Using Gestalt in coaching and mentoring

Gestalt therapy is one of the major disciplines of psychotherapy. It takes years of study and practice to become proficient in using this powerful approach, but it is common for coaches and mentors to use some of the basic concepts and techniques.

One of the key principles of Gestalt is that what is happening for you in your emotional and physical responses is a valuable clue to what is happening for the learner. So, for example, if you are feeling irritated by what they are saying, that might give you an indication of how other people are reacting to them.

Gestalt is a German word that means, among other things, a whole or a pattern. Our minds are designed to recognise and pay attention to patterns and to ignore information that does not fall within a pattern. Any interaction we have with other people or with our environment follows a pattern. If we feel the pattern is emotionally incomplete, we are dissatisfied and this feeling becomes “emotional baggage”. When the emotions in an interaction are all dealt with, however, the resulting completion is a Gestalt. So Gestalt coaches help people work with the emotions in a situation to achieve completion, so they can move on to deal with other issues in their life and work.

In the Gestalt cycle, we firstly become curious about some aspect (for example, an emotion or a physical reaction) of how we interact with our environment. Then we engage with that aspect to satisfy our curiosity, becoming more aware of our motivations and the systems that occur in the interaction between ourselves and our environment. Next, we mobilise our energy and our intuition to engage fully with the issue, thinking creatively and making adjustments to our expectations of ourselves and other people. This leads us to feel satisfied with the interaction (we have a pattern that leaves us in an emotionally positive place). Finally ,we withdraw feeling complete and ready for the next engagement. The role of the coach using Gestalt is to help the client go through this natural process of self-discovery more easily and more effectively. Gestalt therapists talk of pre-contact, contact and withdrawal.

Key principles in Gestalt include:

  • You have to achieve closure in interactions to feel satisfaction
  • High performance is the result of effortlessly contacting with and withdrawing from our environment
  • Change happens when you become more aware of who you are, rather than when you try to be someone or something else

To use Gestalt practically, a good starting point is to let go of any need you may have to achieve a solution for the client’s problem. Instead, encourage them to talk about their issue, and listen/ watch for emotional clues (for example, words that carry a lot of emotion, or tone of language, or even physical clues, such as muscle tension or whether the client appears to be shrinking or expanding in their presence).

Having identified that something is happening for them, stimulate their curiosity – I’ve noticed that… what do you think might be happening for you here? If there is a strong emotion, for example, you might invite them to contact with it by asking What would happen, if you allowed yourself to be even more angry? With the client’s permission, help them to experiment with feelings and situations so that they understand them better and also so that they understand themselves better.

This approach is quite opposite to simplistic models of coaching, such as GROW, which focus on defining what the client wants to achieve and working backwards to what they could do to make that happen. Instead, it focuses on establishing a much deeper level of awareness of, based on understanding of the questions Who am I? and Where am I? (Not Who or what do I want to become? or What do I want to achieve?) Change achieved in this way is much more sustainable and has much wider positive effects.

When should you use Gestalt approaches?

Gestalt works best when the client’s issues are relatively long-term, involve relationships and are complex. It can also be highly effective, when the client is stuck and needs to think creatively or to overcome constraints in their thinking. It’s not generally appropriate in situations, where a quick fix is required, or where the issue is well understood and the coaching conversation is mainly about the practicalities of how to marshal the necessary resources.

Further reading

John Leary-Joyce (2014) The Fertile Void: Gestalt Coaching at Work, AOEC Press, St Albans (e-book)

© David Clutterbuck. All rights reserved

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