The Creation of Self and Other: Parallel Processes in Organizational Situations

©Herb Stevenson
31 July 2002
Submitted to JABS May, 2009
Revised: May 12, 2010

This article reviews gestalt theory, field theory and the application of parallel processes to organizational situations. Viewing field theory as a literal phenomenon, wherein a field or energetic mass surrounds the individual, dyad, group or organization, parallel processes become an awareness tool for diagnosing the dynamics of any situation within the organization. The brief description of gestalt theory and holism, moves into field theory and the five principles of field theory developed by Lewin. Similar concepts developed by Perls and others are further integrated. The descriptions of these theoretical concepts set the ground for discussing field creation, co-creating realities, and parallel processes.

The article shifts briefly to projective identification, from psychoanalytic theory, to deepen the understanding of parallel processes. Key concepts of field theory, projective identification, and parallel processes and their application to different organizational situations are related to the key concepts of use-of-self, presence, present-centeredness, and focusing on “what is” in the “here and now” from Gestalt theory.


The article reviews gestalt and field theory and the application of parallel processes to organizational situations. Viewing field theory as a literal phenomenon, wherein a field or energetic mass surrounds the individual, dyad, group or organization, parallel processes become an awareness tool for diagnosing the dynamics of any situation within the organization. The article begins with a brief description of gestalt theory, including the holism, and moves into field theory as part of the evolution of gestalt theory. Using the five principles of field theory developed by Lewin, the principles are integrated with similar concepts develops by Perls and others. The development of these theoretical concepts set the ground for discussing field creation, co-creating realities, and parallel processes.

The article shifts briefly to projective identification in psychoanalysis to deepen the understanding of parallel processes. Projective identification tends to be an unconscious transference and counter-transference, an exchange of alienated parts or unclaimed roles of the self. Parallel process suggests that behavioral exchanges similar to projective identification will be acted out between the client and consultant, but not necessarily parallel in linear time as in the case of acting like the client team prior to meeting with the client. The article reviews some key concepts of field theory, projective identification, and parallel processes and their application to different organizational situations. Key concepts for gestaltists are use-of-self, presence, present- centeredness, and focusing on “what is” in the “here and now”.

Gestalt Background

At the heart of all Gestalt theory is a predisposition towards examining “how” we perceive the world. By examining how we perceive the world, we expand our capacity to more fully understand life’s day to day challenges, business decisions, etc. and how to address them in a more effective way. Hence, Gestalt focuses on the immediate present moment of our perceptions while trying to minimize preconceived notions and habitual ways of perceiving and thinking. As such, personal and professional awareness are considered core competencies for consultants/coaches and executives under Gestalt theory. The German word Gestalt, in its most basic terms, means the pattern, the whole, the configuration, the constellation. As a theory, it is most known for its holistic approach which connotes that the structure of psychological processes is both different from and much more than the sum of its parts. In psychological terms, the aim of the Gestalt approach is discover, explore and/or experience his or her own shape, pattern and wholeness, such that the integration of all alienated or disparate parts can occur. As a theory, “Gestalt views the central human activity as people’s need to give meaning to their perceptions, their experience, and their existence.” (Clarkson, 2000, pp. 1, 5)

The Gestalt approach is deeply ingrained with existentialism and phenomenology. From an existentialist perspective, “each of us is choosing what we accept, reject, think, feel, or how we behave” (Clarkson, 2000, p. 14) According to Perls, “awareness of and responsibility for the total field, for the self as well as the other, [are what] give meaning and patterns to the individual’s life.” (Perls, 1976, p. 49) Phenomenology searches for the truth through concentrating on immediate experience without assumptions or presuppositions. “Perls called Gestalt the therapy of the ‘obvious’. Description is considered more important than interpretation. Clients are [supported] to find their own meaning through this process.” (Clarkson, 2000, p. 15)


Smuts (1926) developed the term “holism” to reflect “the process of creative synthesis” (p.87) that permeates the evolutionary tendency of the universe in all of its forms of existence. In Smuts view, the “synthesis affects and determines the parts, so that they function towards the whole; and the whole and the parts therefore reciprocally influence and determine each other, and appear more or less to merge their individual characters: the whole is in the parts and the parts are in the whole, and this synthesis of whole and parts is reflected in the holistic character of the functions of the parts as well as of the whole.” (P. 8)

Perls attempted to apply this concept to psychological processes through the “insight that the whole determines the parts, which contrasts with the previous assumption that the whole is merely the sum of its elements.” (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1971, p. xi; Perls, 1969, p. 27) However, he missed the reciprocity of Smuts creative synthesis, wherein the evolutionary process of the whole and parts “reciprocally influence and determine each other” (Smuts, 1926, p. 86). In dynamic terms, this meant that the individual is more than the sum of his or her experiences, as would an organization be more than the sum of the individuals within it. More important, the field or evolutionary process that creates an entity as an individual or as an organization determines the parts that are included in the entity as well as the whole that is created. Hence there is a reciprocal and deterministic relationship between the whole and the parts. “And Holism is the inner driving force behind that progress.” (Smuts, 1926, p. 99)

In recent times, Arthur Koestler ((1978) expanded the concept of the evolutionary process by noting that holism includes a natural order of hierarchy, which he calls Holarchy (p. 34) . Holarchy create the naturally forming order or structure of evolution. He refers to these as “holons”. In basic terms, a holon is a stable, integrated structure, equipped with self regulatory devises while enjoying a considerable degree of autonomy or self government... which manifest both the independent properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts....[We] may call it the Janus Principle...[or, if you prefer], Janus faced. The face turned upward, towards higher levels, is that of dependent part; the face turned downward, towards it own constituents, is that of a whole of remarkable self- sufficiency... In social hierarchies, it is self-evident: every social holon—individual, family, clan, tribe, nation, etc.—is a coherent whole relative to its constituent parts, yet at the same time part of a social entity. ... (p. 27; 34).1

For example, a letter joined with other letters form a word, a word joined with other words, become a sentence, etc. Each level of formation consists of whole/parts. Similarly, when we look at an individual, group, or organization, we see a holon (whole/part) comprised of other holons (whole/parts). In short, the holistic approach used in Gestalt interventions is based on the belief that an evolutionary process capturing the past, present and future of the person dictates that one is more than the sum of his or her parts. As such, “by keeping an eye on the context or field or whole in which a phenomenon is embedded, we avoid many misunderstandings...” (Perls, 1969, p. 29) The importance of this concept deepens when we realize that when intervening, the Gestaltist is a holon (whole/part) joining with the client, another holon, to create a dyad that is reciprocally influencing and determining each other such that the dyad is more than the sum of the parts of the two persons (holons). The particular dyad and the two individuals influence and determine who is included. Hence, the intervener needs to maintain awareness of the reciprocating influence and determination of the self, the client, and the dyadic holon that is formed.

Complexity As Structure and Function

To understand the complexity inherent in holism, we can look to Billow (2000) in describing the psychological meaning making processes. He describes the functional psychodynamic of holism by referring to the underlying dynamics as multilevel nestings, where each level functions as contained and container (similar to Wilber’s whole/parts and Koestler’s Janus Face). “The container at one level of symbolic formation serves as the contained at another. [For example] on one level the structure of the thought, the symbol itself, serves as the object or container; the individual’s unformulated ideas and emotions are the contained. On the level of the self, the individual serves as the container of the symbols, which become the contained. On the interpersonal level, the pair and group serve as container, while public expressions of the individual—symbols, emotions, thoughts, self- presentation, and action—are the contained. The nesting process is a developmental achievement. Until the nesting process is intact, the process of meaning-making remains incomplete...”(Billow, 2000, p. 246)

Field Theory

It appears that J. C. Smuts laid the original foundation for field theory2, and that Gestalt theory was influenced by the application of field theory to psychology by Kurt Lewin. According to Lewin, “all behavior (including action, thinking, wishing, striving, valuing, achieving, etc.) is conceived of as a change of some state of field.” ( Lewin, 1951, p. xi)) This field was the “life space” of the individual, group, or organization. In these terms, “life space consists of the person and the psychological environment as it exists for him or her...The life space of a group...consists of the group and its environment as it exists for the group” (Lewin, 1951, p. xi) Hence, while Perls looked to the relationship between the whole and the parts to understand psychological dynamics, Lewin looked to what he described as the “life space” of each situation. It appears that both tried to describe the processes that were occurring to create meaning3 . This can be seen in Lewin’s five 3 principles of field theory. These principles act as meta-rules that support how to try to decipher the dynamics of each “life space”. Specifically, Lewin noted that “field theory is probably best characterized as a method...of analyzing causal relations [that] can be expressed in the form of certain general statements about the ‘nature’ of the conditions of change.” (Lewin, 1951, p. 45) To frame these conditions of change, Lewin developed five principles of field theory—the principles of (1) organization, (2) contemporaneity, (3) singularity, (4) changing process, and (5) possible relevance.

Principle of Organization

“Whether or not a certain type of behavior occurs depends not on the presence or absence of one fact or of a number of facts as viewed in isolation but upon the constellation (structure and forces) of the specific field as a whole. The ‘meaning’ of the single fact depends upon its position in the field; or, to say the same in more dynamic terms, the different parts of a field are mutually interdependent.” (Lewin, 1951, p. 149-150) Hence, meaning comes from looking at the total situation, the totality of the interdependent and/or coexisting facts. (Parlett, 1991, p. 71) If applied to the gestalt predisposition toward the phenomenologically descriptive instead of prescriptive reporting of the consultant, this principle would apply to figure formation and the process of allowing “what is” to emerge within the meaning-making “life-space”. It is supporting the holistic concept of holons and their reciprocally influencing roles that is unique to each holon as well as simultaneously encapsulating Billow’s nesting process.

Principle of Contemporaneity

“Any behavior or any other change in a psychological field depends only upon the psychological field at that time.” (Lewin, 1951, p. 45) This field “includes the ‘psychological past,’ ‘psychological present,’ and ‘psychological future’ which constitutes one of the dimensions of the life space existing at a give time” (Lewin, 1951, p. 27) Hence, the character of the situation at a given time may include the past as remembered now or the future as anticipated now, which will form part of the person’s experiential field in the present. In other words, nothing exists beyond the here and now. (Parlett, 1991, p. 71)

The principle of contemporaneity is consistent with being “present centered”. (Perls, 1992; Perls Hefferline, & Goodman, 1971) The focus on present-centered- ness is founded on the recognition that all life exists in the moment, here and now. For example, memories are relived in the moment and therefore are better served if the fullness of the memory is experienced in the moment versus in the mind like an old tale told over and over. (Latner, 1992. p. 16; Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, 1994, p. 281)4.

“A present-centered approach raises different questions: How? What? What is this? What is the experience of this? Of what does this consist? How is this for me? How is this organized? (Latner, 1992. pp. 16). The power of the present- centeredness can be clarified by examining one of the sources of the concept. In Buddhist traditions, this present-centeredness was known as bare attention. Bare attention is concerned only with the present. By living with full awareness in the “here and now”, we are able to maintain a post of observation as the quiet witness In Lewin’s terms, witnessing would be the equivalent of action research where the individual consultant would attend to first, second, or third person action research. In Gestalt OD, it would be attending to the various levels of system. of our experience of our self and of our client. (Nayapnika Thera, 1962, p. 41) If we move out of the here and now, we tend to project our past or anticipate some future. Because it is not present-centered, it is an “illusion [that] ensnares us in its recurrence.” (Naranjo, 1993, p. 22-23.) This illusion is created by the nanosecond response that short-circuits a present-centered experience and replaces it with preconceived perceptions from the past or about the future, thereby overlaying a self-created reality versus the reality of “what is” actually happening.

Moreover, a subtle yet powerful aspect of bare attention is being witness for the client. As we are focused on the “here and now”, we become witness to the client, or more appropriately, we witness the fullness of the client and our self. “The presence of a witness usually entails an enhancement both of attention and of the meaningfulness of that which is observed....The more aware an observer is, the more our own attention is sharpened by [the] mere presence, as if consciousness were contagious....” (Naranjo, 1970, p. 55) It is as if awareness for both the witness and the witnessed is deepened , such that the pool for making meaning is deeper, richer, and more contactful intrapersonally, interpersonally, and as a dyad5.

For example, there are multiple levels or capacities of witnessing. On the one hand, it is believed by many in the therapeutic as well as consulting communities that one cannot lead a client to a discovery that one has not personally experienced and sufficiently hold (contain) the discovery so that the client can unfold and embrace it6. At best, the experience is like getting a brief glimpse of the new awareness similar to waking from a vanishing dream. On the other hand, if the consultant has done indepth personal and professional development from which to create the container in which the client is supported to explore the emerging figure, thoughts, words, and feelings begin to coagulate into something meaningful (holon formation). A new thought solidifies meaning into a higher level awareness. Witnessing the client, without valenced judgement or various forms of preconceived notions, creates the container that invokes the nesting process leading to the discovery. (More will be said about this process in the case study in the later pages.)

The Principle of Singularity

According to Lewin, to generalize is to risk not seeing “what is” in the moment. Each moment is unique. Each construction of meaning is unique, even when it contains influences from the past, present, and future. Each person and their situation is unique. Moreover, generalizations can lead to finding exactly what one is looking for (Parlett, 1991, p. 72) instead of what is evolving from the depths of the ground within the client and the consultant.

From this point of view, the past is here, now. It is embedded in the present. The present contains everything. Memories, dreams, reflections are all present activities. They take place in the now. They concern events which occurred at some other time, as do anticipating, planning, preparing. But remembering is done in the present, planning is done in the present, reflecting is done in the present. It cannot be done otherwise.” (Latner, 1992. pp. 16-17). Hence, the rote, the habitual, and the unconscious return to our awareness where it can be experienced and/or examined when we remain focused on the uniqueness of each moment, each situation, each person.

For example, many indigenous tribes celebrate birthdays in a much more indepth process than traditional eurocentric ways. Each year, there is a celebration of being born. Not again, but for the first time, here and now. The tribe holds the meaning of this process in its field through community awareness and indepth witnessing thereby creating the container for the holon to form for the individual. In essence, it is the nesting process in a continuously unfolding event for each individual celebrating their birthday as well as each individual witnessing the celebration and the tribe as a whole7.

The Principle of Changing Process

“Without theories it is proceed beyond the mere collection and description of facts which have no predictive value...[Nonetheless] a given state of a person corresponds to a variety of behavior and can, therefore, be inferred only from a combined determination of overt behavior and the situation. “ (Lewin, 1951, pp. 241-242) Hence, we must remember that experience is provisional and not permanent. Nothing is fixed or static. The field undergoes continuous change so that no moment is the exactly same, no experience is exactly the same. It is what gives meaning to the statement “that one never steps in the same river twice.” (Parlett, 1991, pp. 72-73) Therefore, our theories must include the ongoing change process, our description must be consistent with “what is” moment, by moment, by moment.

Lee McLeod (1993, 26) sheds some light on the depths of this process by reminding us that under Gestalt theory, the self is contact. That is, “Gestalt asserts…that humans each moment are engaged in the creation and destruction of self. Not only therefore must self be a reality, but its creation and destruction must be amongst the most characteristic and significant aspects of human living…Self is…part of the world of process and time, discoverable only as experience; discoverable, that is, only in contact.” (ibid, p. 26) According to Perls, Hefflerline, & Goodman (1971), therefore, “all contact is creative adjustment of the organism and environment. …Contact , the work that results in assimiliation and growth, is the forming of a figure of interest against a ground or context of the organism/ environment field,” (pp. 230-231) all the while creating meaning and adjusting to how to be in the world.

Applied to more traditional gestalt terms, the principle of changing process fits into the concept of figure/ground formation. In basic terms, “ ‘figure’ is the focus of interest—an object, pattern, etc.—with ‘ground’8 the setting or context. The interplay between figure and ground is dynamic, for the same ground may, with differing interests and shifts of attention, give rise to different figures; or a given figure, if it contains detail, may itself become ground in the event that some detail of its own emerges as figure. (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1971, p. 25) Hence, our attention floats from one figure of interest to another. When we are no longer interested in one figure, it moves into the ground to be replaced by another. (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 31) For example, the floating thoughts, one to another, that we often experience is a flow of figures in and out of the ground of the mind seeking to become more fully formed and brought completely into awareness. Where censoring processes indicate that the “moment” is like a prior experience, the figures will likely flow through without contributing to new or more awareness, unless the consultant interrupts the flow and redirects attention to a deeper examination of the figure.

Another important Gestalt characteristic of perception is the tendency towards closure. When given data, we will automatically try to make meaning or to create a sense of understanding or familiarity. Moreover, this movement towards closure is often thwarted by our self or by social constraints imposed upon us. In essence, we tend to create and self-seal the meaning making stories of all prior experiences. When we self seal the stories our lives become a closed book instead of an evolving and never-ending experience. Frequently, the self-sealed perceptions are incomplete, not providing a sense of resolution or satisfaction. “These incompleted actions are forced into the background, where they remain—unfinished and uneasy—usually distracting the individual from the business at hand.” (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 30) “This results in a ‘fixed gestalt’ or an ‘unfinished experience/ situation’9 which interferes with good contact with self, others, or the environment in the present. Then the unmet needs become incomplete Gestalten which demand attention and prevent the formation of new Gestalten.”( Clarkson, 2000, p. 7) The evolution of the individual is unable to flow as easily. Development is hindered.

The ground has no tendency for closure. It is generally considered unbounded and formless, yet provides the “context that affords depth for the perception of the figure, giving it perspective but commanding little independent interest.” (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 30) In one sense, one’s whole life is the ground for the present moment. (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 32) Nonetheless, the covering up of parts of the ground represents a careful effort on the part of the individual not to tap into...specific characteristics or experiences. (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 33) Prior traumas or unsatisfactory experiences are avoided at all costs. Growth is stymied if not completely blocked.

Ground evolves from our past experiences, our unfinished business, and the flow of the present experience. The past and the present color the variety of closed and unclosed experiences. “All experience hangs around until a person is finished with it. Most individuals have a large capacity for unfinished situations...[as evidenced by the inability of some to leave an abusive relationship]. Nevertheless ...these incompleted directions do seek completion and, when they get powerful enough, the individual, [group, or organization] is beset with preoccupation, compulsive behavior, wariness, oppressive energy, and much self-defeating activity.” (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 36) Once closure with an experience has been reached, either through a return to old business or by relating the experience to the present, “the preoccupation with the old incompletion is resolved and one can move on to current possibilities.” (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 37)

The Principle of Possible Relevance

Everything in the field is part of the total organization and is potentially meaningful. Instead of documenting what is in the field, there is the attention to what is momentarily or persistently relevant or interesting—and this will show how the field is organized at the moment. (Parlett, 1991, pp. 71-73) For example, my thoughts or intuitive inclinations are part of the field. I can externalize them to see if I am projecting or if there is some validity to them. Regardless of the answer, I have impacted the field. However, I can choose to not externalize my thoughts or intuitive inclinations and still impact the field for these thoughts and inclinations will impact my behavior.

“The process of moving from moment to moment reflects the existential view that whatever exists, exists only now. Flux is basic to experience, so if one can allow each experience the reality it seeks, it will fade into the background in its turn, to be replaced by whatever next has the force to appear in the foreground. Only psychological hanging on can maintain the semblance of sameness in life...The gestalt perspective puts a premium on novelty and change,...a faith-filled expectation that the existence and recognition of novelty are inevitable if we stay with our own experiences as they actually form.” (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 48) Paradoxically, we change (complete unfinished business) when fully being who we are.

Field Creation

When these principles are applied to Gestalt theory, we begin to see some significant concepts. For example, if the field is more than the sum of the situation, and that thoughts and individuals are holons that are reciprocatingly influencing and determining the meaning-making functions of the individual, it becomes conceivable that we are participating in the creation of the field. One way of looking at this phenomenon would be to consider that we engage in a form of “participating consciousness” wherein a unified field exists between the observer and the observed. (Parlett, 1991, p. 74) If we apply this concept to two individuals in a conversation, it could be construed that as they individually make contact with themselves, each begins to creatively adjust in the creation and destruction of figures, while they begin to create each others’ realities through the creation of a mutual field. In essence, the process of an identity creating holon that encompasses each individual as well as the identity co-creating dyad10.

Co-Creating Realities

Swann (1987) supports the co-creation of a mutual field. He notes that during interpersonal encounters we negotiate our identity. This identity negotiation is the process that occurs between individuals as each seeks to affirm the identity of self, while discovering the identity of the other. These negotiations develop through interactions that involve perceptions of other while at the same time influencing the perceptions of other. More specifically, upon meeting someone, the identity negotiation process would involve both a perceiving of each other and attempts to affirm the self identity of each other. Moreover, these negotiations are designed to perpetuate the experientially contrived and/or known identity that seeks to maintain and/or stabilize the sense of self. As a Gestaltist, we will be impacted by these conscious and unconscious negotiations. However, a particularly provocative idea taught at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland is the notion of reciprocal influence, namely that change in the client may be achieved by the [Gestaltist] changing her or himself. For example, if I am able to participate in the identity negotiation while being witness to the process, I have choices that otherwise would not exist (Koestler’s Janus Face). Therefore, if I consciously form a particular opinion during the identity negotiation process, the release of such opinion about the client will lead to the ability to see and be with the client in a different way. Clearly, this will be noticed and therefore will impact the client and the dyad.11

An Example

In my executive development practice, it is common for the client to arrive with a series of preconceived notions about themselves. In one instance, a C-level executive was struggling with understanding why the CEO felt that he lacked sufficient leadership skills to be promoted. In fact, the CEO’s opinion was that the individual should be demoted because he lacked vision, capacity to create organizational alignment, and spent way too much time managing details. For six weeks, the individual struggled with the gap between his self perception and the criticism from the CEO. The majority of my time was spent supporting the client to explore his meaning of leadership. After five psychometric assessments, including a 360, and an extensive historical journey through the client’s career path, a clearer picture of the client field of perception began to evolve. From my perspective, the client was a well-honed manager who did not exude strong leadership skills. He did not influence, inspire, clarify, redirect the organization. He did coerce, force, require and hold-the-course. Although he understood my efforts to explore his field of perception using his examples based on the details he provided me, there was no real movement.

My opinions were based on historical data collection and several developmental models, foremost, included the concepts involved in the Leadership Pipeline. (Charan, Drotter, and Noel, 2001), that originated in Executive Continuity: How to Build and Retain An Effective Management Team (Mahler & Wrightnour, 1973). The historical data revealed that the client had been hired away from a much larger firm 14 years ago. A classic type A personality, he was driven to succeed and had risen very quickly.

Three years prior to our engagement, he had been promoted to his current number two position. He had learned how to mirror himself with the then CEO who shortly afterwards was terminated for mediocre performance. For the last three years, the client struggled with understanding what the new CEO expected. The new CEO was hired away from a high performance and much larger organization. In three years of shaking, rattling and rolling out the employees, most executives from the prior administration had exited through termination or pressured resignations. The client was one of a few remaining executives from the prior administration. Nonetheless, the organization had moved from mediocre performance to well above average.

My assessment of the situation was that the client had in effect suffered from the Peter Principle, where he had been promoted to a level beyond his competency. In the past, it was common to recognize the mistake and the person was often allowed to move back to the prior position or terminated depending on the organization’s predisposition. In recent years, executive development or executive coaching have been used to address these issues and frequently the individual can be developmentally supported to grow into the positional requirements, typically, an entirely new way of thinking.

Using the above noted assessment, it appeared that the client was developmentally stuck at a lower level of management competency. This was supported by the following guidelines pertaining to creating a developmental leadership pipeline. These are the traits of someone that has not moved to a level of leadership commensurate with client’s position. There is no weighting in terms of importance.

As evidenced by his general behavior, the client seemed less interested in taking on the responsibilities of a leader and much more interested in being a hands-on manager and performer. Typically, this results from not maturing into the depth of the position so as to transition from a hands-on manager to a strategic leader commensurate with his position in a multi-billion dollar organization.

The client’s behavior suggested that he does not trust others to do the job, which indicates his need to be in control and less able to influence, inspire, or motivate his direct reports.

The client seemed as if he can’t let go of the hands-on work and must control everything instead of guide, direct, and correct.

The client seemed to have poor communication skills especially with peers in terms of clarity of strategic thought and in terms of shaping direct reports into effective managers and employees.

The client delegates ineffectively by not putting in a control system to keep himself out of the trenches yet clearly on top of things.

Shortly after my assessment and direct report to him, he informed me that he had had a startling awareness—that he was a manager and not a very good leader. Asked how he had come to this conclusion, as he had indicated no acceptance or awareness during the prior session conversation, he noted that he had re-read the assessments and articles on leading versus managing; and, he had suddenly, realized that he is a damn-good manager. As we explored the situation, he revealed that the organization had a long history of managers until the new CEO arrived. The new CEO inspired, influenced, clarified, and redirected the organization, and, in the process, had shook him and the organization to its core. The organization’s field had deified managers (doers) and not acknowledged that this was not leading. The new CEO had been brought into to turnaround the laggard organization by replacing a managing culture (and CEO) with a new culture based on leadership.

Theoretically when I reviewed his ah ha, I recognized that self concepts tend to change when a reorganization of his fixed gestalt of how the person views him or her self occurs. As noted by Swann, a major reorganization of a self-view can result from the realization that an existing self view is what is causing or significantly contributing to the failure to attain a specific goal (1987, p. 1044).

Similarly if the Gestaltist has a complete shift of perception concerning the identity of the client, this will require a renegotiation that will impact the client and possibly shift the perceived self identity. In this case, my perception was being shaped by historical data, the psychometric instrument results, and the theoretical framework of the leadership pipeline assessment. As I shaped my definition of self in relation to the client, he was interfacing with all of the same information as well as the interface with me as the consultant. Three fields were being created and co-created—ourselves individually and our dyad. In reporting to him, it was clear that the client was struggling with his self identity surrounding leadership. I suggested that he could sit in the discomfort of the incongruence he was experiencing or move more fully into his present perception by paying particular attention to how he spent his days between sessions.

Gestalt Theory and Change

Systems theory permeates Gestalt theory. Each of the core concepts of systems theory are dynamic gateways to understanding the client system. However, homeostasis and dynamic equilibrium are the foremost concepts used toward understanding change. Homeostasis is the predisposition of the individual, group, or organization to maintain some semblance of stability or pre-determined sense of well- being; e.g., the body seeks to maintain a normal temperature. Equilibrium, as noted in the Oxford University Press Electronic Dictionary, is a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced, such as the state of being physically balanced or in a calm state of mind, or as in chemistry, a state in which a process and its reverse are occurring at equal rates so that no overall change is taking place, or as in economics, a situation in which supply and demand are matched and prices are stable.

Gestalt seeks to understand the “what is” of dynamic equilibrium. It is able to see that by ingesting disruptions and threats, it is actually a self correcting system of countervailing motions that continuously adjust to create a form of self protection to ensure self preservation. It is like an “an immunity to change”12 (Kegan & Lahey, 2001, p. 6). When applied to the internal functioning of an individual, group or organization, we begin to realize that the implosion of differentiation consistent with the tendency toward complexity inherent in almost all siutations or organizations creates a dynamic equilibrium that is immune to change. Hence, when a change initiative is introduced, this immune system is part and parcel of the client, regardless of level of system, and therefore is preprogrammed to acquire, neutralize, and/or destroy the attempt to destabilize the system. The client cannot see and often are not aware of these immunities to change because they “live inside them. They do not ‘have them,’ they ‘have us.’ The client cannot see them because they too are caught up in them. (Kegan & Lahey, 2001, p. 6). The Gestaltist seeks to help the client to surface these immunities to change and to expand their capacities for difference.

Paradoxical Theory of Change

At the center of Gestalt theory is the paradoxical theory of change, which is the touchstone for most Gestalt interventions. However, to fully appreciate the paradoxical theory of change, we need to acknowledge, as suggested by Duncan and Miller (2000), that “within the client is a uniquely personal theory of change waiting for discovery, a framework for interventions to be unfolded and utilized for a successful outcome” (p. 180). This uniquely personal theory of change in fact supports the paradoxical theory of change—where it is assumed that change occurs when an individual, group, or organization becomes what he, she, or it is rather than continually trying to be what one is not. Hence, “change does not take place by trying coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the [client] abandons, at least for the moment, what he [or she] would like to become and attempts to be what he [or she] is” (Beisser, 1970, p. 77). It is in the fullness of this state of being that fixed Gestalts dissolve and greater complexity can be seen and utilized as part of the “what is.”

According to Gestalt theory, the person, group, or organization seeking change is in conflict with at least two, internal or external, warring factions. Constantly moving between what “should be” and what “is,” and never fully identifying with either, the client becomes caught or locked between two or more competing commitments (Beisser, 1970, 77). For example, my client struggled with his internal perception of what is a leader versus a manager. He identified himself as a leader, however, theory and practice of he new CEO was incongruent with the perceptions and corresponding behaviors of my client.

Duncan and Miller suggest that the “exploration for and discovery of the client’s theory [of change] is a co-evolutionary process, [an interpolation of sorts, which occurs through] a crisscrossing of ideas that generates a seamless connection of socially constructed meanings” (p. 182). As such, the Gestaltist asks the client to invest fully in the opposing roles or factions, one at a time. Examining or being one role or faction is explored, then the client shifts to another. The Gestaltist asks that the client be what “is” at the moment13.

Gestalt theory rejects any directive role for the change agent, and instead encourages the client to be where and what he or she is, to take the time and make the sincere effort to be fully invested in his or her situation. The implications of this theory are that the individual, group, or organization needs to risk identifying and being itself instead of accepting other- or socially constructed expectations, roles, or practices. In so doing, fixed Gestalts such as polar differentiations melt into creative indifference and an entirely new “what is” for the individual, group, and/or organization emerges.

My efforts to use the data noted above, along with the theoretical constructs, led to the ah ha process for the client. The client when provided new information as well as new frames of reference in how to view his “fixed gestalts” or sealed preconceived notions of self, eventually led to the breakthrough he noted14. The tension between his perceptions of what is leadership and his self identity led to an emerging new figure of “what is” so that he could change.

Projective and Introjective Identification

Projective identification is a form of simultaneous transference/counter- transference that extends the idea of co-creating realities suggested by field theory and Swann’s work. In this instance, projective identification occurs when an individual or group projects intolerable parts of the self into another individual (an object). The individual (or group) maintains empathy with the projected parts, attempting to control the individual through the projection at a distance, by unconsciously inducing the other person to claim and/or act out the projection. In many instances, the transference to the other leads to the other’s identification with the projection and a simultaneous, reciprocal transference of the compatible aspects of the projection of the consultant to the client. (Scharff, 1992)

For example, an interpersonal client system engaged a Caucasian, female and an African-American Female. Both were professional consultants. The Caucasian, from prior situations had been observed to lean towards a pattern of being drawn to strong, African-American women. She noted that this was her way of learning to fully claim her power and more fully become a woman. In most every situation, what seemed like an expression of admiration, led to her being the brunt of other’s ire, especially if the recipient questioned the accuracy or motives of her statements.

The African–American woman appeared to enjoy power and often took a leadership position until her authority was questioned because her stories were rambling about the past instead of being present-centered. In such cases, she would withdraw from the position of power by becoming completely quiet or by passing the baton to someone else and then becoming quiet.

In a supervisory capacity to this interpersonal dynamic, the dyad was set-up for the Caucasian woman to be the client and the African-American woman to be the consultant, creating a power differential similar to each of their individual patterns. The client noted that her issue was claiming her power as a woman. Immediately following her statement, she began expressing her admiration for the consultant. Noteworthy is that as the admiration began to be expressed, the client’s posture shifted downward with slouching shoulders and into a subdued, if not subordinated, position. She spoke less, except to join comments about power with statements of “only if it were possible for me”. Simultaneously, the consultant began to assume the roll of power by rising in her seat, speaking with more authority, confidence, and promises to help the client find and claim her power. As a dyad, the consultant and client implicitly agreed to stay at the interpersonal level of system. In the moment work around the issue of power was explored with the consultant providing most of the details of the ways and means of claiming one’s power.

Level of Systems Choice

Even though it could be construed that the work was not gestalt work, this was not the case. The consultant was quite skilled at working at the edge of the client’s comfort and some insights were discovered. However, after reviewing the work at the interpersonal level, I shared my internal experience of something else that seemed to happen. I noted the historical patterns (cited above) for both individuals and wondered if they had at an intrapsychic level, agreed to swap alienated parts of themselves. Specifically, the client projected her sense of empowerment onto the consultant, who, introjected it as if it were herself. In turn, the consultant, projected her sense of disempowerment onto the client, who, gladly introjected it as if it were herself.

The reaction for both was startling. The client immediately had a gut-wrenching ah-ha experience with a detailed release of childhood memories. She realized that as a child, she had been subordinated to her powerful mother. Every attempt to claim her power would result in a violent response from her mother. Overtime, she learned to project her own power into others in hope that one day she would find her own power.

The consultant moved out of the confident leader’s role into a subdued state. After pondering the situation, she realized that she enjoyed other’s projection of power onto her. It enabled her to move out of the totally disempowered position of an abusive and violent childhood. In the case of Caucasian woman projecting power, it created a sense of racial empowerment, even though socially power was not equally dispersed across racial lines.

Parallel Processes

Field theory and projective and introjective identification connote an interesting possibility—that we have parallel processes occurring between our self and others and that these processes are not limited to a single dyad. “For instance, in supervision it can very easily happen, and frequently does, that what is happening in the [client] situation under discussion gets re-enacted and played in a supervision session.” (Parlett, 1991, 79; Clarkson, 2002, p. 69)

“Studies of parallel that what happens in one system has an impact on another... [As such] parallel process may be seen as the playing-out of experiences that are unresolved and out-of-awareness. Our past experiences cause us to recreate habitual patterns of behavior in our interaction with others that parallel the original.” (Davies, 1997, p. 114) As Gestaltists, this is a source of valuable and insightful information about field dynamics between the self and others. “As a resource in an organisational context, the possibility of using parallel process is of value only if the consultant is sufficiently aware of her experience to identify and verbalise authentically her process as part of the total field.” (Davies, 1997,p. 115)

In my experience, the parallel process develops in the background of a discussion between the client and the Gestaltist. Often, it has occurred in the introductory or fact-finding part of a discussion, where the Gestaltist is attempting to collect enough ground for a common figure or theme to surface and be sufficiently supportive to the client’s story to not be escorted out the door. The parallel process seems to develop as the content becomes thicker and the client is diligently attempting to clearly explain the situation while the Gestaltist is attempting to make sense of the situation15. At this point, if a parallel process is taking place, it is common to get a clear image or awareness about my internal process. Sometimes, it is as simple as I don’t understand what the client is attempting to tell me and then verbalizing the experience. Other times, it is something as simply as noting that “I feel utterly confused and incompetent at this moment” or that “I am feeling highly agitated without knowing why.” Interestingly, more times than not, the expression of my internal process triggers a satori experience, an insightful “ah ha”, in the client that helps them to understand the situation better and change. Typically, my reporting my internal experience triggers the release of a figure that was not formed enough to be able to stay fully in awareness. Often, the source of their ah ha seems to be similar to Bollas’s concept of the “unthought known” where the client is not conscious that an embedded or parallel issue is hanging on to the perceived facts of the story. When spoken by the gestaltist, the association between the story and an internal known, often not yet spoken, is made.

Unclaimed Culture

For example in a team intervention with an African-American social service agency, the agency was seeking assistance in re-visioning itself. Preliminary information provided the team revealed that if the team had not known differently, it could be conceived that it is a Caucasian, euro-centric social service agency. Utilizing this issue, a dialogue was initiated.

The CEO and Vice President were asked to tell their story. The CEO noted the organization had grown significantly over the 20 years that he had been the chief executive officer. The Vice President had been with the agency for over 25 years and had been the operating officer that implemented each of the programs as they have been designed and developed by the CEO. The CEO described several services, such as the Rites of Passage program, the Adult Development Program, and the Healthy Family/Healthy Start program as examples of how the organization has attempted to meet the needs of the local community. Throughout the description of services, when either officer alluded to the underlying values that seemed to drive the service offering, their excitement and energy around the topic would dramatically increase. In my mind, these values were related to cultural, family, and/or tribal values of taking care of community members from cradle to grave16.

Noteworthy is that when the other members of the team redirected the conversation toward the originally contracted work to re-vision the organization, the CEO and Vice president would refocus, swallow their excitement, and use traditional business management language to discuss the need to move the organization into the next millennium.

To verify this process, I noted the differing behaviors between the “business of the organization” as advocated by the white team members and the references to story telling, managing life cycles, the African artifacts throughout the building, etc. by myself, a native American. Both officers immediately indicated that indeed the underlying purpose and driving force (spirit) of the organization related to such values. They added that they were unaware they had altered their behavior when redirected by the other team members. The discussion continued with the team seeking to refine this insight of cultural values into a clearer picture of “what is” this organization. It was asked if it would be more accurate to say that the organization is a social and cultural services provider. Again, both noted that the inclusion of culture is more accurate than just a social services provider. The officers were asked why none of the cultural aspects of the services were included in the printed materials. Neither had an answer, except that the values were simply something that was understood by everyone. Instead of talking about them, everyone simply lived them. Both officers were asked to reflect on the exclusion of these cultural values in printed materials about the agency.

The parallel process surfaced in this case through my acknowledging my internal experience of the situation. I became aware that I was feeling constrained and that unless I expressed more fully who I was as a native American, it would not be known that much of my community oriented values were the same as those of the CEO. As indicated, I censored or filtered my internal experience into an inquiry about the client instead of a statement about myself. Nonetheless, it was clear that my internal process was providing important data about the dynamics occurring between the client and myself. By remaining present-centered throughout the engagement, I was able to maintain an awareness of myself as a source of information while simultaneously tracking the client’s story. Furthermore, in a subsequent meeting with the client, I shared my initial reactions with the CEO. He was a bit shocked at my comments and then stated that my reaction was nearly verbatim to his internal frustrations between fitting into the larger business world and fully engaging the cultural heritage of the organization.

Rae Davies provides a detailed example of a similar situation she found herself. She was in the midst of a consulting assignment that created tremendous anxiety. Instead of covering up her anxiety she voiced her reaction, trusting in the knowledge that whatever she was experiencing was valuable and relevant.

”My words were: ‘I suddenly feel very alone and exposed and now I feel quite scared with everyone looking on.’ The client looked to me and exclaimed ‘That’s it. That’s exactly what’s happening to me’ Now I realise what has been holding me back, it’s the fear of being alone again.’ Although I knew my experience was relevant I had not expected the strength of his reaction. The ‘ah ha’ experience changed his perception of his difficulty, realising that the fear of finding himself alone and unsupported was the root of his inability to make a decision. From that point of view he could take on the necessary action to resolve his dilemma. Contact was made and the field changed.” (1997, p. 115)

Colluding with the Client

A similar yet more complex internal response involving a parallel process is to become aware that I am colluding with the client by not revealing my internal experience or by not revealing something about or to the client that is pertinent to the situation that I sense to be true. For example, when the child spoke the obvious that “the emperor had no clothes”, it revealed the unspoken collusion that had occurred between the emperor and his subjects. The emperor at some level chose to ignore the facts that presented themselves, which in turn was projected into and accepted by the subjects until the child spoke. Beyond the obvious consideration of how innocence often speaks the truth, it reveals that some other process occurs that is passed from person to person that creates a collusion of illusion. What exactly is this energetic communication that is unspoken but clearly understood is not clear. However, it has been noted that “experiencing oneself as somewhat “out of character,” or acting in ways that seem slightly odd, is indicative of unconscious communication from the client system.” (Krantz & Gilmore, 1991, p. 327) In such situations, the consultant is being beckoned to alter his or her perceptions to match the picture being presented by the client. By staying present-centered and aware of one’s internal processes, the consultant is able to recognize that something might be out of kilter. Checking it out with the client often foils the illusion that is being presented and creates the insight that enables the client to move beyond its impasse.

Team Processes

Noteworthy is that parallel process is not limited to a single person as in the case of a consultant and a single client. The identical process can occur between a consulting team and a client team. Typically, when a group dynamic of the consulting team begins to become more figural than the client’s problem or situation, it is likely that the consulting team is unconsciously playing-out the unspoken, group dynamic of the client team. In this case, the consulting team has assumed the roles of the client team. “In terms of the consulting relationship, this process can pull the consultant powerfully in and out of roles that are much more appropriate for actual members of the organization. The over-functioning consultant often takes on a kind of executive staff role that unintentionally reinforces fantasies of internal incompetence and efforts to sidestep responsibility for difficult actions.” (Krantz & Gilmore, 1991, p. 326)

Similar to the disclosure of the process within a dyad, the consulting team could disclose its internal process to the client. ((Krantz & Gilmore, 1991, p. 322) One method of disclosing this phenomenon in Gestalt teams is to discuss the actual process amongst the members of the consulting team in the presence of the client team as juxtaposed to the more normal process of holding a meeting with the client as a full participant and not an observer. If it is a parallel process, the client team will suddenly become aware that the consulting team is mirroring the client-team’s unspeakable process. Typically, this results in the client team shifting its focus to its internal process as a means of resolving whatever issue has brought them together.

Non-linear time

In the team intervention at the African-American social service agency noted in prior paragraphs, a parallel process developed around group dynamics prior to the first meeting. At a large group level, the parallel process was the consulting team’s initial unwillingness to deal with racial differences between the team and client directly with the client. This resistance surfaced prior to visiting the client. I deflected the discussion, only to later discover my unwillingness to openly claim my own heritage was mirroring the client CEO and organization. This process indicates the inability to easily and/or openly discuss race, culture, or ethnocentricity 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. Moreover, it suggests that once the field or holon is formed between two individuals or two groups, even though they have not met, the parallel processes could be occurring.

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. Moreover, it also suggests that once client information has been provided and work has begun to focus on the client, the field has begun to be formed. Hence, paying attention to individual and group dynamics may provide clues to client issues that may never be spoken, only experienced within one self or one’s team.

Some Thoughts

This article attempts to bring together the holistic aspects of Gestalt as developed by Perls, et al, and the field theory of Lewin. In doing so, it creates a sense of a set of dynamics that occurs in any situation. The dynamics seem to be fluid, ever- changing, encompassing, and not always seen. Nonetheless, through staying present- centered and constantly acknowledging and verifying internal experience with the external environment, the consultant is able to bring new data that can be extremely valuable to the client. As a process, the consultant is constantly asking him or her self the question, “is it real or is it memorex” as used in a television commercial on tape recording quality. As a consultant, the internal sensing could be a parallel process or a client replaying unfinished personal business. Checking it out with the client determines the reality.


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1Wilbur (1996) refers to holons as “any entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole.” (p. 20)

2Smuts (1926) noted that “a natural whole has its ‘field’, and the concept of really a unified, synthesized section of history, which includes not only its present but much of its past and even its future. An organism can only be explained by reference to its past and its future as well as its present; the central structure is not sufficient and literally has not enough in it to go round in the way of explanation; the conception of the field therefore becomes necessary and will be found fruitful in biology and psychology no less than in physics.” (p. 87).

3“Given the fact that Lewin and Perls focused on different aspects of the total person- environment configuration, it is no wonder that the followers of each have tended to ignore or neglect the work of the other...Perls acknowledged the contributions of Lewin in Gestalt Psychology, but remained an individualist and an individual therapist throughout his career.” (Kepner, 1980, 8)

4Fritz Perls added further clarity when he said, “to me, nothing exists except the now. Now = experience = awareness = reality. The past is no more and the future not yet. Only the now exists.”

5In Lewin’s terms, witnessing would be the equivalent of action research where the individual consultant would attend to first, second, or third person action research. In Gestalt OD, it would be attending to the various levels of system .

6The process of the formation of a holon, which could be considered an undeveloped nesting process.

7See the works of Victor Turner and Mircea Eliade for insights into these types of processes.

8Ground was originally background, (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1971, p. 25).

9Awareness is characterized by contact, by sensing, by excitem ent, and by gestalt form ation. Contact is possible without awareness, but for awareness contact is indispensable. Gestalt formation always accom panies awareness. Any incom plete Gestalt represents an “unfinished situation” that clam ors for attention and interferes with the form ation of any novel, vital Gestalt. Unfinished situations are often referred to as fixed gestalts, wherein the individual is unable to see beyond a preconceived perception. regardless of the reality. (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1971, pp. viii-ix). Pathologically, fixed gestalts are comparable to compulsive-repetition behaviors.

10Theory into Practice: “Field a set of principles, an outlook, a method, and a whole way of thinking that relates to the intimate connectedness between events and the settings or situations in which these events take place.” (Parlett, 2005, p. 47) In practice, therefore, Parlett (2005) describes a series of principles which guide the exploration of the field using the same principles used by field theorist and gestalt OD practitioners..

  1. is not detached, objective, separated from the field, but rather a part of it.
  2. The field is organized, and...[intervening] involves the mutual investigation of how it is organized.
  3. Gestaltists work in the “here and now” and explore the immediate, present field.
  4. Gestaltist attend to exploring different parts of the field

11I suggest when applied to Lewin’s “life space” it adds a deeper and m ore congruent meaning wherein both the internal and external world create the life space.

12Im m unity to change is often referred to as resistance, however, it would serve the ready to think of it as a fixed gestalt in this paper.

13Interestingly, this is known also as the paradoxical strategy. (Swann, 1987, 1044- 1045) This strategy indicates that by highlighting or exaggerating an extrem e and/or unpopular position, an individual will attem pt to m ove away from the position that has been exaggerated. In so m oving away from the unpopular position, the individual will actually state opposing positions or views that they m ight hold and thereby begin to change their self view of the issue.

14Swann goes on to note that these changes tend to be long-term or more permanent if the individual’s interaction partners provide feedback that supports the new self view as typically happens with coaches and consultants.

15“In the understandable wish to join successfully with the client organization, the consultant tries to be helpful and sympathetic. If this is done uncritically, he or she runs the very grave risk of colluding with the distorted image of the situation the client conveys...Yet, in doing so, and becoming an uncritical mirror of the client’s projective process, the consultant can easily help undermine the conditions necessary for organizational change and development. ” (Krantz & Gilmore, 1991, p. 325)

16At this time, it became clear that a parallel process might be occurring between my self and the CEO and our team and the executive officers. However, unable to overcome internal inhibitions and express this suspicion, I withheld it.

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