allows new possibilities to enter their awareness. The part of this that is key and matters most is that we find a way to focus on the here and now and move beyond set pattern recognition methods.

Like what you read here? Why not download my ebook on Successfully Leading Change for more or look at my other articles on Gestalt here.

To read more about how a Gestalt approach impacts perception from a UX perspective, click here.

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