Gestalt action learning
This is a thought experiment.
I choose these words deliberately, because a spirit of experimentation lays at the heart of Gestalt practice. It’s about learning by doing rather than, say, learning by thinking or learning by talking. That marks it out from conventional ways of coaching, facilitation and action learning (AL). It’s about trying something new, seeing what surfaces into awareness as we do so, then noticing any shift in our stance in relation to an issue we’re grappling with. It can be revealing, radical and powerful.
Picture this. During an AL bidding round, each person depicts physically the essence of an issue that they’d like to work on. This could be, say, by standing and posing or acting out a scenario; drawing or painting a picture for the group to see; sharing an object that, for them, carries particular resonance with the issue they’re facing; presenting a song, poem, or piece of prose that expresses the core of the issue and any feelings they hold around it. The group then moves onto choosing a presenter.
The choice of presenter could be influenced by, say, the felt sense of imminence or urgency in what a person has depicted; the degree of complexity that emerged as they sought to depict different dimensions; the scope for experimentation with actual changes in what that person portrayed. This would feel different to an ordinary rational evaluation of the relative merits of different bids and, instead, would call for courageous sharing of empathy, intuitions and gut-instinct discernment.
At the exploration stage, the peers in the set would pose questions and reflections physically, by doing something that invites reflection and response from the presenter. This could be, for instance, to stand with the presenter, mirror his or her pose and ask them what they notice; move with the person to physical places where they can view their picture from a range of different angles; invite the person to act out any metaphors they had used in a song or poem then to see what emerges.
Moving between exploration and action stages, the set would invite the presenter to try things imaginatively that could stretch the scenario and themselves in relation to it. This could involve, for instance, inviting the presenter to experiment with radically different poses to find one that best represents the stance they want to take; making drastic changes to the picture and noticing how that feels; reciting the song or poem using opposite metaphors to those they had used originally.
This challenge phase of the Gestalt process is sometimes described as co-creating a ‘safe emergency’ with the presenter. It allows him or her to experiment with and experience, say, moving between extremes, or to very different places (physically; psychologically; systemically; emotionally) to where they might naturally prefer or default to. It enables them to push their own boundaries; to speak what may ordinarily feel unspeakable for them, to do what may normally feel un-doable for them.
The final action stage would involve inviting the presenter to depict physically, say, their aspiration in relation to the issue they have presented; the physical stance that best represents that aspiration for them; any obstacles or enablers that they could envisage on route – using physical objects in the room (e.g. chairs) to represent them – then physically navigating through them; or physically to take what they choose as their next steps, adopting the posture or stance they will take as they do so.
What have been your experiences of using Gestalt in Action Learning? I’d love to hear from you!
[See also: Toys; Crab to dolphin; Let's get physical]
8/12/2022 05:44:54 pm
Thank you for this instructive and very interesting explanation, Nick. It is very helpful!
9/12/2022 08:53:13 pm
Thank you, Thomas. I appreciate your encouraging feedback! I have used Gestalt a lot in individual coaching. This blog is a thought experiment, to imagine how it could be used in an action learning set.
9/12/2022 10:32:01 pm
What an extraordinary approach, Nick. I've never seen it but I'd love to try it!
9/12/2022 10:33:14 pm
Thank you, Ted. Yes - me too! I'm wondering about setting up a Gestalt action learning set with experienced Gestalt practitioners, to try it and see what we discover as we do it.
9/12/2022 10:37:32 pm
I love Gestalt. I often use it in coaching but I haven't heard of it being used in a group like this. It's a fascinating idea to imagine the group posing "questions" physically.
9/12/2022 10:41:32 pm
Thank you, Lara. Gestalt is one of my favourite coaching approaches too. This Gestalt case study of physicality in coaching may be of interest to you too? https://www.nick-wright.com/just-do-it.html
9/12/2022 10:43:41 pm
Hi Nick. The experiment principle is very important. It frees people to try new things. They don't need to worry to fail.
9/12/2022 10:46:09 pm
Hi Anja. Thank you. Yes, I agree. I frame everything in Gestalt as "an invitation, not an expectation". That enables clients to choose and co-create their own 'safe emergencies' and boundaries, without feeling a pressure to do so.
Kelly Kinnenbrew PhD
19/12/2022 04:29:07 pm
I am not familiar with this methodology (“Gestalt therapy”) but sounds like role play from Rogerian and family systems therapies.
19/12/2022 04:31:49 pm
Hi Kelly. In Gestalt, we tend to think of real-play, although this could include an element of role-play. This practical case example may be of interest? https://www.nick-wright.com/just-do-it.html. Let me know what you think and how far, in your view, it may resonate with Rogerian and family systems approaches?
19/12/2022 04:33:10 pm
What exactly do you mean by using Gestalt in Action Learnig, cause Action Learning is learning by doing...?
19/12/2022 04:34:18 pm
Hi Matthias. The blog itself is a thought-experiment: to imagine how a Gestalt approach could be applied in an action learning context.
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