Steps Towards a Practice of Gestalt with Groups: A Mini-manual for Beginners Sean Gaffney

Steps Towards a Practice of Gestalt with Groups: A Mini-manual for Beginners Sean Gaffney

Introduction

This is a highly subjective and personal description of how I practice “Gestalt with Groups”, written in the first person and offered in the hope that it may support trainees and new Gestalt practitioners – and even other group facilitators – in finding something that may be useful enough to taste, chew, selectively swallow and assimilate as theirs – or taste and spit out – or even already now wrinkle your nose at. My proposals here are for a generic group, facilitated with a Gestalt approach. The particular requirements of a therapy, personal and/or professional development, training or supervision focus is a specific figure to this generic group process as ground. I ask the readers to extrapolate, focus and distinguish freely here from their own knowledge, experience and purpose. Please note also that sub-headings which address specific aspects of the work will be indicated in italics.

For many years, I much preferred working with groups from a Gestalt perspective rather than writing about it. My foray into publication was an exciting challenge and a rewarding experience. I discovered that I “knew” more than I thought (though not always exactly where it came from!) and also had a contribution to make to theoretical thinking on the subject. I also found how much my practice was being influenced by my writing. New perspectives and insights occurred regularly and became embodied in my practice. I had moved from doing it to writing about it, back to doing it – and here-and-now to writing about doing it! As such, the statements, opinions and perspectives I offer here are simply confident expressions of where I am in my current practice.

Summary of my Basic Premises about Groups from a Gestalt perspective

Since these assumptions inform my practice, I want to be explicit about them. Should any or all of them differ from yours, then you will now

33

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

already know which aspects of my practice may be of little usefulness to your knowledge and practice; or more of a challenge to your current understanding, to which you will be responding; or an encouragement to your thinking and practice; or even a complete mystery.

What I call the “Actual Group” is that particular collection of • members who have registered to join and who attend regularly. Such a collection, taken as a whole, is greater than and different to • the sum of its members as a collective – I call this the “gestalt of the group”, or “Group Gestalt”. What I call the “Imagined Group” is the wholeness of the collection • of implicit and explicit images of what “a group” is or should be. These images/expectations are brought into the room by group members, whether based on personal experience or hearsay. Awareness of my own Imagined Group is essential here, and how • it connects with, and disconnects from that of the group members’ Imagined Group. The process of the Group Gestalt – continuously becoming • precisely that – is done by and through the members who are present at any given time (the Actual Group), and will include the interplay between it and the Imagined Group. Group members are thus involved in both the in-the-moment • dynamics of the Actual Group and the developmental process over time of the Group Gestalt. In other words, the here-and-now dynamics of the parts are • embedded in a then-now-next process of the whole. I have no desired or required outcome nor normative model for the • developmental process, which I see as self-organising and self- regulating. My focus is on following the dynamics and process of this group, and no other. As the formal therapist and/or facilitator, I am not a member of the • group. At the same time, the group members and I are of the field which • we, together, are continuously creating simply by being together. Individual members very quickly become subsumed into • sub-groups, explicitly or implicitly. Explicitly through voiced agreement/disagreement with others and implicitly through the same behaviours. Simply participating in a group, its dynamics and process, is in • itself therapeutic and developmental for all concerned.

34

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

Part of this therapeutic/personal development process is • participating in, influencing and being influenced by, whatever movement may occur between the Actual Group and the Imagined Group in the developmental process of the Group Gestalt. Being fully present and contactful and selectively sharing my • awareness are fundamental to my practice.

This list will, I hope, suffice as background to my practice as I continue. Let me now start to put these together both as context, and also within additional contextual aspects, to provide some of the essentials of my practice of Gestalt with groups. I suggest that readers get a grasp of the full gestalt of this article before exploring the parts. After all, it is the whole that gives meaning to the parts.

Starting a Group

It is clear that different therapists and/or group facilitators will want to present their core message and their function differently as they market their competence and their group work. When I advertise an upcoming group, the central message is that the group members themselves and their interactions are the core therapeutic/ developmental agents. As facilitator, I present my two main functions as I see them: the first is to support the group with appropriate experiments and interventions intended to follow and raise awareness around the group’s own process and the contributions of its members to its in-the-moment dynamics. The second is to use interactive teaching sessions based on actual and current events in the group as an aid to the members’ understanding of individual, interpersonal, sub-group and collective aspects of group life, thus supporting an experiential/cognitive whole for each group member. I like to be general enough to leave myself room to manoeuvre when I sit there with the group for the first time and begin the co-created contracting process – for the first (though probably not the last) time. I like to keep my written course descriptions as simple, clean and clear as possible, and leave the complexities to the opening session when the working contract is negotiated for the first time.

Giving a maximum number of members is as important as a minimum number to start the group, since it provides potential members with a sense of social context. The starting time/day and ending time/day for each module are clearly and unambiguously stated, as are costs and what they include. Also, information on how to register and pay, and a confirmation that every registration will be quickly acknowledged.

35

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

I generally prefer to give my e-mail address for any questions that may arise, rather than my phone-number, as e-mail gives me time for a considered response. There is also the fact that I have had my fill of calls at 7.30 a.m. or on a Friday evening as I settle down for the weekend…. When individuals specifically request that I phone them, I will do so.

Numbers

I regard five to eight members as a small group; from eight to fifteen would be a medium-sized group. In my own opinion, above fifteen we are definitely looking more at a small organisation than a group. My own take on this issue is to do with the probability that, at some stage in the question of numbers, sub-groups will become more indicative of group dynamics and process than individual members (see below). I believe this begins to be the dominant dynamic already with a group of three. For example, this number allows the emergence of three distinct pairs, each with its corresponding single. Add two members – a group of five – and no fewer than ten pairs and ten trios can emerge, or five quartets, each of the latter with its corresponding single. These examples can be easily understood using small squares of differently coloured paper, moving them around in all possible combinations. Each additional member adds layers of complexity exponentially, a complexity of which my presence in addition is a contributing factor to the dynamic self-organising of us as a field.

As a therapist and/or group facilitator, I find ten to twelve is about my limit for even considering individual therapy in a group setting. Above that number moves us all into a level of complexity which some members will find overpowering and therefore disempowering. I regularly work with training groups of twenty where I accept that individual members will become so inextricably a part of the facilitator-group field, and thus part of our shared inter-connectedness that I choose therefore to work more specifically at the level of the group-as-a-whole, including sub-group dynamics.

The size of the group is one of the factors I will consider when introducing the nature and focus of my interventions when negotiating the working contract.

Contracting

Arising from my work in organisational consulting, I like to distinguish between the business contract and the working contract. The business

36

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

contract covers all aspects between me as supplier and the client as paying customer, the client here being the group members. In a training institute or organisational setting, the business contract is between me and the relevant representative, and covers such items as details of the particular service being purchased, its timing and duration, its costs and payment procedures etc., all the commercial and legal formalities of a seller/purchaser relationship.

For a group on the open market, each member is purchasing a service from me, as described in any advertising or presentation of the proposed group and its work. The same principles apply here as in the preceding paragraph.

The working contract is between me and the specific people in whatever group with whom I will be working. This is to do with what we will be doing and how we will be doing it. It is our negotiated contract with each other, and is treated more fully below in “A Sample First Module/Session”.

Some Terminology

Some terms I use in my group work, both for my own orientation and for that of group members are:

PROCEDURES – formalised, recurring events. • PROCESS – the flow of change over time. • DYNAMICS – the in-the-moment interactions as the process • unfolds. INTERVENTIONS – my behaviours in the above contexts.•

“Procedures” are any formalized and recurring events which are likely to occur, and which carry enough predictability of occurrence to be included as part of the practical planning. For example, “Today’s/Tomorrow’s Logistics”, “Open House Sessions”, “Reflections and Applications”, “End of Module Feedback”, “Checking In” and such items.

“Logistics” are questions around starting and ending the formally scheduled group-work time each day, length and frequency of breaks, length of lunch and dinner breaks, variations due to special circumstances which are all put out as a shared responsibility to be treated with great flexibility.

It is quite usual in my experience for issues around time to become more and more an aspect of the group’s dynamics and thus its process, than any logistical or procedural point. For example, the always on time and always late sub-groups can have this apparently formal aspect of group life as a

37

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

tension between them. Often, a whole group will seem to reach a silent agreement about always starting late, whether in the morning or after every break, or extending every small-group work session beyond the mutually agreed time. However, no matter what happens, I will bring them up at the beginning of a course and of each module; also at the end of a module in respect to the following module.

I use “Open House” sessions at the beginning of every session or module (except for the first one – see below), usually each morning, and sometimes also after a lunch break. It is a fully open session where members can say whatever they choose, need, wish to say; they are free to respond to each other, ask questions, and add perspectives.

“Reflections and Applications”- I always include formal and scheduled sessions for reflections and thoughts around application, both personally and professionally. These are briefly reported in plenum in order to share learning in the group as a whole.

“End of Module Feedback” is just that – a 30 minute or so session (depending on numbers and the dynamics of the module) before we close the module, devoted to comments on anything and everything pertaining to the experience of the module, each other, and me.

“Checking In” is the opening of each module/weekly meeting etc. from the second one on. It is like an extension of the original presentation, and includes any new or relevant information in addition to what group members have already shared. This is a space for such items as a new job, a divorce, a new relationship, or any other significant event in the life of that member.

“Process” means the flow of change over time; how a collection of people (the Actual Group) somehow takes on something at least analogous to a recognisable collective personality (the Group Gestalt). As such, group process can be seen over the period of a session, a day, a module (say, 3 to 5 days) and also from module to module. It is how the Actual Group is “coming along”. The process of the group is best seen in periods of relative constancy, so process, in a sense, moves from constancy to constancy, through the dynamics of change. I deal somewhat more fully with this point under “Change over Time” below.

“Dynamics” are embedded in the process, and are the emergent in-the- moment events that influence it and are influenced by it, the figures to the process as ground. The dynamics of the group express the changes in, and consequences for its process. Specifically, while they occur in the Actual Group, they contribute to the process of the Group Gestalt.

“Interventions” are any action on my part related to the work of the

38

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

group members.

A Sample Module 1/First Session Opening

I still tussle with the timing of my presentation of myself – first or last? Clearly, if it is a group that has gathered as a result of advertising then I will need to be welcoming, and more so if it is taking place in my house. Increasingly, I have tended to welcome the members, and say that I will wait to say a few words about myself and then the work we may be doing after they have each presented themselves to the rest of us. This is a matter of context and preferred style, and I encourage new facilitators to experiment freely, respectful both of their own style, the context and the group members.

Presenting last allows me to match my content to that of the members and make connections with them where appropriate, such as having had the same trainers, or shared interests, or any connection which was figural for me as the members presented. One of my favourites was a professional academic, socially un-practiced, totally new to the thought of doing personal work in a group, who switched from speaking of his nervousness to speaking enthusiastically about the Steve Earle (American singer- songwriter) concert he had attended earlier that week – as had I. His face visibly lit up when I mentioned this as I presented myself. A therapist who also likes Steve Earle! Generally speaking, when I present myself last, I will rarely initiate any verbal acknowledgement of individual presentations – the group members are not presenting to me, we are each presenting to each other. I will always present first to a pre-existing group, a training group for example.

I will then move towards logistical matters, such as the availability or otherwise of tea/coffee making facilities, the whereabouts of toilets, smoking areas and so on. If on a residential, then logistics will include some choices around timing and length of lunch-breaks, whether to have evening sessions (much loved by some) after dinner, or a later dinner and thus a longer afternoon session, starting times in the morning etc. Such issues allow people with special requirements, such as diabetics for example, or people on a strict diet, to have an opportunity to legitimately give voice to their needs. Talking logistics is also a content-based topic which allows the members an opportunity for their first exchanges around shared issues, an opportunity to take each other’s measure, to get a first feel for this group, these people. This is also where the Actual and Imagined groups can start to make their presence felt. The work has truly started!

39

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

I will then turn to the program, course or whatever commitment they have registered and paid for. Clearly, if it is a training group with an institute, then there is probably a module description which I have certainly seen, maybe even written, and will need to have as figure in the context of the training. The same will roughly apply to a group on a specific and advertised theme. For therapy or personal/professional development groups, the work is more open-ended, the content less predictable.

Whatever the focus, I find that I can support all the variations within the framework of Procedures, Process and Dynamics – and now I add “Interventions”. I will present my take on the possible work we will be doing in some version or other of the following: the work of this group is primarily experiential and thus centres around its process over time – from hour to hour, morning to afternoon, day to day, week to week, module to module – and the specific dynamics which occur in the moment, however apparently or un-apparently related to the process they may seem. My interventions as therapist and/or facilitator may be focused on one or more of the following:

1) One-on-one work with individuals 2) And/or supporting interpersonal issues between members as they arise 3) And/or intervening primarily if not exclusively with the group members as-a-whole, which will include sub-groups rather than an individual or one-to-one interpersonal focus 4) All of the above

In some groups, my role is covered by Point 4. In others, I will declare a focus on Point 3, and suggest that they themselves take care of the individual and the interpersonal work as natural aspects of group life and dynamics. My focus on Point 3 is particularly relevant where Gestalt group- work training groups are concerned, as well as with management training groups.

The other aspects of my interventions will include interactive teaching sessions, as much as possible figural to actual events in the group as ground. The content here will clearly include generic material, and I find that timing is of the essence here. Introducing a didactic history of group dynamics session in the middle of charged, dynamic events is probably not the best timing in the world. Or it may be just that! Nothing is “a given” with groups, apart from the fact that nothing is “a given”.

I will also present to participants the procedures of our sessions and

40

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

modules, as described above. A summary on a flip-chart of this kind of opening would look something like this:

An experiential focus on the group’s own process and dynamics.• Facilitator interventions at the level/levels agreed.• Facilitator theory input sessions, based on and/or exemplified by • both of the above. Recurring procedures as described above, as a support structure.•

Thus, having taken my responsibility as convenor and/or assigned facilitator, I throw this framework open to the group for questions, discussion, change or confirmation. I am now negotiating the working contract. The business contract of registration and payment etc is either behind us or in good progress towards completion. It is very important with the working contract that I stay with and hold myself at the aspect of content and not dynamics. During this contracting session, I am not their contracted therapist, and they are not my clients. This in fact, is one of the issues we are negotiating. Any behaviour on my part which disrespects this, disrespects the group members and invalidates our contracting.

While it is clear that the working contract is being negotiated with the Actual Group, it is also here that the issues of the Imagined Group begin to emerge as lively figures. It is not unusual for such items as “individual work” and “confidentiality”, for example, to be brought up here. Depending on the context and the agreed theme, I will or will not agree immediately to work individually with individuals. I may even end up agreeing to do it with some specified people, and not with others, or work individually on request.

As for confidentiality I explain that I am ethically and legally bound by my profession as therapist to maintain confidentiality. Where such exceptions are applicable, I will explain that I am legally bound to report child abuse, and danger to self and others through a threat of suicide, violence or murder. Clearly, I will certainly bring my work with the group to my supervision and not in any way identify or make possible the identification of any particular person. Should any episodes of our journey together find its way into one of my articles – which is always likely – then the people concerned may even have difficulty recognising themselves. Otherwise, the issue of confidentiality is up to them to resolve as they need to, following an open discussion. This is another content issue which gives a taste of future dynamics and process as the group members work their way through their individual needs, doubts, indifferences, demands, requests, and all the “oughts” and “shoulds” of the Imagined Group in this discussion.

41

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

I also like to leave the door open here for any other issue any member wishes to raise that can be addressed at this point. This can include such items as “rules” about attendance, absence, late arrivals, early departures etc. In such cases, I am willing to state my own preferences, invite others to do likewise, and let the exchanges continue until some form of consensus has been reached – or not! In this way, group members get a sense of their own responsibility, both individually and collectively, and also of their influence on me and each other. I also like to see this period as the first engagement between what is imagined and what is actual in this particular group.

My focus throughout this phase is to establish a working contract which will inform our work together. All contracting specifically to do with my role is open to re-negotiation at the opening of any session or module, when I remind group members of our previously agreed working framework. I also reserve the right to explore the possibility of this re-negotiation as an expression of group process and/or dynamics.

My work with this group starts from the moment I send out advertising and shifts qualitatively the moment I arrive at the location of the group. The opening session, including the logistical and contracting aspects, is very much intrinsic to the wholeness of the work. It is not unusual for some group members to regard these scene-setting sessions as time-wasting and wonder when the “real work” will begin. Indeed, I regularly meet participants who don’t bother coming to opening sessions, even of modules after the first one. They usually define the “real work” as the formal session, led by me, including exercises and/or therapy and/or teaching. This is my opportunity to clarify that, from the moment we committed to this group, we had started working together. Our every interaction, from then and now on, is part of our work, including scheduled sessions with a fixed starting and stopping time, coffee breaks, lunches, strolls in the grounds whether alone or with others, evening gatherings in whatever constellations, contact between sessions and so on. All of the latter points may now become more material for our discussion in the here-and-now of the opening session.

And Then What?

At some stage, the initial contracting comes to a close, however provisionally. This may be at the end of the first of a series of weekly meetings, or the opening sessions of a residential.

After the punctuation provided by a break of some sort – coffee, end of weekly session, whatever – I move to the next step. Until the initial contracting is completed, my role has been that of convenor or chairperson.

42

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

Now, I am in my formal and contracted role as facilitator. I like to then move to introducing the “Open House”. This means inviting group members to give us their voices, their silences – to give us who and where they are in the moment, and to respond to each other as they feel appropriate. This is now where our contracting goes from words to actions; where individual figures become shared ground, out of which figural themes for the group can emerge. I remain fully present throughout, my active participation is being in my awareness of what is happening for me, and what patterns of behaviour or themes may come to my awareness as the session develops. This is also where group members find how they can/cannot and want/don’t want to relate to each other, and to me.

Please note that an Open House session is anything but a “round” in the sense of every voice being heard – including that most enforced paradox of them all: saying that you have nothing to say! An Open House is just that: everybody welcome in their own time, at their own pace, and an excellent opportunity for group members to begin their experience of how a group not only self-organises but also self-regulates, as each person responds to the experience of their membership.

From this moment on, I am in the wondrously unpredictable any-man’s land of group process and dynamics. Whatever happens is of the field of us, here in the room, embedded as we are in our environment. We bring who we have been, who we believe we are, and who we are co-creating – our potential future selves in their becoming – and our attitudes to each of these expressions of who we are. We bring those aspects of our environment which impact on us, for example, a training institute, a war, a dramatic news-item, a sudden family issue. We bring our selves into the room, influencing and being influenced, and always in a process of change.

People speak and are met with silence, affirmation or an invitation to dialogue. This is how sub-groups emerge, in group members’ reactions to each other – “she’s right; he’s stupid; I hadn’t thought of that so she’s worth listening to; he seems to know what he’s talking about; I knew the moment I saw her that I wouldn’t like her and I was right”, and so on.

Sub-Groups

A sub-group is any constellation which implicitly or explicitly shares a characteristic, an attitude or an opinion which becomes expressed through behaviour in the group. Sub-groups may be formal or informal, they can also be stable or dynamic (and everything in between).

Formal sub-groups are generally explicit: male, female, gay, straight,

43

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

lesbian, bisexual, trans, older, younger, married, single, parents, non-parents, black, white, of one nationality or another, employees, self-employed, etc. Some of these are immediately obvious, others may have become apparent during the presentations, some evolve as people get to know each other.

Informal sub-groups are those which form in the moment and which may or not last beyond that moment. Members who agree or disagree – vocally or in silence – with a statement by another member have joined a sub-group in relation to that opinion, and the person expressing it, whether they know or intended it. Many of these initially silent and invisible sub- groups form more concretely during breaks, walks, evening gatherings and other non-scheduled group time. They bring their energy into the room as a force of our field, one of the many self-organising and self-regulating forces of the group process and dynamics.

Amongst these will be my fan-club sub-group, as well as that of my critics, and that of the un-influenced either way. Each of these is a huge magnet, an attractor, as support, as challenge, as question-mark. Every teacher knows the temptation to “preach to the converted” and keep the fan-club happy – or deal with the critics, whether through confrontation or appeasement or whatever. I work hard at bracketing the various attractions of these particular sub-groups, seeing them as expressions of the whole group’s dynamics and process. After all, I may very well be the most figural environmental other for the group, individually and collectively, and the dynamics involved in relating to me are part of our work together. The interpersonal has now moved from the traditional level of individual/other individual, to the more complex level of sub-group/other sub-group, each representing a force of the field of our togetherness in our setting.

In this way, sub-groups can represent such forces as sameness or change, process or structure, being or doing, closeness or distance and so on – as well as every nuanced distinction along the continuum of any apparent polarities. The work of the Group Gestalt is now being done by the sub- groups of the Actual Group, in the moment and therefore also over time.

Sub-groups and Informal Leaders

I am the formal leader, either as initiator or through being assigned as such by senior management. My status includes particular responsibilities, authority of some nature (whether as perceived by members or as delegated by management), an assumed competence, and more. While much of my status has strong cultural connotations, there is (anyway and always) a hierarchical relationship of some nature between the formal leader and

44

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

group members. Whatever else applies, removing a formal leader is a major event and effort for a group.

Informal leaders are of two types: the self-appointed and the group- appointed. The self-appointed informal leader does not necessarily have any followers in the group, though this can change according to circumstances. The group-appointed informal leaders (plural!) are created by sub-group followership, and may not themselves be aware of their position. They are people whose comments, actions and participation evoke support amongst others inasmuch as they (the informal leaders) in some way represent the others, however temporarily. This is a crucial distinction: an informal leader can be “deposed” effortlessly, simply by their vocal or silent followers switching allegiances.

It is seldom crystal-clear for me when a member’s work is to be responded to as “individual”. Apart from always being field-emergent, I will tend to explore to what extent the presented issue is at least just as much a sub-group issue as anything else. The implications for my practice are covered below.

And Then What? (Part 2)

With the first “Open House” up and running, the dynamics of the group emerge in terms of work. Some patterns and themes from the opening session may well make a re-appearance. Variations and new themes will also emerge.

My work here is to raise awareness of these dynamics as they emerge for me as figures and bring them to the attention of all, in support of whatever change processes may be at work. For example, some members may be expressing a preference for more facilitator-led exercises (even giving examples from other groups); others may be expressing their appreciation of open, more process-oriented sessions. This is where sub-grouping and informal leadership can become apparent, as the theme becomes figural. I will share my awareness of the theme as I experience it. I might use the theme of structure/process, giving the data of my phenomenological observations as ground for the figure of the theme; the comments I heard, the nods I saw, the silence of others – all the data I have gathered and now selectively shared, which group members can now use to inform their responses. Whatever happens, sub-groups will become somewhat more defined.

I invite them to participate in what may be something of a paradox: an experiment with overtones of an exercise, fully process oriented! Should

45

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

there be agreement, I ask the people whose comments introduced the theme, to repeat them. I ask anyone who more or less agrees to join the speakers. I add that anyone is free to move to another grouping at any time. Each grouping is invited to share their perspectives with each other within that grouping. This is followed by an invitation to each grouping to explain their perspective to the others. Depending on the atmosphere in the room – serious, playful, confused, or withdrawn – I may suggest to each grouping that they do their best to “sell” their perspective to the others and thus allow the forces of influencing and being influenced to self-organise the membership of the sub-groups as well as the dynamics and process of the group-as-a-whole. In this way, the group has an opportunity to explore a common theme which emerged as figures from the group as ground, voiced by some members and now gestalted in the here-and-now by all. As the movements settle, accelerate, settle again and the group arrives at a sense of where it is collectively, work is occurring spontaneously both individually and interpersonally. Awareness becomes insight and potential change. The experiment closes as I invite group members to re-configure in self-selected groups of minimum three, maximum five, to share their experience and their learning – and their questions, confusions, curiosities. I then offer the opportunity to share these in plenum – in effect, a theme-focused “Open House”, which then becomes the ground for further figures.

I have become attached to “minimum three, maximum five” for self- selected small group work. This format offers everyone a choice where “being in the limelight” is concerned – somewhat more possible in three than five. It also gives everyone an opportunity to have their voices heard, to the extent they choose. In addition, this is a natural part of the sub-group and informal leader dynamics and process. Finally, time-management is easier – a twenty to thirty minute frame covers most eventualities. It is never my purpose that everyone will have said everything they want to say. Whatever is spoken or left unspoken is still ground for the continued work in and of the ground. This methodology – sharing my awareness of emerging figures which, if meaningful to the group, are worked with experientially and experimentally – then becomes a general feature of the group work as we continue on our way into the specific world of this group as it unfolds over time.

I want to distinguish here between an experiment which emerges in the moment as a “tailor-made” event for a specific group, and an “off the shelf” exercise, used before and which often has a pre-determined, or at least intended outcome. Both have their place, and we facilitators have our preferences. Certainly the methodology I propose may seem more like a

46

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

repeatable exercise. This is true – in format only. The thematic content is the secret to its experimental nature, since the theme emerges as figure from the ground of the group. The reality that some themes seem to be applicable to just about any group, simply points to the developmental processes of groups and their generic character. Nevertheless, I will only introduce such an experiment (or many others) in response to an emerging figure. Doing “Process/Structure” as an exercise “in order to” do something to the group is not my style, nor is it consistent with a Gestalt approach.

Teaching

Adding a cognitive element to an experiential group, while often decided by the setting – formal Gestalt training, management training etc. – is also a natural ingredient in a holistic approach like Gestalt. The choice is often between “before or after”. In other words, how much knowledge input will support a group in advance of experiential work, or is such work the necessary foundation for cognitive learning? In some cases, where the process work seems to be temporarily at rest, I may punctuate the work with a general input which is neither building on that which has gone before, nor preparing intentionally for what may follow (though it will, of course, be influential anyway).

I always find it most exciting to be able to use some current or recent dynamics or process issues as a stepping-stone to some theoretical input. An example here might be a piece about phenomenology when members comment on the differences between their experience “of the group” and mine, when I have suggested an emerging figure. This is a good example of making a cognitive connection to our experience.

Change over Time

As mentioned earlier, some themes – however group-specific they may be in the details involved – can be recognised as, in some way, typical of other groups also. This is the basis for the many group models which exist, and the exercises which often accompany them. These models are often generally linear and sequential, often normative in consequence – if not intention. Most of us have a particular favourite and tend to apply it. From a Gestalt perspective, my basic stance is staying with where the group is in the moment and trusting that the group will make whatever movement is appropriate to its current needs and potential. It is precisely in this process and its relevant dynamics that learning can take place. All learning brings

47

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

change, just as all change brings learning. In other words, my skill as a Gestalt practitioner lies in my willingness

and ability to track and follow the group’s process, rather than prescribe and direct it in any direction. The group really does know best about its own potential as it emerges, and will become what it may best become. I have no desired outcome for any group. My pride will sometimes push at me to show how good I am by “giving” them a great group experience – whatever that is. I’m still learning to recognise the signals of this push, and attending closely to how much of it is recognisably my projecting, and how much is me-with-the-group. Is this a group desire resonating in me? How cleanly can I share my sense of what is figural for me as material for the group to work on? This is where competence and experience transform into co-created art as we explore such a core issue with as much mutual transparency as we can manage.

At the same time I need to deal with my sense and experience that a collection of individuals somehow becomes a group, easily distinguishable from any other group. This is what, above, I have called the Group Gestalt; that distinctive “something” which is greater than and different to the sum of its individual members. Co-creating this is what I have called the process of the group over time, from one apparent state of relative stability/ constancy to another. This moving is through the in-the-moment dynamics of the members as they both co-create and grapple with the disequilibrium involved in the shift.

From the perspective of practice, I find that I am becoming faster and even more accurate at using my awareness of the co-created me/group contact-boundary where process and dynamics are concerned. When I am feeling relaxed and confident in the presence of the group, with a sense of “where they are”, then it is probable that the process has slowed into a period of relative stability/constancy. I will usually draw the group’s attention to this, and ask for any comments. When I am feeling lost, confused, isolated, pulled in different directions – then it is likely that the dynamics of change are in the room. While I have no guarantees that I am “right”, I am prepared to trust my feelings and experience as the only reality I have. One of the dilemmas here is that group members are likely to be so into what’s going on, that any sharing of my feelings can often be met with blank faces. I also attend more closely to the contact-boundary dynamics that seem to be thematic amongst the members.

An example here might be: “I notice that some of you are making comments and suggestions within the group and I hear no responses. Sometimes, I have heard a change of topic and context which I found

48

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

difficult to follow. Does this make any sense to any of you?” If my observation has any value to the members, at least one of those whose inputs have had no explicit impact is likely to reply in the affirmative – or not. Whatever happens, the group now has an observation to relate to about their possible interpersonal and sub-group dynamics. Awareness may have been raised for some and may well become a topic of conversation during the next break. The theme of taking in/keeping out the influence of others (introjecting/deflecting) is now at least of the field, ground from which a figure may soon emerge. I see the contact-boundary dynamics of introjecting and deflecting as one of the many ways in which sub-groups can form and informal leaders emerge. In other words, I work with attending to both process and dynamics, with the dynamics always being in-the-moment, and the process emerging as change over time.

“What is”

Gestalt’s phenomenological stance brings with it a focus on our experience as embodied selves. I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, have proprioceptive sensations – and, of course, interpretations of and opinions on my experience. Describing what I have seen or heard, or physically sensed, is a description of my experience and not necessarily anyone else’s. At the same time, it is my reality in the moment of the contact boundary dynamics of me-group, individually and collectively (whole or sub-group).

Any distinctions between “what was” and “what is” are difficult to capture in flight; swallows which swing and flit and swoop in one instant of startling agility. Over time – say one module/weekly session to another – I may have a sense of what was then and what is now. “What was” is the context for “what is” as it emerges in the moment. Change is what I work with, in me and in others. Awareness of such change and selectively sharing my awareness of it, is part of my work with groups.

This brings me to bracketing, that exceptionally difficult phenomenological effort to see what is, in and of itself. From the perspective of Gestalt psychology, the wholeness of what is includes not only what most recently was, but also what will become of it – the completing of the gestalt in the future. This is for me a core methodological issue – staying with what is, in the context of what was, and bracketing the future.

What I mean here specifically is this: I will bracket any opinion I may have about group movement in a particular direction towards a predictable state (as in linear phases of group development models), or any model which prescribes specific facilitator interventions in order to achieve

49

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

specific, model-bound movements and change. This means also bracketing my considerable experience and competence with groups, my sense of where the group may well be headed… I know all too well (and with some embarrassment) how easily I will be tempted to fulfil my own prophesy. This includes how easily a particular sense of possible group direction will influence which figures emerge for me.

I find this to be a complex challenge, filled with contradictions and dilemmas; I am of the field of me/group members/our environment and thus a force and influence of that field – as well as being influenced by other forces. In this latter case, I am just as much a voice of the self-organising of the field as anyone else. I am also the designated facilitator and therefore the environmental “other” of the group members, individually and collectively. I see clearly that it is my professional responsibility to hold my awareness of this continuum – me as part of the field and me as apart from the group – and selectively share my awareness in support of my client, the group. This can sometimes mean an intense period of silent juggling with my awarenesses from each perspective. I will also sometimes choose to openly and explicitly juggle with them in full view, and see what happens… either way, this is one of many major choice-points in my work, and probably the most difficult intervention for me to predict. Usually, I go with the flow of my awareness in the moment and the self-energised contact boundary dynamics which emerge. So I may choose to hold back (retroflecting with awareness), put out my figures (projecting with awareness), or await an energy shift to another theme (deflecting with awareness).

I identify two overarching qualities of silence, each with any number of variations: restful silence and restless silence. In each case, I need to rely on my awareness of what is happening to me in relation to the group as my environmental other, that is, my sense of our contact-boundary dynamics. Am I feeling a pull towards action, though unsure of what action? In punctuation terms, is this silence a semi-colon, with the remainder of the sentence still to come? Or am I feeling at peace with myself and with the group, and clearly capable of sitting calmly and silently until something happens. Are we slowly turning the page to the next chapter?

Amongst my choices here, I usually join and wait out the silence, and see what happens. Occasionally, when I feel strongly that this is a “new chapter” silence, I may formalise it by tentatively suggesting we take a 15-minute break – and see what happens.

So I stay, (with as much presence as I can muster), with what is! Whatever will be, will be – and then a new “what is”. This is the art of seeing any group event as a “stopping point”, while acknowledging that it is

50

Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand

simultaneously a “starting point” for what is emerging.

Closing the Door and Locking-Up

With the exception of on-going and open-ended groups, most groups have a scheduled first and last meeting. In other words, a defined beginning, middle and end. Part of my responsibility as facilitator is to orchestrate the beginning and the end, by providing sufficient structure to support each of these formal elements. The first of these is easier (see above), since we are all concerned with similar issues at more or less the same place and time, entering something new together. The second is more delicate and more complex. As we approach the transition from the middle to the beginning of the end, group members can literally be “all over the place”, though in the same room at the same time. Some members and sub-groups can’t wait for the end to finally come; some become aware of missed opportunities which they may want to revive; some project their own unfinished issues onto others, encouraging them to take their last chance and so on.

At some stage – the third-last session of a weekly group, the opening session of the final module of a formal programme, or other appropriate point in another setting – I will present the structure of how we will be ending. This will typically include a clear indication of the final “Open House” session which will end with a punctuated long coffee break, or lunch on a residential. This is followed by an extended “Reflection and Applications” session, covering the whole programme, with a plenary session where the combined learning of the group emerges in all of its disparate glories.

“Finished and Unfinished Business” – this is where each member has an opportunity to address each of the others with whom they feel that they have had issues of one sort or another, and either finished to their satisfaction or still feel are alive and well and will not be finished in this group. Then, a final “Feedback Session”, this time for the whole programme, followed by the first and only traditional round, including me, to formally close and end our work, and say goodbye to each other.

And then the hugging starts…

51

Steps Towards A Practice Of Gestalt With Groups

Sean Gaffney I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and have been a resident of Sweden since 1975. I am a Gestalt therapist/OSD consultant, and university lecturer in Cross-cultural Management, a Gestalt trainer and supervisor (clinical & organisational), a Professional Staff member at the OSD Centre, Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, and Core Faculty with the Gestalt International Study Centre, Cape Cod, faculty with The Gestalt Academy of Scandinavia, and Guest faculty at the Illawarra Gestalt Centre, Norwegian Gestalt Institute (Oslo) and Nordic Gestalt Institute (Copenhagen & Stockholm). I am currently completing my PhD “On Borders and Boundaries – Gestalt at Work” at the University of Derby, England.

Address for correspondence: seangaff@gmail.com


Comments are closed.