Field Theory and Group Process

by John Bernard  Harris 

As we have previously commented in Topics [Vol. 3 No. 2, 1995], there is a large gap in Gestalt therapy theory at present. Though much Gestalt therapy is done in a group setting, very little has been written about a theory of groups based on up-to-date Gestalt therapy principles and practice. And yet the historical relationship between Gestalt ideas and the development of group theory is strong (see below), and the three main parent theories upon which our practice is based - field theory, dialogic existentialism and phenomenology all have much that would contribute to the development of a comprehensive Gestalt account of group life.

Developing such an account has long been an aim of both Peter Philippson and myself. In this piece I would like to make a contribution by talking about how field theory might form the basis for a group theory. In particular, I am going to use field theory as a way of characterising group processes in the context of an ongoing therapy group. I believe that field theory provides us with a useful way of understanding and using group process in therapeutic and other settings. In what follows I am mainly relying on the accounts of field theory given by Malcolm Parlett [1991], Gary Yontef [1993] and Peter Philippson [1997].


Using field theory and Gestalt ideas as a way of underpinning our understanding of groups is not a new idea. Much of the theory and research into small groups carried out by social psychologists originated in the work of Kurt Lewin. Lewin originally trained in Berlin with, amongst others, the Gestalt psychologists Wertheimer and Kohler. Emigrating to The USA in the early 1940's, he founded the first Research Centre for Group Dynamics. Though Lewin died tragically early in 1947, he effectively started the systematic study of group processes which was the foundation for modern group therapy. [For further discussion of Lewin's contribution to Gestalt therapy see Parlett 1993]

Less well-known amongst Gestalt therapists is the connection between another major school of group therapy and Gestalt ideas. S.H. Foulkes, the founder of the group analytic movement, was a student of Kurt Goldstein and Adelmar Gelb. Goldstein's holistic view of the human organism and Gelb's emphasis on figure-ground relationships were cornerstones of group analysis, together with many ideas from field theory [Foulkes & Anthony 1957].

It is, superficially, easy to see why field theory might form a sound basis for our understanding of group processes is simple. Its emphasis is precisely on process, relationship, activity, and the dynamic forces of the field that we experience in groups. These seem to be precisely the kind of explanatory ideas which might help us to capture the complex and ever-changing social interactions which characterise group life. However, much of the hard work of developing a 'Gestalt theory of groups' remains to be done.

Five Principles

One of the problems with talking about field theory is that we are still struggling to understand and formulate it. Gary Yontef wrote as recently as 1991, "I know of no discussion of field theory in the Gestalt therapy literature that I consider clear, cogent, comprehensive, systematic and comprehensive" [op cit p. 285]. In his seminal article, 'Reflections on Field Theory', Malcolm Parlett lists five principles which characterise a field theoretical way of thinking [Parlett 1991], and I will use these to provide the framework of the present discussion. They are:

1. The Principle of Organization

2. The Principle of Contemporaneity

3. The Principle of Singularity

4.The Principle of Changing Process

5. The Principle of Possible Relevance

I will take each of these principles in turn, and see what understanding and guidance they offer us in the context of group therapy.

1. The Principle of Organization

Drawing on a definition of Kurt Lewin, Parlett characterises this principle as saying that "meaning derives from the total situation, the totality of co-existing facts" [Parlett, ibid, p. 71]. Before seeing how this principle applies to groups, I want to take a little time to explain it as best I can.

Parts and Wholes

The principle states that if we want to understand ('find and make' the meaning of) a particular part of the world, we need to place it in the context of a wider whole of which it is itself a part. The more comprehensive this wider picture, the more fully and in depth we understand the fragment we are studying.

For a simple example take the first word I used in the penultimate paragraph: 'drawing'. This has several different meanings in English, but the context, in this case the sentence in which I placed it, removes any ambiguity and tells us which sense I am currently using. We could go further and say that the isolated word has no meaning. In Wittgenstein's dictum, 'meaning is use', and we can only understand this or any word as a part of a more fundamental unit of meaning, a sentence. Individual word-meanings make sense only as part of a wider linguistic field.

Parlett refers in his statement of the principle to the context as 'the total situation'. It is therefore relevant to ask how far do we have to go in our quest for ever-deepening contexts and meaning? That sentence is part of a paragraph, section, article, and so on. Each of these units is in turn a part of some larger whole which gives it further meaning, and so each context we locate for it is in its turn further contextualised. Pursuing this thought, we could plausibly argue (anthropologists have) that in order to understand this one sentence fully, you must possess a vast amount of cultural and linguistic knowledge which form the 'total context' of the sentence's use. Does this principle therefore entail that we cannot understand anything until we have understood everything?

In one sense, the answer is yes. Fritz Perls hinted at this when he wrote, paradoxically, that in order to understand Gestalt Therapy the reader needed to have the Gestaltist mentality; but in order to acquire the mentality he must first understand the book. And writers such as Ken Wilber (who would subscribe to the principle of organisation) argue that the Cosmos actually consists of a hierarchy of 'holons' - wholes and parts stretching to infinity in both directions [1995]. Electrons are parts of atoms are part of molecules...right on up to human beings which are part of groups which are part of societies...and so on. The more we apprehend this structure, according to Wilber, the more we appreciate how the universe actually consists of fields within fields within infinitum. And the more we approach an understanding of 'how things are' in the universe.

In another sense, the answer is no. If the Cosmos is infinite, we will never, by definition, be able to appreciate it in its entirety. Never mind: we will have to manage with the partial, and relative knowledge scratched up by our feeble and imperfect intellects. Yet all the time we are seeking to increase its depth and breadth by understanding how wholes and parts, contexts and fields, interrelate.

Applying the principle to groups

Parlett's principle is formulated as an epistemological one, about the meaning of events in the field. So: 'no facts (statements) about group life can be understood in isolation from other facts'. But behind it, as the last section has indicated, is a more fundamental ontological principle about the actual nature of the field, its mode of existence. The principle tells us, in effect, that no events in the group field are in fact and reality isolated from other events. Though these two ideas are plainly connected, they should be considered separately.

Looking at ontology first: what field theory says is that all field phenomena are 'of' the field, actually constituted by the field and its complex structures and dynamics. Yontef defines a field as: "A totality of mutually influencing forces that together form a unified interactive whole." [Yontef op cit, p. 297]. There is nothing which occurs in the group which is not part of this field. This includes the actions, interactions, feelings and fantasies of individual group members - all that we include as part of the group process. (And remember that the group field is part of a wider field, which is part of a still wider one...)

It is because of this assertion that the thesis on meaning follows from the ontological one. If everything is 'of the field', then it does not make much sense to try to know and understand it as if this were not the case. So our epistemology and our 'research methodology' - our ways of trying to interrogate the therapy group situation and understand the phenomena of its process - need to reflect this. We need, in effect, to treat people as the relational selves they actually are. This means seeing individual group members not as separate people who happen to interact in the group setting (this would be a systems approach) but as parts of the same field who actually co-create and co-sustain each other and the ongoing group process [Philippson 1997].

Please note that field theory does not deny individualism or the existence of relative degrees of separateness and isolation between people. Confluence and isolation are, in field terms, polar opposites which define each other. In Ken Wilber's terms, each person is a holon, a 'part/whole', both a whole person and a part of the wider social fabric at t he same time. And in each of us we find instinctive tendencies both towards 'partness' (confluence or community with the greater wholes we are parts of) and 'wholeness' (separateness and individuality). Indeed, we could without undue distortion characterise group life as the ongoing struggle to balance these two urges to connect with, and to differentiate from, others.

So the principle of organisation as an epistemological thesis says: we cannot fully understand what any particular 'happening' in a therapy group signifies unless we relate it to the overall field - in effect, contextualise it. And a different context (field perspective) offers us a altered meaning for the experiences or events, however slight the change is. Since there are always different ways in which we can 'frame' the actions, there are always multiple meanings available. The more contexts, the richer (deeper or broader) is our 'interpretation' or understanding. The principle offers, in effect, a theory of the meaning of group behaviour and group process.

The Group Environment

When we talk of context, we are always talking about a number of different field conditions which contribute in different ways to the 'actualisation' of group life in a particular 'here and now' form. Put more simply, what happens in a particular session of a particular ongoing therapy group depends on a myriad factors, including the group culture, current world events, group member's individual histories, their memories of what happened in the previous session, and so on.

In an earlier article I offered a model for simplifying and thinking about the multiplicity of contexts which shape the matter and the sense of group life [Philippson & Harris 1992, Ch. 4]. In this I considered the group as oriented in space and time. I distinguished four contexts, or zones:

(i) Here and Now: This is what goes on in group sessions, the here-and-now process of the group. In field theory, this is what is 'real', our primary therapeutic focus. A few of the relevant field factors which constitute the group process are: the physical conditions of the group room, group member's current feelings and desires, individual contact styles, contact patterns between individuals (pairs and sub-groups), energy levels and so on.

(ii) There and Now: This zone includes factors relating to the current (spatially) external field in which the group operates. This includes group member's current lives outside the group and between sessions, the location of the group room, events in the world which may be impacting on the group in some way (in the electronic age, spatial distance is irrelevant).

(iii) Here and Then: This refers to the group's history, what has happened to group members in previous sessions. This includes their memories of what has happened, and also fantasies and stories about the past.

(iv) There and Then: This largely refers to the past history of group members - their life stories.

All these zones are part of the total group context in space and time. What happens in group sessions (zone (i)) will be affected by what is happening or has happened in any of the others insofar as it impinges on 'here and now' - the particular goings-on in this particular group on this particular day. (For further discussion see principle 2 below.)

Putting the Contexts to Work

Let me illustrate this with a simple example from a group. Suppose that a group member, Susan, is feeling irritated in the group. Another group member, Mark, makes a remark to her about her being late for the session, and she 'flares up' at him. What are the contexts which contribute to and shape Susan's 'here and now' expression of anger to Mark?

Start with some contexts from zone (iv). First is the broad social context in which we learn to have and share feelings as we grow up. In our individualistic society, we sometimes forget that human nature is fundamentally and from the outset part of a social and relational web. We are born into, and live our lives as part of, particular human and social structures which we can alter but never escape.

Then there are the more specific contexts of a particular society, culture, neighbourhood and family which socialise us to express feelings in certain ways. Here factors of class, gender, race and so on are highly relevant contributors and shapers.

All these social and cultural conditions help shape Susan's life history - her particular set of experiences and actions - and therefore may have a bearing (greater or lesser, depending on circumstances) on how she feels now. This notably includes the realm of transference into the group situation - for example, Susan reacting to Mark in a certain way because he reminds her of her cruel father, or to the group situation because it reminds her of unhappy incidents in her school class.

Next, moving to Zone (ii), we find a range of current factors outside the group which may predispose us to feel a certain way. Perhaps Susan misses her bus, is late, feels irritated when she arrives at the group. More broadly, she may be currently having a hard time at work, have just embarked on a love affair with a colleague, be worried about her mother's health after visiting her before the group, and so on. Also relevant here are a multitude of general factors relating to 'the state of the nation'. Perhaps the political party Susan supports has lost the election, and this affects her mood, and also that of group members in various ways.

Thirdly, are factors relating to group history (zone iii) . Perhaps Susan is often late, imagines (correctly, as it happens) that some other group members resent this, and feels a mixture of fear and anger in response. Group members' response to her outburst may be coloured by the fact that she has lost her temper in the past, and several are scared of her as a result. Focussing on this particular set of factors leads us to take a developmental view of group life, looking at how the group culture changes over a period of time.

All the factors above lead us, on a field theory approach, to the actuality of the group session. They contribute to the present dynamics of the group field, the particular structure and conditions that it currently, uniquely, has. This structure will tend to make some things 'figural', and keep others background both for individual group members and for the group as a whole. It will encourage some things to happen, and make others unthinkable or 'impossible'.

What actually happens here, is that Mark says something to Susan about being late and she flares up. We can now understand how this might happen, and it might even, knowing all we do, seem inevitable - who said 'to understand all is to forgive all'? But - and this is crucially important - the field structure is not deterministic, and will always allow other possibilities simply because the field conditions will inevitably include individual group members who are free human agents, and therefore the possibility of their choosing differently. For example: Susan could have chosen instead to stay silently and secretly irritated for the whole session, and that would have altered the whole group process in turn.

Either way, both what is happening and what is not happening in the group right now is always and utterly part of the overall group field. Both the choice to express anger, or to remain sulkily silent will affect others directly. They have choices about how they will respond to her. The sum total of these choices is the co-created ongoing process of the therapy group.

The Three Levels of Group Life

Both the group leader and the group members are trying, in their different ways, to gain insight into the structure and dynamics of the group field, right here and now. Even the 'simple' example above show how complicated this group field is. I would like now to consider a way to divide up and focus in on current process which is of particular interest and use to group leaders. This involves identifying three natural 'levels' of group life: the individual level, the interpersonal level, and the group-as-a-whole. If the group leader understands these levels, then she can organise her observation and intervention in the group setting by choosing to concentrate, as appropriate and useful, on the behaviour and experience of group members as individuals; on the interactions between individuals, and on the 'group-as-a-whole', the group system.

This distinction between three 'levels' of group life is part of the holistic approach which stems directly from the principle of organisation. In effect, we are choosing three levels in the infinite hierarchy of life which presents itself to us for study. (We could, of course, extend our study either way, down or up a level, by looking at parts of persons (the brain patterns of group members) or inter-group dynamics (how our group relates to others)). When we choose a level to examine, we in effect temporarily regard the structures and processes at that level as 'wholes' and bracket their 'partness'. (This is what the sciences of psychology, social psychology and sociology, respectively, do.) At the individual level, an individual organism (a group member such as Susan) is now seen as a whole, and a person in her own right. Moving up a level, she is also a part of more complex wholes such as the pair comprising Susan and Mark, or the grouping which includes Mark's ally Dave. This in turn is a part of an even more complex (even higher level) whole, the 'whole group system', the group-as-a-whole. Each level is 'nested in' the one above it.

When we focus on each of the three levels particular classes of contact boundary come to the foreground. So if Susan's 'self-other' boundary is foreground for her or us, we are choosing to look at 'individual process'. If we focus on the boundary which links and separates Susan and Mark as they interact, we are attending to the interpersonal process. And if we look at the totality of group interactions then we are considering whole group process. We see different 'realities' depending on where we draw the boundary.

I believe that this way of looking at group life in terms of 'levels' stems directly from the holistic roots of principle of organisation. When we talk of levels we are talking about the hierarchical ways in which the group field is structured by natural and social forces, and our attempts as group leaders and members to gain insight into this structure both by how we conceive it and how we act within it. I hope in future writing to return to this important theme.

The Group Leader in the Field

One final and important point in this section. The principle of organization tells us that though the group leader has a particular and important role to play in the group, he always remains part of the group field. The essentially positivist epistemology which suggests that the leader is (or should be) a separate, objective figure who must somehow distance himself from the other group members in order to study them does not fit with a field theory perspective. As Wheatley says:

        "No longer, in this relational universe, can we study anything as separate from  ourselves. Our acts of observation are part of the process that brings forth the  manifestation of what we are observing. [Wheatley 1992: quoted in Brown 1996 p.4]

What this means is that simply by being in the group I am inevitably helping to co-create the group process. Like any other group member, I bring along my own way of being-in-the-world, and throw it into the melting pot in toto. I cannot escape this: what I do and what I choose not to do, what I say and what I refrain from saying, what I notice and what I miss is all part of the overall process.

The 'enmeshment' of the group leader in the group field in this way may seem a complicating factor, yet it is actually the key to the whole 'problem of knowledge' in the group. If I were not a living, breathing, feeling, part of the group field, how could I come to know and understand it? Whether I attend to others or to my own process, I am always and inevitably tapping directly into the group field.

2. The Principle of Contemporaneity

This principle states that it is the constellation of influences in the present field which 'explains' present behaviour. So events from zones (ii), (iii), (iv) are part of the context of the 'here and now' group process, but, in the strictest sense, do not exist, and so cannot directly influence it. As Peter Philippson says:

        "... what is important in the field is always what is present, not what is past or  future. We are not affected by the past, which no longer exists for us, nor by the future,  which is to be chosen. What we call 'past' and 'future' are reifications (processes seen  as things) of memories, verbalisations, expectations, fantasies: all of these being  present events. We are affected by our memories of the past (and we choose which of  our myriad memories we bring into the present and how we remember them) and our  expectations and learnings based on our remembered experiences. We are also affected by  our expectations, hopes, fears and plans which we term 'the future'. All of these are present parts of the field, as are all the environmental reminders of the past (people, photos and  situations which in some ways parallel past events) and pointers to the future (diary  appointments, lottery tickets, wedding dates, etc.). People in Gestalt therapy regularly  change the pattern of the way they remember, the way they relate to their childhood  learnings, and the way they move towards and take their parts in creating what will be.  'The past' and 'the future' have then changed for them." [Philippson 1997]

Field theory offers a way of looking at causality in the group setting which is quite different from the usual one. What happened to me in the past does not cause me to behave and feel in the ways that I do now. If this were the case, we would the prisoners of our unchanging pasts, unable to do things differently in the present. In Gestalt, what is important is how I now experience my past, and how that contemporaneous experiencing creates some possibilities and choices and excludes others. I am, in effect, continuously re-creating my self each moment of my existence, and I always have choices about how I do that (which include the choice to deny myself any choice).

This in turn leads us to a particular conception about what therapy consists of in the group situation. What we focus on is not so much how people come to be the way they are, but on how they keep themselves that way right here and now. We help them to become aware of how they structure their present experience in the group: how they do their feeling, remembering, relating with these other people, in this particular setting. And it is only because we can help each other to gain new awareness, make new and different choices, and to experiment with them in the 'here and now', that therapy can work. This is what is behind the Gestalt focus on the 'how' rather than the 'why' of people's behaviour. Material from the other zones is useful only insofar as it can give us greater insight into the structure of the field here and now.

Let me give an example. There is a lot of talk in group circles about the desirability of trust in groups and how it is created. If the group contains a number of people whose trust has been repeatedly abused in the past, we might well assume that 'not trusting' will be a major feature of the group process that we have to address with 'trust exercises' or some other device. But such an assumption should be treated as an hypothesis rather than a fact. What will interest us a Gestalt leaders is how individuals actually 'do' their trusting and not-trusting in the group. Who do they actually trust here and now? What does that mean exactly for each individual - e.g. are some people trustworthy for some things and not others? When do they feel more or less trusting, and what group or individual factors influence this?

The role of the group leader is crucial here. If he has an personal or theoretical investment in 'increasing levels of trust' in other group members or him, then this will be 'part of the field' and may interfere with members' exploration of their actual experience of trust and distrust. He also has important personal data to offer (in an appropriate way) about his own feelings of trust and mistrust in the group and its members. The principle of contemporaneity suggests that the leader and the group members will learn most by focusing on 'how things are' rather than how they imagine they are, want them to be, or think they should be (though the existence of these on-going imaginings etc. is also part of the field, and important here-and-now data). This encourages real interaction and meeting between group members.

3. The Principle of Singularity

This principle says that each situation which occurs in the group is unique. Malcolm Parlett says:

        "Circumstances are never quite the same and each of several persons inevitably has  a different perspective or vantage point, even if they appear to be located in the same  time and place" [Parlett op cit p 72]

So even though a number of people are in a group room together, their phenomenal experiences are all different. They will have different perceptions, needs, desires and backgrounds. No two people will experience the group process exactly the same, and sometimes perceptions will vary very widely indeed. There is therefore no absolute objective 'truth' about how the group really is. The best we can hope for is an inter-subjective, negotiated view of what is going on which allows for multiple perspectives.

The implications of this for group processing are profound. Even if we think that a situation is repeating itself, we must recognise this is literally impossible. Every situation and every experience is, if we consider it fully enough, totally unique, different to any which has preceded it. This does not mean that there are not regularities, that one situation will never resemble another, but that the resemblance is always partial and limited.

Because human behaviour is so complex, there is a long history of attempts to deal with the situation by formulating laws of group process and development, often modelled on physical laws of nature. Such a process is inherently deterministic, and fundamentally flawed. It misses out the primary human characteristic of choice. Without exercising choice I cannot be fully human.

As group therapists we need to accept that there are no rules and recipes which will tell us what to do. Each person, each interaction, each moment of group life is new and fresh. This has important consequences, as Malcolm Parlett points out:

        "The honouring of the singularity of each set of circumstances and each person  requires, therefore, both respectfulness and also a willingness to tolerate ambiguity and  uncertainty." [ibid p 72]

So in accepting each moment of group life as unique, we at the same time accept our own uncertainty and ignorance about it.

But this, paradoxically, means that we are able to cast off the shackles of 'knowledge' and be fully present, embracing the moment. We then free ourselves to be creative, to take a new perspective, and feel pleasure in making our own unique contribution to the co-created group situation.

There is an important democratic principle here, which, if understood, is a profound - possibly the main - source of empowerment and healing for group members. In accepting the principle of singularity for ourselves for ourselves, we also accept it for the group members. The group leader's perspective on things is not privileged. His actions have no special magic inherent in them. Despite his importantly different role, he is, in the end, no different to anyone else. Each and every group member has their own unique way of being in the group, and experiencing it. Anything which a group member does, anything which happens may turn out to be useful. We are equal partners in the co-creation of the therapeutic potential of the group, and of the experience of each of us and of the group as a whole. This is a political perspective which I believe can contribute greatly to the therapeutic potency of the group.

4. The Principle of Changing Process

This principle, closely connected to the previous one, states that the group field is continuously changing. Whether we are considering individual process or whole group process, nothing stays the same. Group life is always provisional, never permanent. To paraphrase Heraclitus, 'we cannot step into the same group process twice'.

Commenting on this principle, Peter Philippson says:

        "...for Gestalt therapy, homoeostasis and creativity go hand-in-hand. I need to  come to some kind of balance with my environment (homoeostasis), but this cannot be a  conservative act of returning to the previous balance, since the field is changing, and  what worked before will often not work now. I must then invent new ways of balancing my  needs and interests with environmental possibilities (creativity). At the same time, my  environment will be responding creatively to my actions, so that homoeostasis, often seen  as a conservative force, is actually seen here as the driving force behind creativity, and  creativity makes homoeostasis possible in a changing world." [Philippson 1997]

In group situations, the existential problems of dealing with continuous change often manifest themselves in groups trying to close down possibilities by establishing habitual ways of behaving. These may include fixed group roles for individual members and group norms for the group as a whole. This is not a bad thing in itself - as with the individual case, habits can be useful, time-saving ways of dealing with ongoing situations. Problems arise when the group ceases to be aware of its roles and routines, or even refuses to acknowledge them as such. (For discussion of the potentially harmful effects of confluent group cultures, see Philippson, 1995.)

The advent of new group members is especially important here. New members can hold a mirror up to group practices which established members (including the group leader) have long ceased to notice, enabling them to be re-evaluated. A group's willingness to allow this scrutiny (in effect, its willingness to embrace the principle of changing process) is a key test of its healthy functioning. There is therefore a potential advantage to allowing people to leave and join groups as part of the process. (For further discussion of group boundaries see Philippson & Harris 1992, especially Chapter 8, and Harris 1995.)

5. The Principle of Possible Relevance

This principle states that no part of the field is 'irrelevant', can be excluded in advance as unimportant, however mundane or trivial it appears to be. Indeed, it is often precisely by attending to what seems obvious (even if we do not know why it seems so) that we gain greater understanding into the structure of the group field.

Two examples: Peter Philippson gives the example of a training group where a fascinating group process began with his observation that group members used large amounts of toilet paper. I recall a group where during a period of low energy I became fascinated with the way that group members had their feet arranged - together, apart, sticking out, under their legs and so on. Commenting on this led to a lively debate about the patterns of participating and holding back amongst group members.

Figure and Ground

The principle of possible relevance leads us to think more closely at how we organise our perceptions and our actions in a group situation. What influences what is interesting or obvious for us, or what we habitually ignore in a particular group situation? There is a natural sorting-out process which is an essential part of being human, and which Gestaltists call 'figure-ground formation'. This is the process by which we organise our experiences and actions to form 'meaningful wholes'. Depending on a variety of field factors (which include both our state and that of the environment), at any given moment something 'stands out' for us. This now becomes, whether momentarily or for a longer period, the centre of our attention - 'figural'. If the figure is a 'good' one, then what we notice will often seem lively, interesting, sharp or clear - these are Gestalt's 'autonomous criteria'.

Figures do not exist in isolation, but always stand out against a background. The succession of figure/grounds is continually changing over time. What is now figure becomes ground for the next figure. In Gestalt theory, it is the relationship between the succession of figures and grounds in the phenomenal field that constitutes 'the meaning of the situation' for us. In the group context, the purpose of observation is to use our (and other's) figure-ground process to explore and utilise the structure and dynamic of the group field.

Using Phenomenological Method

It is now widely acknowledged that the practice of Gestalt therapy is, in effect, 'clinical phenomenology' [Yontef 1993]. The phenomenological approach provides one main foundation of our approach to understanding and working with group process. Like field theory I believe that it has much to offer in helping us to understand and work with group process in therapy. Its importance here is that it is a methodology directed precisely towards training ourselves to be 'good observers' in terms of the principle of relevance. For this reason, I would like to conclude this article by outlining some of its principles, and discuss their application in groups.

Spinelli [1989, p. 19] lists three steps in phenomenological method:

Step One: The Rule of Epoch‚ ('bracketing off bias and prejudice')

Step Two: The Rule of Description ('describe, don't explain')

Step Three: The Rule of Horizontalization ('treat each observation as having equal value')

I will look briefly at each of these steps in turn.

1. 'Bracketing off'

        "This rule urges us to set aside our initial biases and suspend  our expectations and assumptions, in short, to bracket all such temporarily so that we can  focus on the primary data of our experience" [Spinelli op. cit. p. 17]

In bracketing I try to experience the group and its individual members as they are in that unique moment. (See the principles of contemporaneity, singularity and changing process). I put aside assumptions about the person and the situation, and try to experience them freshly, as if I had just met them. Instead of assuming that I know about them or the situation, I seek to explore by asking open questions such as: 'How is that for you?' or 'What is happening now?'.

Of course it is not possible to completely bracket all biases and assumptions. Being biassed is part of being human, and their are many sources of information about people which turn out to be inaccurate. But skill in bracketing means seeking to learn about some of our own particular habits and assumptions and trying to put them on one side. Even when this proves especially difficult, simply recognising the omnipresence of bias can lessen its impact on us. Supervision is one place where we can learn to do this, but groups in which constructive feedback is supported and encouraged, are also invaluable tools.

2. 'Describing, not Explaining'

I approach any group situation with a range of habitual ways of trying to make sense of my experience, to understand and explain what is going on. Theorising is an important part of understanding group process, but it is done best with adequate data, gathered by uncluttered observation. My initial goal is to remain, as far as possible, at the level of immediate experience, getting as full a sense of what is happening as possible without jumping to premature conclusions about why it is happening or what it means.

Let me give an example. It has happened more than once that I have made the mistake in a group of assuming that a lack of energy in the group was due to some profoundly stuck group process, and failed to realise that the real cause was simply that the room was stuffy and airless, or that the members needed a break. My love of complex explanations led me to miss the obvious.

3. 'Treating Observational Equally'

This rule, closely related to the principle of possible relevance, urges us while we are data-gathering to initially avoid valuing some observations more than others. Again, it is part of our natural 'figure ground' process that some things in any group situation will 'stand out' for us as observers. We cannot avoid this process, but we can stand back from it, and try to treat all observations as potentially useful in the formation of an overall picture. We are interested in what is present, and also what is absent (ground) in the situation.

To sum up this section on the application of phenomenological method to observation of group process, I quote from Spinelli:

        "In a sense, phenomenalists urge us to treat each bit of initial experience as if  we have been given the task of piecing together some gigantic jigsaw without the prior  knowledge of what image the completed puzzle depicts." [Spinelli op cit p. 19]


The approach to understanding group process that I have been setting out here is based on field theory. It contains good and bad news. The bad news is that the task for group leaders is even more difficult than Spinelli suggests in the quotation above. Parlett's five principles tell us that the jigsaw puzzle that is group life has multiple perspectives, is unique in every moment, is continually changing and can never be completely understood. So as group leaders and members we are ourselves part of a living puzzle which can never be completed, and whose 'final image' does not exist. The good news is that for precisely these reasons, groups offer scope unparalleled scope for creativity and choice in a shared exploration of the human condition.


Judith Brown (1996), The I in Science, Scandanavian University Press

S. Foulkes & E. Anthony [1957], Group Psychotherapy, Penguin Books

John Harris [1995], 'Working with Large Groups and Teams', Topics in Gestalt Therapy Vol 3 No 2

Malcolm Parlett [1991], 'Reflections on Field Theory', British Gestalt Journal, Volume 1 No 2

Malcolm Parlett [1993], 'Towards a More Lewinian Gestalt Therapy', British Gestalt Journal, Volume 2 No 2

Peter Philippson & John Bernard Harris [1992], Gestalt: Working with Groups, Manchester Gestalt Centre

Peter Philippson [1995], 'Why Should't We Interrupt?', Topics in Gestalt Therapy Vol 3 No 2

Peter Philippson [1997], A Gestalt Theory of the Self, in preparation

Gary Yontef [1993], Awareness, Dialogue and Process, Gestalt Journal Press