Coaching Perceptual Patterns

by Herb Stevenson

Perceptual patterns are innate to all behavior and meaning making. Basically, we create a set of underlying principles of what has been successful during the course of our life. If being a bully has led to some form of success, it is reinforced and becomes a perceptual pattern that is not questioned even when contradictory data surfaces. Furthermore, the more stress that an executive faces, the more likely they are to regress to time-tested perceptual patterns, literally removing the capacity to distinguish the forest from the trees. Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe highlighted this process in their research on dysfunctional momentum ( Learning When to Stop Momentum, MITSloan Management Review, Spring, 2010, Vol. 51., No. 3.). In their research, they determined that "dysfunctional momentum occurs when people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or reexamine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course." (69) A patriarchal cliche' for this approach is "not stopping to check the map or ask for directions".

Core Concept

Gestalt Psychology underlies Gestalt theory. Perception and therefore awareness are critical components of Gestalt coaching theory. Basically, it is held that Gestalt Coaching changes perceptions and therefore what is possible by supporting awareness to emerge from the existing ground of possibilities and potential. Reality shifts by widening, deepening, and revealing new or alternative ways of thinking, perceiving, and therefore doing (driving and framing perceptions). According Laura Perls, " experiential and experimental." (Perls, 1992, 51)

Defining Gestalt

Oddly, the most difficult aspect of Gestalt Coaching theory has been to translate the word Gestalt from German to English as well as from the various theoretical uses in Gestalt psychology, Gestalt therapy, and Gestalt Coaching. Ehrenfels, who coined the word in the 1890s, simply referred to gestalt and form interchangeably. "He insisted that the real essence of any perception was to be found in the Gestalt...[in] the immediate experience...(Pillsbury, 1933, 484-5) Later the Gestalt School noted that "experience... [and therefore]... all truly characteristic phases or processes of mind were just these gestalten or forms." (Pillsbury, 1933, 485) Though this may seem like complex and potentially circular thinking, the gist of gestalt formation is that we make meaning when we create perceptions via our interaction with the outside world and when we engage memories that spontaneously look inward to reason or understand how the experience has impacted us. Hence, how we perceive and make meaning, individually and organizational, is endemic to who we are and what we are willing to do.

Where We Come From

The significance of gestalt formation is that prior knowledge greatly influences our current perception and memory...Therefore, when we remember something we are reconstructing our perceptions of the event. "All experience and learning that has been fully assimilated and integrated builds up a person's ...background...[This background] meaning to the emerging gestalten, and thus supports a certain way of living on the boundary with excitement. Whatever is not assimilated, either gets lost or remains a block in the ongoing development [or growth]." (Perls, 1992, 54)

Gestalt principles of perceptual organization inform us in how we form perceptions and therefore in how we make meaning based on our existing knowledge and way of making meaning from experience, unless we are able to witness our own process.

  1. The Principal of SimilarityThe Principle of Similarity suggests that items that are similar tend to be grouped together regardless of whether or not the similarity or relationship actually exists. In the image to the right, most people see vertical and/or columns of circles and squares. However, as in much of life, this basic principle is how we develop shortcuts that hide out of our awareness and can lead to misapplying past successful methods to the less applicable present situation. Without taking the time to determine if there is truly an identical trait instead of just a similarity, we lose much of our ability to truly discern what is perceptually occurring. Coaching is extremely relevant in uncovering such processes. Typically, this can be found when the perception of the client does not match the performance feedback and data from the organization

  2. The Principal of PragnanzThe Principle of Pragnanz (simplicity and conciseness) suggests that our sense of reality is organized to the simplest form possible by eliminating what is unfamiliar or does not seem to be useful. Hence, we filter a lot of data that could change how we experience and therefore perceive and make meaning. For example, in the figure to the right, we typically see a series of circles that some might say suggests the Olympic symbol, instead of the many geometric figures. This same process occurs in how we quickly make meaning from a quick glimpse, such as how racial profiling is confused with true investigative processes. Executive leaders fall prey to this patterning process when they sort through the data, unknowingly looking for prior established meaning making processes that filter out the differentiating factors. Wolfgang Schmidt fell prey to the process when he could not reconfigure how he perceived the success of Rubbermaid. It led to the demise and eventual sale of a staple company of products.

  3. The Principal of ProximityThe Principle of Proximity (contiguous) suggests that objects near each other tend to be grouped together whether in relationship or not. Hence, the solid circles to the right, tend to be grouped into two groups, one comprised of two vertical columns, and the other comprised of two horizontal rows, when in fact, we do not know the relationship unless we explore more data. A pertinent example of this is the impact of culture, race, and nationality in organizations. Clumped together without finding commonality or differentiation can lead to embarrassing assumptions. Similarly, executives that label teams often insure under performance.

  4. The Principal of ContinuityThe Principle of Continuity is at the heart of Barton and Sutcliffe's dysfunctional momentum. It indicates that we tend to develop lines of thought by following preconceived meaning making, such as agreed upon goals. A commonly known occurrence of this principle is when a client become highly rigid in "how things are to be done" without any consideration that the issue at hand might not apply. Another example is President George W. Bush pushed the US into Iraq when no data justifying an invasion existed. He took a path that did not provide any alternatives and more importantly did not acknowledge that his intent did not match the impact on the world's view of him and the United States of America. We became an imperialistic bully instead of a country attacked by terrorists in Afghanistan.

  5. The Principal of Closure

    The Principle of Closure suggests that objects grouped together are seen as a whole that might not exist. We fill in the gaps. For example, in the image to the right, there are no triangles or circles, yet our minds fill in the missing information to create familiar shapes and images. Television has portrayed this principle in numerous movies where someone has experienced a serious violation to their person. Unable to distinguish new situations that have no danger, only a similarity that someone is approaching, the person screams in total fear of attack. In Coaching, we find similar closures in how organizations respond to brand new situations and immediately respond as if it is identical to past experience; e.g. economic downturns, etc.

The value of these principles of gestalt perceptual patterns is that it conveys that we tend to take short cuts while using our historically familiar past and our desired future to frame our perceptions of what we are seeing and/or making meaning in any given moment. As a result, our generally unconscious use of the principles of perceptual organization (filtering) as part of our ongoing gestalt-formation (meaning making) will then likely be guided by our client's perceptual patterns. The question that becomes relevant for coaching —are the client's perceptions real or fixed gestalts? And, more importantly, what as coaches can we do to create awareness around perception formation.

Creating Awareness Around Patterns

When coaching most executives, I assume that there are several perceptual patterns that have driven their success. Many of you probably call them assumptions; however, I tend toward perceptual patterns as they tend to have a long history of supporting the client through the white waters of their career. Metaphorically, the pattern varies for each individual. For example, if we use white waters as the key meaning making container for the client, they might have a pattern of riding it out on an inflated inner tube or in a Kayak or on a raft with a team, and, on occasion, on their back, toes pointed up and down river without any life vest. Some avoid the metaphorical container by swimming ashore and walking along the banks or by having a helicopter swoop in to recover them. Each perceptual pattern tends to inform the coach how the client filters the way to address their daily challenges and what they will see as usable pseudo-facts.

To get a sense of these perceptual patterns, I often start the coaching process with the polarity of successes and failures. When I ask them to describe their successes, I will get a sense of how they filter their perceptions of what is success. Similarly, I get the same sense of how they form perceptual patterns of what they see as failure. I am never bored with their responses. At least half of the people have never had failures, only learning experiences. Others have vivid descriptions that suggest that the image is as fresh today as it was years ago when it occurred. Either way, the answers are clues for how the client frames the perceptions for each of these experiences. I often go one step further and ask how the successes and failures have served and dis-served them over time. This additional unraveling of their meaning making process tends to provide ample areas for revealing themes and patterns.


Slowing down the coaching process to determine perceptual patterns will provide insights into the repetitive and likely unconscious behavior of the client. Once these are revealed, many clients understand and start an immediate shift in behavior and relationships. Others can have an intellectual insight and no apparent capacity to actually change the pattern. In these latter cases, it is unlikely the client will be able to navigate the organization too much further as these patterns will preempt their success. In many cases, the individual realize the implications and begin a transition to another position, internally or externallly.

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