In this chapter I describe what
I call "Gestalt group process," which integrates the
principles and practices of Gestalt therapy and group dynamics.
It is a model in which the leader wears bifocal lenses, paying
attention to the development of the individuals in the group
and to the development of the group as a social system. From
this perspective, the group is regarded not just as a collection
of individuals, but as a potent psychosocial environment which
profoundly affects the feelings, attitudes and behaviours of
the individuals in that system, and conversely, is profoundly
affected by the feelings, attitudes and behaviours of the individual
in that system. The chapter is divided into two sections: The
first part deals with some personal and historical antecedents,
and the second part with the theory and practice of this bifocal
approach to personal development in groups.
Part I. Background
This chapter actually began five years ago, when,
halfway through a three day Gestalt personal growth workshop
I was leading, a disgruntled member jumped up from his chair,
strode in front of me and shouted "This is not a real Gestalt
group, and you are not a real Gestalt leader!". I took
a deep breath, centred myself in my chair, and asked him to
specify his complaints. In rapid fire succession, he catalogued
them. He said that I had not used the empty chair, not even
once, that I had discouraged him from working on a dream at
the opening session until more support for this had developed
in the group, that I had allowed individuals to give feedback
to one another and to engage in other forms of "bullshit."
Needless to say, I had mixed reactions to this
confrontation. One part of me felt defensive and wanted to give
him a detailed resume of my credentials as a Gestalt therapist
and group leader. Another part, the group leader, welcomed the
challenge. His behaviour meant that the group, through one of
its members, was testing out the boundaries of authority. By
taking a stand against me as leader, this person was setting
a new norm and perhaps moving the group toward increasing differentiation
and autonomy. I was from this perspective that I responded.
However, I was left with strong feelings of frustration mixed
with despair. The question that formed in my mind was, "How
has it come about that so many have mistaken the medium for
the message in Gestalt, and have confused the techniques and
gimmicks for the essence of the method?" In this chapter,
I attempt to answer my own question, and to deliver the lecture
on Gestalt group process I wanted to give five years ago to
this questioning client.
In retrospect, it seems wise that I chose to repress
that lecture. At that time, I was struggling to integrate what
I had learned about group from colleagues at the Gestalt Institute
of Cleveland and from staff persons I had worked with at the
National Training Laboratories. I was assimilating the powerful
experiences in groups and community that had occurred for me
as a participant of the Arica Training Institute in San Francisco.
When I returned to Cleveland from the West Coast, I intentionally
changed my style of leadership from being a Gestalt "therapist"
to being a teacher of process on an intrapersonal, interpersonal
group level. I had not abandoned individual work in a group,
but expanding awareness of "what is" to include these
other dimensions. Having been socialised as a professional in
a variety of types of groups I was trying to integrate what
appeared to be a number of differences, conflicts and polarities
in relation to individuals and systems. The more familiar I
became with each polarity, the more I began to realise that
I did not have to make an either or choice. Having struggled
with these dilemmas for several years, I now believe that I
have come to what is a serviceable integration of these polarities
for me, which I trust will be of some service to colleagues
who are concerned with some of these same issues.
This model is based on two assumptions: first,
that the development of the creative potential in individuals
is dependent on and related to a well functioning and healthy
social system; and second, that groups, individuals, go through
stages of development in the process of change that can be roughly
characterised behaviourally as a move from dependence through
counterdependence to independence. This model then requires
a change in leader role and activity over time. It differs substantially
from the popular notion of Gestalt groups, namely, that of individual
therapy done in a group setting, as practised by Fritz Perls
and others in their workshops, and so widely communicated through
films and video-tapes. Paradoxically, it builds on what Fritz
articulated in the theory of Gestalt but did not practice, for
reasons which I shall go into later.
What is not generally understood is that both
Gestalt therapy and group dynamics developed from common roots
in psychology and philosophy. So before describing the way in
which this integrated group process model works, I want to fill
in some of this important historical background.
Essentially, the concept of contact and contact
boundaries, so central in Gestalt theory, is a statement about
the individual organism in an environmental field, and the interaction
of each with the other. Laura Perls (1976, p. 223) describes
contact as a boundary phenomenon between organism and environment:
"It is the other acknowledgment of, and the coping with
the other, the not-me, the different, the strange."
In Gestalt theory we also consider the individual
and the environment as a unified field or system, in which all
parts are interdependent, so as a unified field or system, in
which all parts are interdependent, so that a change in one
part of the total affects all other parts, This relation between
the individual and the environment is succinctly stated by 'Fritz
Perls (1973, p. 16) when he speaks of the contact boundary:
No individual is self-sufficient; the individual
can exist only in an environmental field. The individual is
inevitably, at every moment, a part of some field, which includes
both him and his environment. The nature of the relationship
between him and his environment determines the human being's
behaviour. With this new outlook, the environment and the organism
stand in a relationship of mutuality to one another.
This quotation, or a similar one, could as easily
have been taken from the writings of Kurt Lewin, the seminal
thinker in the field of group dynamics. This is not surprising,
considering that both of these men derived their models of personal
and social change from two sources: the work of the German psychologists,
Koffka, Khler and Wertheimer (whose experimental studies
in perception and learning became the foundation of Gestalt
Psychology); and the contribution of a German researcher and
physician, Kurt Goldstein) who extended the principles to the
study of the whole person. While each of these men, Lewin and
Perls, were dedicated to changing behaviour, they developed
their ideas into what may appear to be very different and seemingly
polarised fields of application; individuals and systems. Lewin
was a social psychologist, and although he did not lose sight
of the individual, what became "figural" for him was
the social environment. The major goal for him was social change.
His work as a scholar and research scientist provided the theoretical
foundations of the field of applied behavioural science, which
includes what is now known as group dynamics, organisational
development and large systems change.
Perls was a physician and psychotherapist. For
him, the individual was "figural" and individual change
the major goal of his method. Perls, like Lewin, saw the individual
from a systems perspective, but he focused in on the phenomenology
of the intrapersonal system. Indeed, the major goal in Gestalt
therapy is to "heal the splits" within, the personal
sub systems; mind, body and soul, and integration is defined
as all parts being unified and available for contact with the
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. Although Gestalt therapy and
group dynamics developed simultaneously in the United States,
they ran parallel rather than intersecting courses. Perls acknowledged
the contribution of Lewin to Gestalt psychology, but remained
an individualist and an individual therapist throughout his
career. He never claimed to be doing group therapy. In a talk
delivered to the American Psychological Association in September,
1966, he spelled out the ways in which he differed from group
therapists and encounter group leaders:
In contrast to the usual type of group meeting,
I carry the load (the session, by either doing individual therapy
or conducting mass experiments. I often interfere if the group
plays opinion and interpretation games or has similar purely
verbal encounters. In the Gestalt workshop, anyone who feels
the urge can work with me. I am available, but never pushing.
A dyad is temporarily developed between myself and the patient;
but the rest of the group is fully involved, though seldom as
active participants. Mostly they act as an audience which is
stimulated to do quite a bit of silent self-therapy (Perls,
1967, p. 309).
However, although Perls expressed his preference
for individual therapy in a group setting, in that same paper
he said that he considered individual therapy to be out of date,
and that it should be replaced by group workshops. Through his
many years of experience he had discovered the power of a group
in the process of individual change, but he did not, or could
not, exploit this learning. For Perls, the participants in a
workshop were a collection of individuals. He used them as an
audience, regarding them as an important presence or social
environment that could be used in the service of the needs of
the individual; the participants were discouraged from becoming
This particular model of one-to-one therapy had
another raison d'etre, beyond that of personal preference. The
original and explicitly understood goal of Gestalt workshops
in the 1950s and early '60s was to train mental health professionals
in the theory and methods of Gestalt as it applied to individual
therapy. Fritz and Laura Perls invented this strategy of experiential
learning, believing that a method which stressed the phenomenology
of the "here and now" needed to be experienced in
the here-and-now. This turned out to be a very creative strategy
for communicating and teaching Gestalt as a new theory and method
of practice, especially in view of the professional scene that
Laura and Fritz Perls stepped into when they arrived in New
York City in 1947 to establish their practice.
At that time, the psychoanalytic approach was
firmly entrenched in the mental health training institutions,
supported by a vast literature and a host of journals and professional
societies devoted exclusively to the analytic approach. By contrast,
only two books in Gestalt therapy had been published by 1952,
when the New York Gestalt Institute was established: Ego, Hunger
and Aggression by F. Perls (1947) and Gestalt Therapy by Perls,
Hefferline and Goodman (1951). The workshop method, developed
by the Perls and later used by, among others, Isador From, Paul
Goodman, and Paul Weisz, proved to be a dramatic and effective
teaching model and a powerful way of recruiting mental health
professionals for training. It was an appropriate model for
the needs and learning goals of the trainees. At that time,
the participants in these workshops were either practising therapists
or advanced graduate students in one of the mental health disciplines.
Many of them had some previous experience as a client in therapy.
Most of them knew a good deal about psychotherapeutic theories
and clinical practice, but little about what to do with a living
client. Gestalt therapy, with its emphasis on what to do and
how to do it, provided some sorely needed tools, and the workshop
setting made it possible to see and experience the effects of
Given this history, we can view group dynamics
and Gestalt therapy as two species from the same lineage. From
the phenotypes, or superficial characteristics, they do not
seem to belong to the same category. They do not look alike;
they dress differently talk differently, and often do not think
alike. Nevertheless, they have the potential for mating with
each other, and creating a new breed, a new synthesis.
The Emerging Gestalt
This new form, Gestalt group process, was evolved
by the teaching faculty of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.
It represents an integration of the experiences of that community
as well as the conceptualisations of a number of individuals
in that community.* I will be reporting about my view and particular
integration, but it is essential to acknowledge the joint creation
of these formulations.
* We have had a community process at the Gestalt
Institute of Cleveland which makes it difficult to ascribe a
formulation to any one individual. Since we began offering workshops
and training programs to the public in 1958, the majority of
programs have been planned, designed and led by staff teams
in varying combinations. Because of this there has been a continuous
and reciprocal faculty learning process, so that the formulations
and practices of any one person tend to be that person's unique
synthesis rather than that person's unique contribution. However,
there are several persons whose inputs and perspectives on group
dynamics and system processes have been highly important and
influential. They are Edwin Nevis, Carolyn Hirsch Lukesmeier,
Leonard Hirsch, and Richard Wallen (deceased).
Since 1958, when the faculty of the Gestalt Institute
of Cleveland began offering Gestalt groups to the general public,
three distinct forms of group processes have been used: the
individually-orientated psychotherapeutic model; the personal
growth model, sometimes described as "therapy for normals";
and the group-process-oriented model, which I shall describe
in greater detail in this chapter. These models have some things
in common: namely, the theoretical perspectives of Gestalt therapy,
as well as certain methods and techniques that have emerged
from the practice of Gestalt therapy. However, the goals or
tasks of each of these groups are substantially different, and
the leader interventions are directed to different levels of
phenomenological process in each case.
A schema has been developed that can be useful
in understanding the differences between these three types of
groups. David Singer et al. (1975) have characterised small
groups in terms of two basic parameters: (a) the major goal
or task of the group; and (b) the psychological levels involved
in the task. Group tasks are placed on a continuum that has
learning (in the sense of cognitive/perceptual change) at one
end and psychological change (in the sense of altered coping
capacity, personality structure, or response repertoire) at
the other end. In between is the region of dual task systems,
with co-equal learning and change tasks located at the midpoint.
By "levels," these authors are referring to the three
kinds of processes that are occurring simultaneously in every
group: intrapersonal process, interpersonal processes, and group
The original teaching members of the Gestalt Institute
of Cleveland were trained by the faculty of the New York Institute
for Gestalt Therapy; Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, Isador From,
Paul Goodman and Paul Weisz. In terms of Singer et al.'s schema,
all of our teachers operated from the model of the individually-oriented
psychotherapeutic group. Psychological change was the major
task or purpose of this group experience, and the leader interventions
were primarily on the intrapersonal level of functioning. For
the most part, interpersonal transactions were limited to those
that occurred between the leader and a group member. This was
the model which we naturally followed as we began to lead our
own groups in Cleveland. However, over time, we began to realise
that this type of group process was not appropriate for the
needs or characteristics of the people who were coming to our
workshops. For one thing, a number of group members found this
intensive intrapersonal experience a stressful one that required
more than a weekend to assimilate and integrate. Furthermore,
most of our participants wanted something other than being cured
of their neuroses; they wanted to learn something about themselves
and about the Gestalt perspective, philosophy and values. Many
of them did not want to become therapists; they wanted to find
some better ways of relating to themselves and to each other,
and perhaps to see whether Gestalt could be meaningfully applied
to their "outside" lives as teachers, businessmen,
family members, etc.
Gradually, the staff began to shift to a personal
growth model, and to design these experiences with dual and
co-equal learning and change tasks. In other words, we added
the task of understanding Gestalt on a perceptual/cognitive
level to the task of personal change. The major focus of the
learning remained on the intrapersonal level of awareness, but
the leaders stimulated and used the interpersonal reactions
among the group members to facilitate the dual learning and
change tasks. Our roles as leaders became more varied and complex.
We became teachers and significant others to the group members
as well as therapists. We gave short lectures on Gestalt theory
and the process of change. We modelled what we were teaching
by sharing our feelings and perceptions in the here-and-now;
we used a variety of exercises so that all members of the group
would have some common experiences from which to learn about
their intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning.
The thrust to develop an expanded model that would
include members' learning about group processes came about because
some of us experienced dissonance between our values and what
people actually received reinforcement for during a personal
growth group. As a faculty we had moved away from the individually-oriented
psychotherapeutic model, partly to avoid some of the paradoxes
and imbalances of this type of group process, which, among other
things, reinforces the "cult of the individual" and
creates a leader dependent relationship between members and
* As Yalom (1970, p. 450) pointed out with
reference to the leadership style of Fritz Perls: "...
Perls was so acutely aware of the necessity for each individual
to assume responsibility for himself and his therapy. Much of
Perls' modius operandi was, in fact. explicitly directed toward
that end. Yet, beneath the technique, beneath the imperative
to assume responsibility, the Gestalt therapist creates a bewildering
paradox: on the one hand, he exhorts the patient to be, to act
for himself, while, on the other hand, he says, through his
leadership style: 'I will take charge, I will lead you. Depend
on me to provide energy and ingenious techniques.' "
However, while the personal growth group model
does facilitate learnings about oneself in relation to others,
and about the necessity of transcending the self-boundaries
in order to enter into and maintain interpersonal relationships,
the leader still maintains a central role throughout the group
process, and the members tend to come away from these experiences
with the belief that it is sufficient to express oneself and
be responsible for oneself in order to create a better personal
life, or family, or work team, or community. This belief is
not only naive but dysfunctional, since it neglects the reality
of the social environment in which we are all embedded. Given
the persistent dilemmas and difficulties which we all face in
becoming conscious human beings in this lifetime, and living
as we do within the context of a new world order that is struggling
to be born, it no longer seems sufficient to free the individual
to become more differentiated and individuated without bringing
in the polarities of being related and committed to that which
transcends the self. Waiter Kempler (1974, pp. 64-65), a Gestalt
family therapist, has written eloquently on this point:
Relatedness is often considered optional. It
isn't. We are related. The question is not if, but how. The
extremes of relatedness are separateness and unity. Separateness
is a dimension of relatedness, not a disruption of it.... From
the neighbourhood squabbles of children to the challenging task
of diplomats at the United Nations, all endeavour is characterised
by the endlessly undulating desire for separateness and unity....
Although the best preparation for unity is the successful separation,
it is not enough for the therapist to stop work at this point.
Neither separateness nor union is the goal of the therapeutic
process, but rather the exhortation of the endless and often
painful undulation between them.
Gestalt group process, then, is an attempt to
create conditions or learning about what it means to be a member
of a group (whether that group be a personal growth group, a
work team, a family, or a community), so that the polarities
and dilemmas of separateness and unity can be experienced in
the context of personal growth.
Part II. Gestalt Group Process
In a Gestalt group-process-oriented experience,
the leader is committed to working with both the individual
and the group for the enhancement of both. This stance is not
unique. It has been developed and described by a number of theoretically
diverse practitioners, including Bion (1961, the originator
of the Tavistock model in England, Berne (1966), in his early
work on group transactional analysis, Whitaker and Lieberman
(1964), Yalom (1970) and Astrachan (1970). What I am presenting
is an integration of this group-as-a-system perspective with
Gestalt group practice.
In some sense, a Gestalt therapist always works
from a systems perspective (whether the client is an individual,
a family or a group) and considers therapy as a process that
take place within the boundaries of a social system. Like all
social systems, the therapeutic system consists of people, a
common task and a method for accomplishing this task. In Gestalt
therapy terms, personal growth can be described as a boundary
phenomenon, the result of contact between self and environment.
The therapist functions as teacher of phenomenological process,
and assists the client to identify how and in what ways awareness
and energy are being blocked and excitement and contact with
the environment are being avoided. The therapist provides the
client with some learning tools, namely Gestalt methods and
techniques, and establishes a particular kind of learning environment
not only by the way she/he uses these tools, but also by and
through the emotional relationship that is established with
Within the boundaries of that social system, phenomenological
processes are occurring simultaneously on all three system levels:
the intrapersonal level, the interpersonal level and the systems
level. What I mean by systems level process are the dynamic
patterns of interaction that develop among people over time
and create a way of being together. These system processes create
a social milieu which affects the way people in that system
feel about themselves and each other, as well as the way they
behave in that environment. These system processes account for
the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Some examples
of system processes are the beliefs and assumptions that people
hold, the way they go about accomplishing their tasks and making
decisions, the roles they play, and the informal and formal
rules and norms that operate in the relationship.
Given the nature of the contract in individual
therapy, which is to help the client change personally, most
of the therapist's interventions direct the client's attention
to processes that are occurring on the intrapersonal or interpersonal
level of awareness. The output, that is, what gets learned by
the client, is a great deal about what goes on inside the boundary
of her/his skin, often a considerable amount about what takes
place in the process of making interpersonal contact, but not
much about what occurs on the dyadic or system level. This is
understandable, since the therapist is a part of the system,
and this makes it difficult for the therapist to be an objective
observer of the system processes. Furthermore, the therapist's
role as a teacher and guide through the labyrinths of individual
phenomenological processes necessitates certain priorities.
In working with individuals, the major questions for the therapist
are: "How can I tap the resources available to me so that
I will expand the learning potentials of this client?"
and "How can I create a relationship that will promote
optimal conditions for learning for this client?"
Let us now shift to the group situation. In groups,
there are many clients present, and the interactional possibilities
increase exponentially, particularly if conditions are such
that the members can interact with each other as well as with
the therapist. The therapist now has the opportunity of being
a manager of a learning process, one in which the critical questions
become: "How can I create the conditions that will enable
these people to tap into each other as resources here?"
"How can I help them create the kind of relationships that
will provide the richest learning environment for all?"
and "How can I help them develop awareness of the polarities
and choices between taking care of individuals and taking care
of the group?"
In terms of the schema of Singer et al. previously
discussed, the Gestalt group process leader adds the learning
task of awareness of group processes to the task of intrapersonal
and interpersonal awareness. This new task requires a change
in the role and skills of the leader. The leader who relates
to the group-as-a-system as well as to the intrapersonal and
the interpersonal processes going on is like a juggler who has
a variety of balls, each of a different size and shape, that
must be kept moving and balanced. The leader has three types
of role choices available that determine the level at which
the intervention will take place. She/he can function as a therapist
for an individual, as a facilitator of interpersonal processes
or as a consultant to the group-as-a-system. Obviously, the
leader can intervene on only one level at a time, and her/his
implicit or explicit priorities determine which level of learning
will be pursued at the expense of the others.
To illustrate, let us consider the following example:
This is the second meeting of a personal growth
group in which all the members are also involved in an intensive,
month-long residential Gestalt training program. This group
consists of six female members and four males.
One of the women begins the session by saying,
"Wow! This is going to be fun, there are so many strong
women here!" Sam replies, "Your statement makes me
feel angry. I feel excluded here just because I'm a man."
Another woman, Alice, seated across the room
from him, says in a trembling voice, "I want to exclude
you. I want to exclude all men from my life now." When
Sam asks her, "But why me?" Alice goes into a long
list of complaints about his behaviour with her (or, more accurately,
about the meaning she is making out of what he said to her and
how he has behaved with her in their encounters both in and
outside the group). She ends her tirade with, "I'm angry
with you because you are not being forceful enough with me,
and I end up doing all the work of relationship building, and
I'm god damned sick and tired of doing that!"
As Alice finishes, a third woman bursts out,
"And I'm angry now because you and some of the other women
here are making demands that men be a particular way here and
I don't like that."
This short sequence can be viewed and responded
to on any one of the three system levels. If the therapist decides
to intervene on the intrapersonal level, Alice would work on
her anger toward men in general and, perhaps toward Sam in particular.
If the intervention is directed to the interpersonal level,
both parties would be encouraged to explore their perceptions
of one another, their communication patterns, and their differences.
At the group level, the leader would call attention to this
interactional sequence as one in which the members are talking
about criteria for acceptance to membership in this group. Each
of these interventions gives a different message about the major
learning task of the group and about what types of interactions
will be attended to and made a priority in this experience.
Given the multiple group learning tasks and the
multiple leader roles which become operationalised through the
choice of level of intervention, what are some guidelines that
can help the leader in making these choices? What I have found
useful is a framework that conceptualises the group in terms
of stages of development. This framework is based on that developed
by Schutz (1966) to understand the behaviour of individuals
in groups and the dynamics of group process. He suggests that
there are three categories of needs people bring into groups,
and these needs, while interrelated, tend to emerge in a hierarchical
order: the need to affiliate or to belong; the need for autonomy;
and the need for affection. On an emotional level, these needs
are experienced as issues around identity, power and innocence,
and intimacy. Certain types of behaviours are associated with
each of these needs and emotional issues: The need to affiliate
and belong and to establish one's identity produces dependent
behaviour; the need for autonomy mobilises the individual to
test out the limits of authority and control, and produces counterdependent
behaviour; the need for affection and intimacy motivates people
to relate effectively with one another and to behave interdependently.
These basic needs, emotional issues and behaviours appear over
and over again in the life of any group, but in looking at the
development of the group over time, they tend to occur in sequence
and can be used to characterise the stages of group development.
I will now discuss each of these stages more fully
and the implications of these stages for the leader role.
Stage One: Identity and Dependence
The identity of each member of the group is dependent,
to some degree, on the way in which she/he is perceived and
responded to by every other member of the group, including the
leader. On some level of awareness, each individual coming into
a group has three sets of questions. The first set are questions
about me and my identity here:
"How should I present myself here?"
"What do I want and what do I have to
do to get it?"
"Can I be who I am here and belong to
"What's safe to express or disclose about
"Will I be seen as the unique and special
person I am?"
"Will I be so different that I will feel
Another set of questions relate to the identity
of the others present:
"Is there anyone else here like me?"
"Will I get understanding or support from
"How are they going to feel about me and
what are they going to think about me?"
The third set of questions relates to the leader
and the process:
"What are we going to be doing here?"
"What are the rules or expectations here?"
"What are they going to find out about
me, and what am I going to find out about myself that I don't
know or don't want others to know about me?"
"How will I be treated, judged? rejected?
bullied? or accepted and cared for?"
During this phase, the primary task of the leader
is to set up relationships with the members and among the members
as quickly as possible and to get some data generated around
the three sets of questions the members are silently asking.
Some of the activities that facilitate this task are:
1) Contracting and setting boundaries.
This includes letting the members know what the tasks of the
group are as she/he understands them, and defining the leader
role in relation to these tasks. I, and/or I and my co-leader,
usually begin a group by making some statements about our ideas
and values about personal growth and describing our role in
the group, which is as facilitators of awareness on the intrapersonal,
interpersonal and group process level. Given the issues of identity
that are in the foreground, we structure some process through
which the members can share relevant information about themselves
on the interpersonal level. There are several ways to do this:
One way is to break them into sub groups and give them some
information-sharing task; another is to use some group exercise.
A third choice is to go through the somewhat tedious process
of having each person introduce her/himself in some way to the
total group. At this phase, the leader is invested with so much
power that everything she/he does and says is much more important
and impactful than what anyone else in the group says and does.
The dilemma for the leader at this point is: "How much
or how little do I do, and when? My experience has shown me
that when I structure some lively activity for the group, this
introductory phase goes faster and is more interesting; the
price we pay is that the members become more dependent on the
leader to draw something out of a bag of tricks to keep the
process going, rather than reaching into themselves or into
each other for energy. My present preference is to go with the
tedium rather than the excitement during this early phase, so
that the members begin to rely on themselves and each other,
rather than on the leader(s).
2) Encouraging interpersonal contact. This
is a means of exploring the interpersonal environment and of
discovering resources present in the group. I can do this very
simply by noticing when eye contact or verbal statements are
directed at me, and by suggesting that people look around and
find someone else in the group to whom they can make these comments.
This is not to say that I do not respond or interact with individuals
at all, but only that I choose when and for how long I respond,
since what I do as a leader begins to establish some rules and
norms in the group.
3) Giving some messages about the approach
we will be using. As leader, I do this through verbal and
nonverbal modelling. For example, I share my own internal process,
the feelings I am having, the observations I am making and the
inferences I am drawing from these data. If I am attentive and
listen rather than jumping in with "therapeutic" interventions,
I am giving the message that we are making space here to be
what we are.
4) Legitimising work on all systems levels.
At this stage, group members are most concerned about determining
how safe it is going to be for them in this group and what is
acceptable to bring up. I want to legitimise individual work
on the intrapersonal level, but not until a number of people
have shared their feelings. At this stage, rather than intervening
on an interpersonal level, I work on the assumption that each
person is a spokesperson for others and is verbalising what
may be an important issue or theme for some, if not all, of
the members of the group. I inquire whether anyone else can
relate to the issue this particular person is sharing. In this
way, the individual issue is seen and treated as a more universal
theme and an issue of the system as a whole.
To summarise, the leader activities in this first
phase are directed toward providing a climate of trust that
will support some risk-taking, and toward making some connections
with individuals' inner experience, among individuals, and with
the group-as-a-whole. Usually the way people make contact with
each other during this first phase is through the discovery
of commonalities and similarities. This leads to a norm of politeness
and oversolicitousness, the energy in the group falls off, and
this signals that the work of differentiation must begin.
Stage Two: Influence and Counterdependence
The major issues the individuals and the group
must grapple with in this stage are those of influence, authority
and control. At this stage, each member of the group is aware
that she/he is being influenced by what is happening in the
group and that certain implicit or explicit norms are operating
which make it difficult to behave differently from what appears
to be acceptable. Norms, of course, are ways of describing what
is permissible or valued in a group, or what is not acceptable
and devalued. Norms are inferred from behaviour and reflect
the assumptions people make about themselves, one another, and
how things "ought to be."
Members may begin to challenge whatever norms
are operating by interrupting, by expressing negative reactions
to each other or to what is happening, or by directly taking
on the leader and questioning her/his authority and competence.
The priority tasks for the leader in this phase is to work for
increasing differentiation, divergence and role flexibility
among members. Leader activities that facilitate this task are
1) Heightening awareness of the norms that
are operating in the group. Since norms are based on untested
assumptions members are making about what is or is not acceptable,
the leader can heighten awareness of norms by turning the assumptions
people are making into questions. For example, the leader can
observe that there seems to be a norm operating that it is not
OK to differ or disagree in this group, and asks, "Is it
OK to differ or be disagreeable here?" In this way, group
members learn to identify the norms that are operating, as well
as their consequences, and make decisions to change them by
monitoring their own behaviour.
2) Encouraging challenge and open expression
of difference and dissatisfaction. Whatever is happening
or not happening in a group, the conflicts occurring on a personal,
interpersonal and group level must be allowed to become explicit.
Dealing with divergence at any level generates strong emotional
reactions and is experienced as very risky for the individual
and for the integrity of the group. How much conflict an individual
can tolerate is a function of that person and the situation
she/he is in. How much divergence a group can tolerate and still
operate as a system is a function of the cohesiveness of that
group. At this stage the leader is faced with some critical
choices around the level of intervention: "Do I pay attention
to the person who is obviously in pain because the conflicts
in the group have triggered off an old piece of unfinished business?"
or "Do I consult with the group about the way it is working
and dealing with conflict and difference?" Here, as elsewhere,
I am not proposing any answers, only posing the dilemmas that
arise around level of intervention.
3) Differentiating roles from persons.
In a group, members often play out roles that are a function
of the needs of a group rather than simply a function of the
personality or character of that person. A group, like an individual,
requires that certain functions be performed to enable it to
go through the cycle of experience of awareness, energy, contact,
and withdrawal or completion. Depending on how people behave
in the early stages of a group, one person is more likely to
carry, or be identified with, one of these functions. For example,
the person who initially provides the energy to get things moving
in a group gets "assigned" to this role, and the other
members, and perhaps the leader, rely on, or provoke, this person
to energise them. Some people carry the awareness function because
they are particularly good observers and reporters of their
own experience, or of what they see, hear, or sense going on
in others. Some people who are outgoing and caring tend to carry
the contact or caretaker function; those who are assertive or
more spontaneous provide the impulsivity and creativity in the
group. All of these functions are positive ones and help the
group to accomplish its work. However, when these functions
are identified with one person rather than being seen as functions
which everyone has the capacity of expressing, everyone's behaviour
becomes stereotyped. Once roles become somewhat fixed, group
members are likely to resist the attempts of any one person
to deviate from the assigned position, since a change in any
one person in a system affects the functioning of everyone else
in that system.
The leader can bring this role-taking behaviour
into awareness by commenting on the stereotypes when she/he
sees them operating and thereby helping the group to recognise
the consequences of this for the group as a system and for the
Often the roles which get played out in a group
are projections of the disowned part of the other members' personality.
Scapegoating is an example of this. When any one person in a
group carries the role of "victim," the leader can
make a group level intervention to get the members to consider
what is being avoided by having someone in the group act out
that part of themselves.
Stage Three: Intimacy and Interdependence
This is the stage at which real contact occurs
within and among members of a group, as contrasted with the
pseudo-intimacy which develops in the first stage when group
members are discovering that they all belong to the human race
and are feeling warm and cosy with one another. Real contact
requires the experience of being nose-to-nose against that which
is different and other than the self. Real intimacy, which I
define as those relationships which nurture and sustain us over
time and through separation, usually need to be forged in the
crucible of divergence and conflict. Fighting often precedes
real loving, and so it is in groups. Working through the issues
of influence, power and authority that characterise the second
phase and living through this experience provide the support
for taking high risks on an intrapersonal and interpersonal
At this stage, members behave interdependently
in the sense that they can depend on each other for understanding,
support and challenge; also the relationships are reciprocal.
Members are significant to each other, and the group as a system
becomes a significant other, providing the nourishment and the
resources for growth. The leader is no longer regarded as the
ultimate authority, but as an experienced resource. If the leader
has focused previously on the group level interventions, the
members learn to monitor and maintain their own functioning
as a system. They serve as resources to each other, asking for
and accepting help from the leader when her/his skills or perspective
When a group is functioning at this level, the
processing goes at a quick pace, the energy level is synergistic
and mellow rather than frantic, and the level of self-disclosure
very high. Even when the issues being dealt with are those of
loss, separation, grief and remorse, the group can accept, support
and absorb some of the terror and pain.
It takes being together for a long time for a
group to be able to sustain functioning at this third stage,
and my experience has been that a group's capacity to maintain
themselves at this stage requires at least a year or two years.
Groups that meet for a shorter time sometimes reach this stage,
but only temporarily. Therefore, the remarks I am making about
the functions of a leader at this stage primarily apply to groups
that have a long history so that members can depend on each
other and on the way their system as a whole functions over
The functions of the leader at this stage are
1) Maintain a consultant role to the group,
and stay out of the way. Interventions that are required
from the leader at this stage are few and far between.
2) Help the group to arrive at some closure.
Groups, whatever their duration, are temporary systems, and
must go through a closure process that includes a re-entry into
the "real" world. Members must say "goodbye"
to those with whom they have shared this group experience, and
plan for the transfer and support of these learnings to their
lives outside of the group. This usually requires some simple
structures that focus members on these issues. In a weekend
group I can ask them to share the most important learning for
them from this experience and to think about ways in which they
can support this process for themselves when they return home.
In groups of longer duration, for example, training groups,
this planning becomes the closure experience.
3) Acknowledge the unfinished business that
could not be dealt with in this group. Given the cyclical
nature of these stages of development, all groups do not end
when the group is at the stage of intimacy and interdependence.
In this case, the closure process needs to acknowledge the negative
as well as the positive aspects of the experience, the needs
that did not get satisfied and the expectation that were not
fulfilled. Some assessment must be made about the discrepancy
between what was hoped for and what actually happened. It is
from this assessment process that the polarities and dilemmas
of change are learned.
I would like to think that all of the groups I
lead go into the closure phase from the intimacy-interdependence
stage, but I would be lying if I claimed that to be the case.
The fact is that I have learned the most meaningful lessons
when the closure is not one of full satisfaction for all. If
nothing else, I rediscover the virtue of humility and the awesomeness,
complexity and mystery of individuals and systems.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This statement is not only the foundation of Gestalt
psychology and Gestalt therapy, but also the essence of all
systems of thought which attempt to make meaning out of the
apparent distinctions, contradictions and discontinuities in
the natural and human universe. To describe a process that is
based on this holistic perspective, as I have been doing in
this paper, is a contradiction. A group is more than the sum
of its parts, and Gestalt group process is more than the sum
of the principles and elements which I have reviewed. However,
as E. F. Schumacher (1977, p. 87) has said:
One way of looking at the world as a whole
is by means of a map, that is to say, some sort of plan or outline
that shows where various things are to be found, not all things,
of course, for that would make the map as big as the world,
but the things that are most important for orientation: outstanding
landmarks, as it were, which you cannot miss or which, if you
do miss them, leave you in total perplexity.
What I have done in this paper is to sketch out
a map of the territory. Anyone who has travelled knows that
a map is not the territory: It is a two dimensional abstraction
of a three-dimensional reality.
Obviously, how useful you, the reader, find this
map will depend an your goal as therapist or group leader, or
what you regard as the primary mission of psychotherapy and
personal growth. The mission, as I see it is to raise consciousness,
and that is different from the aims usually associated with
psychotherapy. The overriding aim of therapy as I see it is
not simply to cure people (whatever "cure" may mean),
nor is it to teach clients how to become more adept at manipulating
the environment rather than themselves. Nor is the goal to enable
each individual to develop a more differentiated and integrated
self. It may be all of the above but the essential aim is to
assist in the evolution of a self which can ultimately transcend
the self. This means that at the core of personal development
there is this central polarity: freedom and liberation on the
one hand, and discipline and social responsibility on the other.
It is the tension between these opposites which permeates everything
This basic paradox was succinctly captured almost
one thousand years ago by the Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, when
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself only, what am I?
If not now, when?