A Gestalt Case Study

A Gestalt Team Intervention

by Herb Stevenson

Background to the Initial Meetings

As part of the field project, a team of four consultants met for two days with organizational officers, directors, key staff persons, and a sampling of clients and service-users. The focus of the meeting was to assist the organization in the next step of its visioning process. Prior to this two-day meeting, a one-day retreat with an OD consultant had been held, where a one-page visioning statement had been prepared. Besides this visioning statement, the team had been provided various internal documents, including marketing brochures and strategic plans.

The two days of meetings included 10 hours of team preparation and six hours of assessment and interaction with the client. The first day included five hours for team review of the provided written materials and determining how to enter the organization, a one-hour meeting with the President/CEO and Vice President of Operations, followed by a two-hour meeting with managers, staff, and local citizens using the organization's facilities. The second day involved five hours reviewing the prior day, developing themes, and determining how to manage the meeting with the organization, and a three-hour meeting of managers and three external Board members to discuss the findings and to further the dialogue.

Team and Assignment

The team included three Caucasians (two female and one male) and one Native American male. No other races were represented on the team, although the client was an African-American organization predominantly serving an African American community. The team ranged in age from 48 to 62, and had approximately 100 years of consulting experience between them.

The team's assignment was to meet with the client and to employ Gestalt techniques, referred to by some as the Gestalt Consulting Stance.

Day One Preliminaries

The first day of consulting opened with a five-hour team assessment of the written materials to determine the current reality, or the organizational "what is." For the first hour, team members reviewed the written materials (active, directed awareness). During the second hour, team members noted what stood out (was figural) for them in the materials (open, undirected awareness). Some issues discovered from the materials that were figural for the group follow.

» The organization was founded in 1907 as a settlement or transition house for Hungarian and Slavic immigrant women. Mrs. X had provided sewing classes to help the women find jobs and move into the mainstream of the local society. Individual training continued until 1930, when the house broadened its scope and actively sought to "foster community pride and identity and assist the community in collectively resolving their own problems." Presently, however, the organization no longer serves the Hungarian/Slavic population, nor are its services limited to sewing classes. Gaps in the organizational history are therefore apparent concerning the effects of socioeconomic changes within the local service. For example, the local community population is now predominantly African-American. The organization provides or anchors services ranging from day-care for children to senior-citizen care. Today, it operates 15 social service programs, serving approximately 3,600 people.

» The organization's service area includes the districts known as Buckeye-Shaker, Mount Pleasant, and Woodland Hills. Together, these areas represent approximately 10% of the population of Cleveland, Ohio. All three communities have high poverty rates: In Buckeye-Shaker, 23% of the population is below the poverty line (nearly 4,000 people); in Mount Pleasant, 31% of the population is below the poverty line (approximately 7,750 people); and in Woodland Hills, 44% of the population is below the poverty line (approximately 5,500 people). The high rates of poverty correspond with other depressed demographic variables, such as low level of education and high number of single parent households. The region is also home to 150 churches, however. The mission of the client organization is stated as "Enhancing the quality of life for families and individuals and to develop the full potential of those served."

» The services offered by the organization include a Senior Center, a Foster Grandparent Program, a Child Day Care/Head Start program, piano classes, computer classes and computer lab, a Rites of Passage program, a Healthy Family/Healthy Start program, adult employment services, senior employment services, an Alcoholics Anonymous support group, and personal development and transitional programming at a medium security correctional institution.

» None of the materials made reference to the Board members as individuals; hence, no names, background information (e.g., education), or biographies were included. Providing names and biographies is a common organizational strategy, however, both as a way to credit individuals for their service and as a relational or associative marketing tool. The Board is referenced once as a group in the strategic plan as a source for increasing the external funding for the organization, yet no other information is provided that indicates if any increased funding took place or how it was to managed.

» CEO succession is briefly discussed in the strategic plan. No information concerning the progress of this succession or the actual dates of the transition was discovered.

» The organization has developed programs on "rites of passage" for children. Notably, although not clearly stated, these programs appear to be for boys only; there is no mention of similar programs for girls.

» The materials indicate that the organization is dependent upon government funding, even though it is seeking to reduce this dependence by seeking more foundation funds and by establishing an endowment trust fund that would ensure long- term solvency.

» The vision statement for 2005 is a very traditional list of how the organization hopes to be different, or what it hopes to become, by 2005. The statement appears more like a wish list than a viable affirmation of goals.

» None of the agency's materials indicated that the organization was an African-American social service agency, even though this was apparent from the included photographs of the building environs and those of staff and community.

Developing Common Ground

After agreeing on possible issues to explore with the client, the team refocused onto how to approach the first day of meetings. Members addressed what they wanted and what each felt the team needed. This Gestalt technique is used to build a common ground and understanding between each member of the team. Examples of wants and needs statements follow.

"I Want" Statements

"We Need" Statements

Entry Strategies: Focusing on "What Is"

For the remainder of the first day, the team focused on strategies for entering the client's environment. We decided to open with a discussion of "what is," enabling the team to focus on what we knew about ourselves and about the client. Topics that surfaced included the following:


The client was located in a predominantly black neighborhood. Based on pictures in the materials provided, two members of the Board are white while the remaining Board and staff are people of color. Most likely, our team would be perceived as all white. The team posed these questions regarding the topic: _ Do we somehow introduce race and ethnicity issues at the beginning of our meeting so that this tension is surfaced and named? _ Do we overtly note that one team member is Native American so as to clarify racial identities? _ Should the Native American member explain his long hair as a physical demonstration of his heritage, race, or ethnicity in order to mitigate lingering social stereotypes related to male long hair, such as "hippy," "drug-user," "mid-life crisis," and so forth?

Defining Who the Client Is

Our client was the CEO, who was seeking help to further the development of the visioning statement initiated with a consultant two weeks prior to our meeting. The CEO is a Kellogg fellow with an international reputation for innovative programming for African-American youth, especially the Rites of Passage Program. The team considered how to approach the next steps in creating the organizational vision through encouraging the CEO to elaborate wants and needs for himself and for the organization, and/or sharing our views of the visioning process as a means to build common ground.

The team decided not to structure the entry (initial meeting), but to experiment with determining "what is" as this occurred during the meeting itself. The team agreed that each member would briefly introduce himself or herself, as he or she saw appropriate. Nothing would be specifically stated about race unless it developed within the meeting.1


The team drove to the client organization and arrived nearly 30 minutes early, leaving time to thoughtfully observe the organization's external and internal environments. The two males walked around the facility to get a feel for the neighborhood in which the agency was located, as well as for how the facility meshed with other structures.

The neighborhood was quite old and run-down. Most buildings and homes appeared to be of turn-of-the-century construction, with some actually over a century old. According to historical information provided by the client, the houses had been the summer homes of many wealthy families in the early 1900s. Subsequently, as the suburbs developed, "white flight" took hold and the wealthier people left the area while over time, low to moderate income people moved in. (The path of this flight is easily visible: approximately one mile up the street, a wall of apartment buildings act as a buffer between the blighted area surrounding the client organization and the wealthy sections of Shaker Heights.) Within one block of the client organization, many of the buildings are vacant or in the process of being torn down; most windows in the surrounding buildings are barred or covered with wood or steel mesh. Less than a mile away to the north are abandoned industrial sites that pose environmental threats, and less than a mile to the east stands a closed hospital that is being negotiated over either for alternative uses or to be razed.

The client structure itself is divided between the original house built at the turn of the century; a major structural addition, apparently built five or more decades ago, that doubled building space; and a new section, perhaps less than ten years old, that is capped with a large pyramid-shaped roof. The entire facility is surrounded with tall steel-bar fences, and security cameras scan the parking spaces beside the building and the main doors. All doors are locked twenty-four hours a day.

Like the exterior, the interior of the building was a mix of old and new: the front one-third of the structure is the wood house built over a century ago, the middle third is a concrete block addition built about fifty years ago, and the remaining third is relatively new and in a modern style. Throughout the interior, African cultural artifacts (e.g., masks and spears), photographs, and posters adorned the walls and filled the book cases.

Officers Meeting

The team met with the President/CEO and the Vice President of Operations. After the initial cordialities, the group sat together at the Board table. The room was filled with tribal art from different African countries. When this was mentioned, the CEO indicated that he had traveled extensively as part of the Rites of Passage program, and much of the art and photographs related to that program.

Each team member introduced himself/herself by name and gave a brief biography of pertinent background information. Contrary to our original team discussions about not entering with race/ethnicity issues, I chose to include my Native American heritage as a means of associating with the tribal interests of the CEO. My action in turn led the other three members to state their heritage and to mention any experience they had related to diversity work.2

We began a dialogue rooted in the possible topics identified earlier through the print materials. The CEO and Vice President were asked to tell the East End story. The CEO noted that East End had grown significantly over the 20 years that he has been chief executive officer. The Vice President has been the operating officer who implemented each of the programs as they were designed and developed. Several service programs, such as Rites of Passage, Adult Development, and Healthy Family/Healthy Start, were described as examples of East End's efforts to meet the needs of the local community. Throughout their description of services, both officers frequently alluded to the underlying values that seemed to drive the programs, i.e., values related to a family or tribal commitment to taking care of community members from cradle to grave.3 I asked for verification of this projection by citing references to storytelling, managing life cycles, placing African artifacts throughout the building, and so on. Both officers immediately concurred that indeed, the underlying purpose and driving force (spirit) of the organization were related to such values.

The team sought to refine this insight into a clearer picture of the East End neighborhood house. Would it be more accurate to say, we asked, that East End was not only a social services provider, but also a cultural services provider? Again, both officers agreed: including cultural services would render a more accurate description of the organization's function. The officers were asked why none of the cultural aspects of organizational services had been included in the printed materials. Neither had an answer about the editorial lapse, but both remarked that the values were simply understood by everyone; instead of talking about them, people lived them. Nevertheless, both officers were asked to reflect on the impact of excluding these cultural values from printed materials about the agency.4

Discussion then shifted to some of the issues the team had cited from the printed material, and the CEO briefly addressed each of these issues.

Succession. The CEO hoped to continue until 2007, the centennial anniversary of the organization. He noted his awareness that his personal life was mirroring the succession issue in the organization. Through the recent loss of his father, he had been forced into being more of an elder for his own family; he saw a similar situation at the organization in terms of moving into more of an advisory position (this advisory role could be a formal transition, wherein he becomes Chair of the Board and relinquishes the operating title(s) of President and/or CEO prior to 2007).

An inquiry into the status of the succession plans for the Vice President of Operations occasioned some tense moments between the CEO and Vice President, as evidenced by the visible discomfort of both. The Vice President was retiring at the end of this year, although the CEO did not want her to. Both officers noted that because of the tension surrounding this issue, they had agreed not to discuss it.

Stable Funding Source. As a social services agency, the organization depends heavily on government funding. Both officers noted that this dependence created instability for the agency. With a continued trend of less and less government funding available, each budget cut threatened a reduction of services to the local community; at the same time, new welfare reduction policies created greater reliance on the organization for supportive services. The CEO noted that he hoped to find private funding to form an endowment that will ensure long-term solvency.

Partnerships. Although some past partnerships had been troubled, the organization continued to seek out alliances with different groups in hopes of increasing the effectiveness and impact of available money. The CEO noted a history of partnering, such as with the Music Settlement House, along with an even more intense interest in such resource leveraging to ensure a more stable financial future.

The meeting ended after approximately one hour. The team was briefly shown around the building before moving to another room and the next meeting.

Staff and Client Meeting

The team met in another room with the program managers, a few staff members, a few volunteers, and a couple of people who used the different services. Unlike at the prior meeting, here it was clear that at least three of the four members of the team were white while the remaining twenty-plus people in the room were African-American. Hence, in their introductions, the team gave brief biographies that stated the obvious about race and added some ethnic history to "flesh out" where we came from and who we were.5

We explained that we were gathering information concerning the agency in order to assist in developing a long-term vision for the future. The program managers brought up funding needs for "more books for the children," "more space to enable more people to be served," "more senior citizen services, such as meals," and "more day care services, such as a 24-hour service instead of the present 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m." The managers explained that an expanding population and increasing cuts in government assistance required that they provide more services now. To ensure that this group knew we were listening, we took turns restating to the group what we were hearing, and the group confirmed or corrected accordingly.

The managers were proud of the quality of service provided. They noted, for example, that their day care center is licensed and accredited by the state, and in a recent audit, no citations were issued concerning deficiencies. The voice tones and body language of the speakers demonstrated that the audit report findings were a source of great pride for the group. To model present-centeredness, each team member acknowledged the importance of this accomplishment to the group and to the day care center managers. To further recognize the impact of the information and of the group's way of expressing itself, team members reported how the information affected them emotionally, physically, and/or mentally; for example, one of the team members touched her heart with her hand and stated that the sense of accomplishment had touched her deeply.

We asked the people who used the services what they thought about client organization. Some common terms used among the several comments made included "like family," "friendly," and "supportive." One of the children in attendance who participates in the Rites of Passage program was asked if he could say why he likes it. He replied that "it teaches how to get along with other people and how to live a good life." His mother chimed in, telling him to share a few of the principles learned in the program. He repeated the seven principles of Kwanza: (1) Umoja (Unity), a commitment to the practice of togetherness both within the family and in our communities; (2) Kujichagulia (self- determination), the interest in developing and patterning our lives and images after ourselves instead of having it done for us; (3) Ujjima (collective work and responsibility), working together on matters of common interest; (4) Ujamaa (cooperative economics), the habit of sharing our wealth and resources; (5) Nia (purpose), building and developing our national community; (6) Kuumba (creativity), to inspire ourselves to keep on in our work and industrial pursuits; and (7) Imani (faith), believing in ourselves as a people. All in attendance smiled, and I thanked the young man for helping me to understand the program.

We asked the group if they felt that the organization was more than a social service agency, whether it was in reality both a cultural and a social service agency. The staff and clients all agreed that the organization provided cultural services, and that the people in the agency teach and live family and community values.

The meeting ended at about 5:00 p.m. After thanking the people for attending the meeting, the team returned to the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland to debrief.

Debriefing of the First Day

Team members agreed it had been an exciting and productive day. I admitted the error in my morning decision concerning not going in with the intent to state the obvious about racial differences; in the second meeting, however, I saw how important it was to state the obvious so that the work could be done. Others in the team observed that the discovery of family and community values as a different lens through which to look at the client had seemed to reverberate with the every person in the agency. We agreed that this factor would become a centerpiece for our recommendations when the team returned the next day to meet with the officers and the directors. However, the parallel processes between the executive officers of the client and our team were never mentioned as a possible point of discussion or as a source for possible interventions.

Day Two Preliminaries

The second day included a five-hour planning period during which the team worked under faculty supervision to sharpen the issue content that should be addressed in the afternoon. A three- hour meeting was scheduled for the afternoon with the Board of Directors and officers to discuss findings from the prior day. The team identified (1) themes that surfaced the prior day, (2) polarities that needed to be explored, (3) tensions that seemed to exist within the client's system, and (4) any areas of confusion that seemed to exist in the client's system or amongst our own (team) system.

The team agreed that the primary theme that aroused the most energy for the client was the inclusion of values and culture into the vision, marketing, and operation of the agency. We decided this issue should be further developed with the officers and with the addition of a few Board members.

The team discussed potential polarities of issues that might be explored to surface tacit or obscured topics within the client system. The strongest polarity was the "either/or" perception of including cultural values. We noted that team members should pay attention to "what is" as well as to "what is not" within the client system. Additional area posted for observation was how the client addressed issues of "who are we" versus "what we do," and "how we are" versus "what we say."

The team agreed that the most tension and/or confusion in the client system appeared to revolve around executive succession, both for the Vice President of Operations in the near term and for the President/CEO in the longer term. This tension came to the foreground most clearly when the Vice President insisted she was retiring and the CEO dismissed her remarks or changed the subject altogether. Furthermore, we were unclear about how involved the Board was in the agency and in the succession process for either officer. Both areas, we agreed, would be brought back into the dialogue to gather further data on the internal processes that might be causing tensions between the executive officers over succession and confusion concerning the amount of Board involvement.

Day Two Meetings

The team met with the officers and several members of the Board of Directors. Similar initial introductions were given with the exception of acknowledgment around racial identities, that is, that the client system was 100% African-American, and the consulting team included three Caucasians and one light-skinned Native American. As team members completed their introductions and outlined their hopes for what would result from these meetings, one team member spoke the "unsaid obvious," that she was "lily white." Speaking this truth shifted the mood of the room; as if a tension had been relieved, the officers and directors of the client organization and the team members as well all seemed to relax in their chairs.

Key Themes

The team reviewed key themes related to including cultural values into the agency's vision, mission statement, and marketing materials. The Board responded with total agreement that cultural teachings were a critical part of the functioning of the agency, but that, like the officers, it had never occurred to them that the agency could overtly incorporate these cultural values into all aspects of organizational identity and operations. The directors and officers indicated that no past consultant had suggested such an incorporation. The team asked the officers and directors to consider a different perspective on the issue: Why had none of the directors or officers suggested it? The group became quiet, then some remarked that since most of the funding came from white sources, they had assumed the agency would not get funding if an African-American cultural heritage were highlighted. We proposed that the range of expression between perceived black radicalism and white racism was sufficiently wide to find effective ways to integrate the organization's cultural heritage into their vision, mission, operations, and promotions. In other words, the entwined issues of cultural identity and secure funding might best be looked at not as a problem to be solved, where a correct "either/or" solution would override one need in favor of the other, but rather as a polarity to be managed, where both poles—identity and funding security—could be true at different times, a "both/and" situation. The directors and officers acknowledged that the possibility of this approach, and committed themselves to developing greater inclusion in the vision, mission statement, operational strategies, and marketing materials.


The team noted that executive succession appeared to be a point of contention between the CEO and the Vice President of Operations, and that a minimum, some tension around the issue existed within the organization at large. The officers and directors stated that the succession issue was being handled by the President/CEO and Vice President with Board support, and the matter was dropped. When the team revisited it twice more during the meeting, the directors and officers moved to other topics. When the team pointed out this behavior, the group acknowledged it but moved again to another topic. The team let go of the issue.

Board Fund Raising

The team noted that the agency's strategic plan referred to the Board as a source of fund-raising, yet no record of any such actions could be found. Moreover, the Board of Directors was not visibly included in the marketing strategies of the organization, even though in most corporate promotions, the Board is typically cited both in recognition of fund-raising efforts and to bring prestige and visibility to the organization.

The Board acknowledged that little was being done to actively raise funds. They reported that Board fund-raising had not been a realistic goal, and suggested this function be removed from the strategic plan. The team rephrased the issue for clarity, asking if "Board members were too busy with employment and other volunteer work to solicit funds from the community." This perception was agreed to by all members. The team then increased the tension by adding that the "Board is too busy to tell the agency story that might bring in clients and funding sources." The Board hedged; they insisted that interpretation was not true, but that they would re-examine the issue. In particular, they would examine what the Board could realistically do to support the agency by telling its story to more people.

Board Publicity

The Board asserted that culturally, the tendency in the African-American community was to avoid becoming too public with one's "activities," so that Board projects were rarely publicized. Nevertheless, when the team explained the value to the agency of visibly including the Board in its materials and promotions, the Board agreed to re-examine the unwritten cultural rule against self-exposure or self-promotion.


Following the second day of meetings, the team met to debrief the experience. The debriefing involved what the team had learned about itself as well as about the application of Gestalt theory to organizational interventions.

Team Learning

Members of the team discussed what they had learned about themselves as individuals and about working as a team member. Their discoveries involved primarily the effects of individualistic motivations and styles within the context of team functioning. We concurred that as consultants in the habit of working as individuals or as being team leaders, working as a team was difficult; the focus shifts significantly when "The Team" becomes the overriding lens through which to perceive and structure the work.

Sub-optimization. Team members agreed that personal needs to "look good" or to individually provide "the best intervention" tend to decrease the team's overall effectiveness. In other words, each individual must at some time sub-optimize to maintain the team's integrity as a team and to ensure the quality of the team's work; where individuals will not sub-optimize, the team's work will be sub-optimized. The preferment of the individual over the group occurred frequently through competition for "face- time." Even though we observed that the white male had made more interventions, had "cut across" the other members, and had attempted to dominate discussions, he justified his behavior with judgments about the quality of the others' interventions. Confronted on these actions, he saw nothing wrong with his behavior except to concede that if he had sub-optimized, perhaps the team might have been more effective.

Competition. Competition between team members becomes destructive when it leads to conflict over whose figure will become uppermost for work with the client. Focusing on single figures promoted by individual members stymies the team's movement to a higher level of system, i.e., asking how these competing figures found within the client system create discord and destructive energies. When the white male was confronted by the Native American male for cutting across almost every statement made during the day, the white male initially remarked that the Native American had "talked too much." When the team pointed out that the white male had made more than twice the interventions of the Native American male, the white male allowed that he might have been too competitive, a trait he admitted did not serve him well.

Application of Gestalt to Choice of Intervention

The team discussed applications of Gestalt theory derived from their experience of the two days of meetings. The team recognized that Gestalt techniques provided new or different ways of looking at situations that are not typically available to client systems. This new "set of eyes" provided insights directly to the client organization about itself. Simply stating the obvious, for example, became a powerful intervention tool. The experience had also made it clear that tracking themes is an invaluable tool, helping to pinpoint important issues and identify any areas of contention. Even if no action but sheer acknowledgment is undertaken, calling the forms of resistance into awareness—naming the sources of and behaviors surrounding resistance—not only within the client system but within the team as well, proved critical to successful interventions. Often acknowledgment enabled a rewarding insight from client or team to surface.

The value of a team approach, when the team is unified and working cohesively with the same intent and the same figures, was self-evident. Although the team experienced dissension, when the members let go of "being right" or of the need to "fix a problem" or "fix the client," they were free to observe and describe the client's "what is." Knowing "what is" is a powerful discovery for the client, and being able to state the"what is" itself structures a unit of work. Furthermore, the search for "what is" led to scanning at different levels of system, which thereby created a broader and deeper perspective of the dynamics at play for any issue within the client system.

After Thoughts

Reflecting upon the experience, I was most struck by the obvious parallel process that was occurring between the CEO and myself, and between team members. At the time of the project, I was not accustomed to actively claiming in public, among unfamiliar people, my Native American heritage or those practices that were very much a part of my life. My internal experience of doing so mirrored the CEO's dilemmas about how to appropriately and effectively present the agency's strong African-American cultural heritage in the external environment. Had I been more aware of my internal process, and more clear in my racial and ethnic identity, this parallel process might have become more figural and offered a different way for the team to intervene.

The parallel process that surfaced between team members extended over several areas, but power dynamics were not discussed within the team, including how white and/or male privilege might play out in the group. Two of the consultants were skilled in diversity training, and the other two were well enough versed in the area to know that these dynamics were occurring. These silent power mirrored the power dynamic between the Board, CEO, and Vice President where male privilege seemed to be occurring and no one was willing to name it.

At a group level, another parallel process was the consulting teams initial unwillingness to deal with race issues directly with the client...outsiders. The same process was occurring with the client organization. This indicates that inability to easily and/or openly discuss race outside the confines of the self- contained groups was being mirrored at the individual level, as noted in a prior paragraph, and at the group level of system.

The experience made it clear to be mindful of team dynamics and to remain enough of an observer to constantly see if the team is mirroring the client team through a parallel process.


1At this time, even though the team was aware of parallel processes, we were not thinking about this phenomenon as applicable.

2 Candidly, my action momentarily jarred team expectations and strategic coherence. An alternative approach would have been to discuss this change in agreed-upon strategy with the team (as an intervention with the executive officers) instead of directly and individually intervening with the CEO without such collaboration. Discussing my choice beforehand would have modeled collaborative behavior, staying present-centered, and selectively reporting my awareness in the moment.

3At this time, it became clear that a parallel process might be occurring between myself and the CEO, and between our team and the executive officers. However, unable to overcome internal inhibitions, I withheld expression of this possibility.

4The parallel process with the CEO and myself involved not publicly claiming race and heritage, even though it was obvious in both instances. The parallel process between the two officers and the team concerns the inability to function as a team instead of as a group of individuals.

5Our prior discussions with the executive officers had made it clear that our ethnic backgrounds were as important as our race in terms of defining ourselves to the group.

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