What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
Ever wonder what leadership is really all about? Is it something that can be sliced and diced and codified in a competency framework? Is it something different or more than that, something more holistic, profound and relational? I had this short article published today: http://www.aboutleaders.com/bid/175128/Leadership-as-a-Relational-Dynamic. Let me know what you think!
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
Coaching is often characterised as two people sitting down together, engaged in conversation, with one person helping the other to think things through. I ran a short workshop today that introduced insights and practises from Gestalt psychology and coaching characterised by a more experimental, experiential approach. Gestalt is a field of psychology that focuses on awareness in the here and now. Insight can emerge through pausing for a moment to notice what we are thinking, feeling or experiencing in our bodies. Gestalt views thoughts, feelings and somatic experience as interconnected.
We reflect this analogical experience in our language. For example, I may feel tightness in my throat when I approach a situation where I struggle to have a ‘voice’. I feel ‘gutted’ (accompanied by a stomach ache) or find this situation a ‘pain in the neck’ (accompanied by tension in my neck). Our minds filter our thoughts and feelings, partly to enable us to focus (rather than being aware of everything going on within and around us, all at the same time, which would be overwhelming) and partly if those thoughts and feelings are unacceptable to ourselves or others, or cause discomfort.
What we experience in our bodies is unfiltered by the mind. Sometimes, what we experience in our bodies is analogous to what we are experiencing psychologically. Paying attention to what we are experiencing physically can raise unacknowledged or suppressed beliefs or issues into awareness. In Gestalt coaching, the coach may help the client explore issues or experiences by physical experimentation. This typically means doing something, rather than simply talking about it. As with all experimentation, there is an element of let’s try this and see what happens. Examples:
*Rather than telling me what you want to achieve, show me what you want to achieve by acting out what it would look and feel like if you were successful.
*Rather than explaining to me what you would you like to say to a person, say it to me directly as if I were that person, or enact a conversation playing both
*Rather than tell me what obstacles you anticipate facing, create physical obstacles in the room that represent the obstacles, then experiment with tackling or moving them.
*Rather than describe the relationships between stakeholders, try using figures or objects to represent the people and experiment with placing yourself within the system too.
*Rather than outlining your key priorities as a list, draw them in proportion size-wise and try changing their relative sizes to see what new insights emerge.
The coach’s role is to help the client design a suitable experiment, stay attentive and observe what happens for the client in the here and now as they do it. Some coaches feed back their observations to the client, some encourage the client to reflect on their own observations. When a client acts out a posture or scenario, the coach may mirror the client’s posture or movement, inviting the client to notice what he or she sees and feels when the coach does it. Finally, the coach helps the client make sense of any insights that emerge and how to apply them to the client’s context.
‘Could you be more direct?’ I took part in a 2-day workshop recently, a Gestalt approach to conflict, challenge and confrontation in groups. There were 12 in the group, mostly therapists of one kind or another, and we started by introducing ourselves in 2s. ‘This is my life’ in 5 minutes. Next, after each had spoken, we commented on what we had noticed. ‘We’re the same in that…’ and ‘We’re different in that…’ It drew our attention to what we notice in first encounters and how we tend to deal with sameness and difference in groups.
There’s something about sameness that can provide a sense of comfort, of security, of being part of something bigger than ourselves. When we feel insecure, we may seek out points of sameness in order to build rapport, establish connection and thereby reduce our anxiety. Safety in numbers. In this context, difference can feel distancing, even threatening. If we continue to focus on sameness, an awareness of group identity emerges, a feeling of belonging, a sense of differentiation between the ‘us’ and the ‘not us’.
This is an important principle in group and inter-group dynamics. The inclusive dynamic that creates a sense of group within a group is the same dynamic that can exclude others. If we focus exclusively on sameness within our group and on difference between our own group and other perceived groups, we create boundaries between us. If difference emerges within our group, we may ignore or resist it because it doesn’t fit the group norm, the norm we have subscribed to in order to feel secure. This can lead to collusion and group think.
A way to break through unhelpful group and inter-group barriers is to acknowledge what the group provides for us, its functional value at a social psychological level, and yet also to draw our attention to the differences between us within the group and the similarities between us (or at least some of us) and those (or at least some of those) in other groups. This has the effect of raising fresh awareness, reconfiguring group identities, enabling us to see different patterns of sameness and difference and thereby fresh possibilities.
A later activity in this workshop was to practice immediacy. We split into two groups. One group sat in a circle in the middle of the room, the others around the outside observing those in the inside circle. The inside group was invited and encouraged to practise speaking very honestly, clearly and directly with one another. The conversation started.‘I would like to facilitate the group.’ ‘I’m happy for you to facilitate.’ ‘I feel anxious.’ ‘What do you feel anxious about?’ ‘I feel anxious in case those on the outside judge my performance.’
It continued. ‘If I lose interest, I will check out.’ ‘What will checking out look like, what will we see?’ ‘I will gaze out of the window’.‘What do you want us to do if we see you gazing out of the window?’ ‘Call it.’ ‘I don’t know what you are thinking or feeling and I want to know.’ ‘Why is that so important to you?’ ‘Because I don’t feel a connection with you, I feel distant from you.’ Our task was to focus on what was happening within and between us here and now and to articulate it openly and courageously, even if it risked evoking conflict.
Asking, ‘What is happening here and now?’ is such a powerful question. It draws attention of a group away from a topic, issue or abstraction into the immediate moment. ‘I’m thinking…’, ‘I’m feeling…’. The impact in the workshop group felt both profound and electric. To ask, ‘What is going on for me now?’ is a great way of establishing contact with myself. To articulate what I am thinking and feeling in a group or to hear others do the same invites others to be open too and, thereby, builds the quality of relational contact within the group.
This can prove tricky cross-culturally, especially where it could be considered inappropriate, disrespectful or even offensive to speak out in a group. In other situations, it may simply feel too risky to acknowledge openly what I’m thinking or feeling. The challenge in this workshop was to experiment with being more open, less constrained, than we would normally behave. ‘If I asked you on a scale of 10 how honest and up-front you are in groups, what would you say? What would really happen if you were to ratchet it up a notch?’
I was once invited by a coaching supervisor to depict a live piece of work with a client. I focused on a forthcoming assignment in Asia and drew a diagram representing the different people involved, the relationships between them and the explicit and implicit agendas. I drew a solid line between myself and the key client representing ‘strategy’ (explicit agenda) and a dotted line representing my underlying expertise in ‘psychological dynamics’ (implicit agenda).
She challenged me to re-draw my dotted line as a solid line, to do it and not simply to imagine how I might feel if I was to do it. This proved to be a profound and pivotal moment for me in grasping Gestalt. As I picked up the pen and drew the line, I felt a sudden, powerful and unexpected surge of confidence arise within me. It convinced me to approach the contract with the client in more confident, proactive mode and to raise my implicit value to the explicit level.
In a later coaching session, I worked with a client who explained she felt stressed working with a particular colleague on a board of trustees. I noticed how physically animated she was as she spoke and so I suggested we might explore the issue using a physical experiment, drawing on Gestalt. She was keen to try it out so I invited her to recreate the board room where we were, to sit me where her colleague sits and to brief me on how he behaves.
She left the room, re-entered and immediately stiffened and looked tense. I reflected this back, along with how tense I now felt as she approached me in role. In order to create and evoke a contrasting experience, I invited her to practice physical loosening before entering the room. She discovered a dance-like movement that helped her relax, increased her confidence and provided an alternative entry style. The difference and impact was transformational.
It’s funny how these things come out of nowhere. One week ago, we received an unexpected bill that threw us into regressive stages of conflict with a major telecommunications company. The cold, belligerent manner we experienced left us dazed, upset and angry. We felt unheard, misrepresented and unfairly treated. It triggered subconscious memories of similar experiences in the past, from bullies in the school playground to poor customer service elsewhere. It’s what psychotherapists call transference and human givens therapists, pattern matching.
The thing that left us most confused was that the people we spoke with were more concerned with bureaucracy and rules than with customer relationship or retention. In taking this stance, they were inadvertently working against their own company’s as well as our interests. We will cancel the contract and the company will lose more in on-going revenue than it would have gained from pressing a debatable charge. We tried to explain this but they would not, could not hear. They were entrenched in their views, their predetermined systems and procedures.
After countless phone calls, we spoke with one person, an African man who treated us warmly, listened hard to our story, communicated empathy, took personal responsibility to work for a solution on our behalf. He mediated a resolution, the company dropped the charge and the dispute was ended. It was a tiring and frustrating experience and I’m trying hard now to listen for the voice of God. What was really going on here? At a human level, it was an encounter with an organisation, an institution, that has lost sight of the customer, that appears more interested in processes than people.
But there are spiritual parallels too. I have this flash back to Jesus’ encounters with the religious authorities. They had become so locked in rules, in regulations intended to safeguard God’s interests as they saw it, that they had inadvertently lost contact with God and with people. There’s this same risk in any organisation, in any situation, that we construct a fixed gestalt, a fixed expectation of what is and should be that blinds us to alternative perspectives and realities. In the Jesus case, paradoxically, it prevented the religious recognising ‘God with us’.
By contrast, this African man moved towards us, stepped into our shoes, took up our case on our behalf and mediated a positive result. In effect, he mirrored Jesus by his actions, working to restore relationship where it had been damaged. This is the heart of the Christian gospel. And so as I look back over the week, I feel irritated by the bureaucracy, sad that I sometimes lost sight of the ‘opposition’ as people, relieved that fairness finally prevailed, grateful for friends who helped us laugh in the midst and thankful for the mediator who inspired us to be more like Jesus.
It’s funny how a tasty bag of fish and chips can feel so desperately appealing when you’re trying to lose weight. There’s something about deprivation, about delayed gratification, that can intensify awareness and desire. Everyday things that were hardly noticed before, that were taken for granted in the midst of other distractions can become a focus of attention, of need, of longing.
It’s about breaking away from the ordinary, about disrupting routine experiences or patterns of behaviour in order to see, feel and experience them in a fresh light. It’s about learning to experience and appreciate familiar things anew, to encounter them again as if for the first time. It’s like learning to see and experience the world through the curious, excited eyes of a child.
I’m aware of how much of my life I spend on auto-pilot. It’s a normal and necessary psychological state that enables me to focus and to avoid sensory overload. At the same time, I risk becoming dulled to the world around me, to other people, to myself and to God. Perhaps this is why some resort to fasting-as-deprivation or extreme sports to feel the rush, to feel really alive again.
Sometimes it’s a surprise, a crisis, that jolts and awakes us. Sometimes it’s a startling insight that catches us unawares. It’s something or someone that shakes our cage, shifts our perspective, sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically. It could be an unexpected opportunity or challenge, a change in circumstances that shifts the gestalt background into sharp foreground.
I was once sitting in a church service, bored to tears. I sat by a window and, as I gazed through it, I noticed a daddy long legs insect on the glass. I day dreamed of being kidnapped and held captive on an alien planet with no other earthly contact. I imagined how I would feel if I then found that insect, that fellow earth creature in my cell with me – how amazing and precious it would be.
It sounds random and bizarre but it felt like a moment of insight, a revelation from God, that really sparked my imagination. It reminded me of a friend whose young sister became terminally ill. In the midst of such tragic circumstances, the friend commented how, paradoxically, she had never seen her sister so alive. In facing imminent death, her sister was able to deeply value life.
Is this something that Jesus meant when he commented, ‘unless a seed falls to the ground and dies...’ or ‘unless you change and become like little children...’ and Paul, ‘what you sow does not come to life unless it dies’? They were talking about a mysterious way to know and experience eternal spiritual life, a vibrant quality of life that casts ordinary human experience into dark shadow.
I feel inspired to seek God more, to open myself more to his profound revelation, to walk more closely on the path he calls me to. I feel challenged to open my eyes, in Jesus’ words to ‘keep awake’, to notice the unnoticed, to value the unvalued and to be more thankful. And next time I eat a bag of tasty fish and chips, I will pause to savour, enjoy and appreciate every mouthful.
It only takes a moment to change the whole world.
A sudden change can rearrange our mental and emotional landscape, raise new things into focus, shed different light on the familiar, move earlier preoccupations into the background and force us to re-evaluate our lives, values and priorities.
It can feel exciting, alarming and disorientating.
My Dad had a stroke 2 weeks ago. Suddenly, we were confronted with challenges of communication, especially over the phone at a distance. Dad’s health that we had taken so much for granted was suddenly threatened. Even a few slurred words felt miraculous.
Our central heating broke down last week. Suddenly we were confronted with the challenges of staying warm in the freezing weather. The heating system we had paid no attention to became the centre of attention and concern - and rejoicing when it was repaired.
In Gestalt psychology, this phenomenon is about changes in perspective, alterations in what we notice (figure) and what lies in the background, out of awareness (ground). It’s about paradigm shifts, a marked transition in what we perceive and experience.
Advent draws our attention to a moment, a cosmic kairos, a world changing event, the arrival of Christ. An encounter with him is deep impact, reeling drama, a healing crisis. It can shake, disorientate and re-orientate our whole lives.
May God grant you a special encounter, an inspiring Christmas and a Spirit-filled new year.
If you're curious about what Gestalt looks like in practice, check out the Online
Articles section of this website. http://www.mgc.org.uk. A new discovery.
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! email@example.com