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Five Perspectives of Gestalt ©

Malcolm Parlett, PhD

The description of the five perspectives calls for imagining walking around a statue, viewing it from five different locations. It is the same statue, but there are five versions of it. Each perspective offers something new and different to the viewer.
In considering any phenomenon or process (like a coach and client working together,) there are these five different ways of engaging with what is happening. Each explores a central Gestalt theme or priority.

Following are descriptions of each perspective. Remember: they are not fixed categories, they are dependent on each other, they overlap, they complement one another, and all five perspectives are necessary for building a comprehensive understanding and witnessing of the whole.

 

The Perspective of Interrelating

Interrelating (relating interdependently) is the engine of connection, enabling human beings to weave their web of mutual influence and collaboration, a world-wide matrix which underlies all human systems, organizations, and community life.
Whenever a person meets another – for instance, as part of a coaching session – each party begins to affect the other. Something like a dance between them is co-created and a ‘relational field’ comes into being which is unique in its qualities and is greater than the sum of the two individuals’ separate experiences. The perspective of interrelating opens our eyes to this co-creative and interactive process that occurs in human meetings of all kinds.
Other features about how people relate to one another also become visible. Understanding the nature of contacting, of ‘being in contact with the other (i.e. the ‘not me’, or what is ‘different’) lies at the heart of Gestalt inquiry. So does recognizing the prevalent human need to belong, to affiliate with, and to join with other human beings. This is primary, yet in the making of strong affiliations (an ‘us’) we can easily become divided from ‘them’. 
There are also common difficulties (e.g. fears, hostilities, projections, shame issues) which arise and are dealt with continuously in relationships of all kinds. People and systems have varying degrees of skill and effectiveness in dealing with others respectfully. There are learnable skills that are intrinsic to Gestalt practice, for example, to do with building trust, sorting out misunderstandings, managing differences, setting and keeping to boundaries, as well as maintaining a balance between giving and receiving, all of which are critically important in our building or undermining human relational experience.
A Gestalt education enables us to handle in ourselves and others, common difficulties like loneliness, depersonalisation, hatred, alienation from communities, and perpetuation of resentments and bitterness. Equally, at the other end of the scale, gaining facility with this perspective supports our capacity to witness and learn about the miracles of relating to one another – through our loving, sexual expression, deep respect for otherness, and recognition of our needs for intimacy, trust, and fearlessness. In encountering the marvel of another human being, so different in terms of life history, personality, and attitudes yet so similar in a multitude of ways that can be discovered, we gain access to our ‘common humanity’ where ‘the other is me’.

 

The Perspective of Embodying

The perspective of embodying (fully living in the body) draws attention to the fact that we are substantial, not virtual beings. We exist as flesh and bone, a miracle of biological sophistication. The perspective opens us to fully lived existence that includes experiencing body, mind, spirit, and emotions. Thinking or ‘talking about’ activities involve mainly mind and language (as in email communication) – that is, nowhere near encapsulating the full scope of human experience. In relating to others in person, there is always a non-verbal accompaniment; we communicate through and with our whole bodies, our ‘presence’, whether we are speaking or not. 
Thus, as important as are cognition, intellect, and speech, it is through our physical being, our bodies, that we gain primary access to the world. Through our sensory and emotional feeling capacities, as well as through movement and having substance, we are able to orient ourselves in the physical world and to the social and psychological environments we live within. The more embodied we are, the more we are in touch with the rest of life. 
Acquiring the perspective of embodying, even more than the others, requires direct participation in order to learn: the perspective calls for something different from an intellectual exercise. Becoming and remaining embodied is by not automatic, especially in a culture where most of us are physically desensitised, hold ourselves in tension, and are encouraged to be out of touch with various kinds of feelings for much of the time. Living a contemporary lifestyle, we do not have to use our bodies in active and useful ways – exercising becomes a lifestyle choice rather than intrinsic to ordinary daily living. For those with physical limitations, health issues, or who are old and frail – being embodied, in the sense meant here, is often even more essential (and often more evident) than among many of the supposedly ‘able-bodied’. 
Becoming more embodied can lead to changes (such as increase in bodily flexibility, better sleep, access to more joy, and more awareness of where tensions are held). There are numerous body-related activities - including sports and yoga, singing, walking, dancing that can all enhance our sense of ‘being a body’, as opposed to ‘having a body’– but perhaps the most significant learning is to attend to ‘felt states’(like being stressed or relaxed, troubled or at peace, curious or turned off), and finding ways to shift one’s felt sense through focusing upon it and allowing change to happen, or extending forms of physical expression (perhaps through voice or dance). From this perspective, a coaching event can be seen as a meeting of physical beings with appetites and desires and emotions. They may at various times feel cut off from their bodies (temporarily or sometimes almost permanently), or have an abusive self-relationship with their bodies, or may be under- or over-bounded, but the involvement of the body is inevitable. 
At the level of systems, it is necessary to remember that every organisation, family, or government is a ‘body’ of connected individuals, who may (or may not) speak with one ‘voice’, or move ahead in a co-ordinated way. Some communities and organisations ‘walk their talk’ – we say that they ‘embody’ their aspirations. Others are split between what they think they do and what they actually do: they may not embody their values or vision; they have not ‘taken it to their heart’, nor ‘feel it in their guts’, or do not ‘carry it in their bones’. The language of much of our life is full of references to body. Our lives are bodily lived.

 

The Perspective of Responding

Taking this perspective (responding to the situation, self-organizing in response to present circumstances) we enter another whole dimension of existence: living in the world means that we take a part in it, we cannot but involve ourselves in the interconnected world, at least to some extent: we cannot survive alone and unsupported. And, in doing so, we organize our lives (and ourselves) ‘in response to’ situations that we meet: crises, opportunities, good times, disappointments, challenges, setbacks, promotions etc. 
How people self-organise, in order to function as ‘response-able’ adults, parents, colleagues, participants, leaders and followers in the world; and their approach to responsibility – wanting it, avoiding it, worrying about it, or accepting it when it is given to them – are critical to how they act in various contexts. Our capacity to respond calls for balances between ‘being in sole charge of one’s life’ and operating ‘as one of the team’ or wider group; and between ‘making things happen’ and ‘letting things happen’. 
Acquiring this perspective brings consciousness to what makes for effective leadership or to how a less assertive person can become more assertive, or an overly directed, agenda-driven manager can become more ‘field-sensitive’, open, and allowing. Many adventure schemes for young people, and training programmes for those in the emergency services, are in effect educating people to take on this perspective – to be ‘response-able’. Programmes to promote leadership and assertiveness training are also about fostering this perspective. 
How we enter any situation is partly determined by what the situation is – each of us is field-sensitive (or situationally aware), albeit to differing degrees. However, we are also bringing in our past, our habitual tendencies, our patterned ways of being (or fixed gestalts). As human beings we inevitably have to deal with large chunks of existence by automatic means. This is what makes living in a complex world possible. In fact, we can be disadvantaged if we enter a situation without the necessary supports of relevant previous experience – and at these times we can easily experience a sense of shame and inadequacy.
The perspective of responding brings our attention to our patterns of taking in and giving out, of beginning and finishing, of initiating and following. Our patterns of responding are many and various, and we can learn – as part of adopting this perspective – to become more and more aware of them. This is an essential part of all Gestalt explorations. 
With ever more immersion in this perspective, we may confront the ways in which we become disorganized, lose coherence and sense of direction, or sink into reduced confidence or – in extreme cases – the will to live or take care of ourselves. Equally, the perspective enables us to see and grasp the unfolding opportunities of life, to see how our patterns are also rewards and strengths, and essential supports for living well, and to appreciate that we have – through our life experience – a specialist way of being ourselves, a unique being with expertise that the planet and our fellow members of humankind require of us.

 

The Perspective of Experimenting

Experimenting is called for when human beings are moving beyond established patterns and into unfamiliar territory – like becoming a parent for the first time, studying a new subject, changing employment, or writing a first novel. When someone goes into a coaching relationship, they are likely to be in new territory. Even the beginning of a routine event is not identical, and offers unknown possibilities. The perspective both normalises and deepens our understanding of what it takes to embark on something different and unknown. It may be accompanied by fear, and yet we know that this is often a close ally of excitement and enthusiasm, the full embrace of life unfolding. 
While styles of responding – along with our deeply held values, human customs and beliefs – all provide structures and necessary stability for our lives, a balancing experimental attitude is also required, especially in a world of flux and unpredictability. We need continuous invention, creative outlooks, and the capacity to ‘shape shift’ more than ever. Moving to this perspective supports us to think afresh, to engage with the new, and to stay open to emerging solutions. Humour, high spirits, and play are often indications of an experimental attitude, in the sense of experiment applied here.
Experimenting requires us to stay in the ‘here and now’. To try something different, to improvise, to look from a different angle, or to ‘go live’ all require direct participation in unfolding existence. Creativity and releasing of human talents depend on the willingness to cross into the unknown, which may often be ‘beyond our comfort zone’. An education in the perspective of experimenting can help a person (or group) to become more confident in being innovative, standing up for difference, and more resilient and interested in the face of obstacles and discouragement from others who hold a more conservative position at that time. 
With this perspective we can move to regarding life as continuous experiment, realizing too much of it can go along automatically if the impulse to experiment has been lost or eclipsed. With only limited access to this perspective, we can become over-cautious, ungrounded, or insufficiently supported. Losing the perspective signals that we may be losing our appetite for life, ‘clinging to the familiar’, or being avoidant towards oncoming change. Championing  the perspective of experimenting is not about promoting change for change’s sake – discernment is always required and some changes are damaging to self and others, and some experimenting can be addictive. Courses and activities that invite people to extend themselves gently into new areas and ways of being, thinking, and playing, are providing opportunity to experiment in the sense meant here. Playing in a jazz band, drawing, creative writing, improvised drama and many other activities that play with innovative and open-ended scenarios are all forms of education in the perspective of experimenting, although it relates to the whole of life, not just with one sector of it, such as the creative arts.
Gestalt work is inherently experimental – ‘Try this out’, ‘Test this against your own experience’, ‘Do not swallow someone else’s suggestion before tasting it and chewing it – how does it feel?’ Nothing in this work can be exactly predicted or planned to the last detail, as the approach demands present-centred, in-the-moment adjustments and flexibility, which can alter the whole field in a stroke. 

 

The Perspective of Self-Recognising

Self-recognising (reflecting, acknowledging ourselves, learning and integrating) is marked by the capacity to ‘know oneself’, to make meaning, to reflect on our lives and indeed on our own conscious patterns and thoughts. The perspective acknowledges this essential human capacity for self-reflection, self-monitoring, and awakening to lived existence. In an interconnected world, where each person necessarily has influence upon others, self-recognising has a vital function – including, for instance, discovering how we affect others through the way we relate to them, and how mass beliefs may be dictating our choices. 
Acquiring and practicing the perspective of self-recognising is also about noticing our current position in life, what needs are essential, what our everyday reactions are, what our limitations are, and what special gifts we have. In systems, it is about gaining collective understanding of how all involved operate as a shared enterprise. Self-recognizing is often portrayed as ‘waking up’, not least to how interdependent we are, or to how we are living our (brief) existence on the planet, or managing our work-life balance. 
Acquiring a capacity for self-recognising can be assisted in many ways, for instance through writing, meditation, therapy or often in the organizational world ‘360° feedback’. Anything that is ‘eye-opening’ or gives us data, or helps us to reflect on our participation in the systems we are in, can enhance and strengthen this perspective. To deepen our understanding, or to support our taking on this perspective, what is often required is that we slow down: we need to interrupt our rushing ahead, stress, speedy multi-tasking, and hyper-activity. Otherwise they can undermine the process of self-discovery and deep reflection that supports this perspective. Losing this perspective can involve us in downward spirals – as manifested, for instance, in automaton-like behaviour, mindlessness, ‘tuning out’; or in exaggerated self-importance and avoidance of looking at oneself at all objectively. However – and this is important – taking on the perspective of self-recognising is not about destructive self-criticism, or earnest self-improvement.
In Gestalt work, for instance in coaching, there are many moments and opportunities for self-recognizing: reviews of the work to date, reflections in and out of the sessions themselves, making sense of what has happened, seeing what the next issue or concern is to address, telling a different story, and so on. There will be moments of gaining a fresh insight or seeing things in a new way. These are important moments: the existing gestalt is de-structured in order for it possibly to be re-structured, awareness increases, and with it comes greater choice – the result of self-recognizing.


Assuming the Perspectives

The five perspectives described are all central to Gestalt practice. They refer to fundamental Gestalt values or priorities. Each offers a particular vantage point on the whole that allows us to examine a situation, or to consider our experience, from a different angle or point of view. As we enter more fully into the realm of each perspective and gain experience with it, we – the viewers – become more sensitized and more informed regarding what it can teach us. We both comprehend what the dimension refers to, and in doing so begin a process of applying it to ourselves.  
The knowing and the living of these perspectives means they can be drawn on as basic resources for learning and growth. They become supports for more evolved action in the world, for the enterprise of living today: they provide us with new competence to meet the world in all its complexity and with all its hazards, opportunities, and pressures. More simply, they are resources for living well, whether defined in terms that refer to personal, spiritual, psychological, communal, or organizational development. They are widely applicable, help liberate the human spirit, and support each person, group, community, or organisation to flourish and become more satisfying and effective as a human and social enterprise.
The perspectives are easily grasped and are open to deep investigation. As resources they are universal, and already are given emphasis (albeit in different ways) in every culture, sub-culture, group, family, organisation, community. They are resources for learning and growth that human beings cannot do without. Unlike money, another kind of human resource, they lie within each person’s or each community’s grasp, and they are unlimited in scope. 
I have discovered that the deeper our engagement with the five perspectives as resources, the more they ‘speak’ to us, and the range of applications extends indefinitely. 

© Malcolm Parlett Ph.D
December 2008


 

 

Mel Kimura Bucholtz - Discovering the Gestalt Principle

Max Wertheimer sat on a train ready to leave Berlin station. His body suddenly jerked forward. He immediately realized it was the train next to his that began moving, not his. His brain had mistaken the other train's movement for his own train. Why?
 
He realized what happened to his body was the result of a message from his eyes to his brain which created a mistaken reaction, jerking his body forward. He corrected this reaction by recognizing that the train next to his had actually moved.
 
Why was this realization so important in the discovery of Gestalt psychology? 
 
What were his brain and eyes doing that was so important?
 
He realized that the brain and the eyes were constantly unconsciously scanning the surroundings in order to keep the body physically stable and balanced at all times.
 
At that moment his brain was answering this question: "what should the body do to stay balanced when the train suddenly moves?" He consciously corrected the brain's incorrect unconscious interpretation by adjusting himself to the event that actually took place.
 
By discovering the principle of identifying the appropriate form of behavior needed to match the actual event -a gestalt- and adjusting himself accordingly, Wertheimer once again became steady and stable in a temporarily destabilizing situation. This experience gave him a profound personal insight into the most basic Gestalt principle: the brain, through visual perception, is constantly making choices (searching for a figure or form, a gestalt) to react to best to keep the body stable.
 
The name he gave to this naturally occurring eye/brain function is Gestalt making; to make the strange into a familiar form, one made from isolated, disconnected, or random, actions, surrounding a person.
 
All living animals, faced with disorienting and uncertain conditions, quickly attempt to find some way to join the disconnected pieces together to make sense, an understandable form, of their uncertainty. This action is called making Gestalts, or creating understandable forms to use to respond to situations appropriately.
 
This activity is constantly happening before thinking enters the picture.
 
From Scientific Principle to Personal Behavior In the human world, we often try to make sense of our uncertain, or unsettling, feelings, feelings we experience in situations perceived as strange, such as unusual and unfamiliar family moments, or those at work or in personal relationships.
 
Our brain is constantly trying to make sense of the world according to an inner picture of reality we each privately develop and maintain, one often made independent of the actual conditions in the world itself. It is an activity endlessly taking place.
 
Gestalt Psychology is the name Wertheimer and others gave to the scientifically studied physical activity of how personal perception influences personal behavior. The common example is looking at a picture of a vase and seeing either the vase in the center or else seeing two faces, one on either side of the vase. How we see one or the other, vase or faces, depends on how we are looking at it.
 
But how do we go from the scientific recognition of this eye/brain function to actually learning how to use this knowledge of Gestalt making to better behave in our day-to-day lives?
 
Learning about Gestalt Making and Living Safely and Fully The better we become at matching our brain's interpretations of changes taking place in the world with the actual conditions around us, the more we feel ourselves feeling safe, stable and confident, while successfully engaging the actual conditions of the world around us, moment to moment.
 
Transforming Gestalt from a science of perception into a way of behaving allows us to go from constantly imagining how to figure things out, to actually seeing things as they really are, while meeting them as we are best able to do so, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
 
By learning how to make these kinds of Gestalt recognitions, and understanding how to behave accordingly, we learn how to become more stable and confidently at home in our own bodies, in our relationships, and more effective in our professional lives.

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