relational gestalt

Relational Gestalt


What is Gestalt?

Gestalt is a German word, a noun, that has no direct English translation, but translates roughly to mean shape, form, or configuration. Yet the word encapsulates more meaning than just these words. In German, it relates to the overall totality of appearance of a person/people in a situation, i.e., including the context.  It points to the proposition that to know someone in their totality, we must include how they organise themselves in relation to their context, i.e., the person is always conceptualised in relation to their varying contexts.  This is a very useful way to think and perceive about how humans inhabit different contexts and how they might 'organise' themselves differently in different contexts.
A gestalt is a completion of a cycle of experience (see below) in relation to an organism's specified need. (Note: We can mostly replace the word organism here with 'human', but it can also apply to a system). For example, if you are thirsty, you will at some point move to quench your thirst by drinking some water. Once your thirst is satiated, you will feel satisfied, and the need comes to completion.
The gestalt cycle of experience tracks the various points along the process from awareness of the need to withdrawal of the completed need.  And the process can be interrupted by either some internal or external interruption, resulting in an incomplete gestalt.
In the example of the need to quench your thirst, you may also be working on a deadline, so you notice the thirst, but ignore it and carry on with your work. The incomplete gestalt recedes for some time but will likely re-emerge later in an attempt to come to completion. Gestalt calls this unfinished business. Gestalt has some very sophisticated ways in unearthing these and supporting them to come to natural completion. 
What is Relational Gestalt?
Relational gestalt brings more of a focus on the relationality of the organism/environment pairing and situates more of the emphasis on the interruptions that occur in the relationship between. It stands on 4 pillars:
  1. Interconnected Field
    The person's experience is explored in the context of their situation (or field). You cannot fully understand a person's behaviour without also including their context. This is a departure from a behaviourist approach which sees the behaviours existing within the person, as opposed to an emergent property of the interplay between the forces interacting in a dynamic field.

  2. Phenomenology
    The search for understanding and meaning making through what is obvious and/or revealed, rather than through interpretation by the observer. This requires taking an attitude of non-judgmental curiosity by the observer

  3. Dialogue
    A specific form of contacting (not just talking) that is concerned with the between of the relationship and what emerges in that between. It demands a commitment to explore multiple perspectives without prioritising one perspective and that each perspective holds its own truth of the situation.

  4. Experiment
    An attitude adopted that the current situation as experienced in relation to another is an inherently creative place where things can be tried and tested out and that any experiment emerges naturally from the dynamic conditions of the emerging field between me and the other.

Key Gestalt concepts

A paradigm shift from Individualism to Field
As opposed to some western schools of thought, Gestalt Theory posits that the world/universe is inherently holistic and inter-dependent in nature and that a self/person (or any organism) arises out of, and is the manifestation of, the dynamic interplay of these relational forces. This is a systems view of life and therefore we must approach any situation through the lens of seeing what there the systemic forces at place that underpins the obvious presentation/manifestation of the situation.
Focus on here-and-now

Instead of analysing the past or future, both can be accessed through a deeper focus on the present, through observing the unfolding experience with another. This requires us to be more present, dropping our ideas or concepts about what is going on, but instead looking more closely at what is 'actually' going on. We focus more on that 'what and how' of the process of how a situation is being experienced in the here and now, rather than on the why/meaning-making a person might be making of the experience.

The Fertile Void

 A rich concept that encompasses ideas such as emptiness, source, and polarities. The source of all organismic activity emerges when the "fertile" void starts to differentiate into self/other, or opposites/polarities. This concept is encapsulated in the Taoist Yin/Yang symbols. In Gestalt it is where the cycle of experience starts from and returns to. It is also the dynamic undifferentiated field (still fertile and full of potential, but currently undifferentiated into parts of self/other or figure/ground). Paying attention to the fertile void can help us deepen our understanding of our 'purpose', our intention.

Cycle of Experience (CoE)​​

A conceptual map used to describe the process through which the organism and environment interact:​
Gestalt cycle
Cycle of Experience (CoE)​​

A conceptual map used to describe the process through which the organism and environment interact:​
gestalt cycle of change
Paradoxical theory of change
​Instead of focusing on pushing towards a particular outcome, its more useful to understand the forces that prevent that outcome from emerging. Paradoxically when we better understand and accept the resistances to change, change more easily happens.
Figure/Ground formation

As the fertile void moves into differentiation (or polarities of self/other), figures start to emerge from the ground/field. This process is known in Gestalt as Figure/Ground formation and is often represented using the Rubin Vase (below). When we make the vase figural in our perception, the faces recede into the ground, and when we make the two faces figural, the vase recedes into the ground. Only one figure can be fully figural at any one time

Rubin vase illusion
Optical illusion old young lady