A Short Version of My Misunderstanding of Gestalt

In October 2019, Designed Learning marked the 40th anniversary of its founding with a webinar where Peter shared some thoughts on the origins of the company. It all began with a workshop, he said, that was grounded in a simple belief: relationships are decisive. What hasn’t changed over the years is this basic belief that relationships are decisive, not convenient, not rewarded, not comforting. And so it turns out that your ability to engage in honest, authentic relationships has everything to do with business performance.

In this blog post, Peter reflects farther back, into the origins of that simple belief that gave Designed Learning its footing.

My affection for Gestalt began sixty years ago. It took me to a weekend workshop in a barn in New Hope, Pennsylvania. It took me to Esalen Institute at Big Sur, California. Of all the different therapies I explored, it was the most efficient. Brutal, to the point, and absent of analyzing the world, one of my continuing resistances to living.

So it began as a long and personal journey to make sense of my life.

Then it became the foundation of my consulting work in organization development. Whenever I was lost and had no idea what was happening, I would go around the room and ask, “How do you feel? What do you want?” I did it often enough that I wrote a book on consulting that was mostly organized around these questions.

I once told a friend that I felt guilty making a living off of two questions. He said, “What else is there?”

The value of the questions is their power to value experience over intellect. The argument between science and religion is incomplete. What completes the conversation is experience. The existence of God, the empiricism of Science: interesting but inconclusive. What is interesting and conclusive is that if you aspire to act on what you know, this can be found in your own body. This is the ultimate challenge of any therapy, intervention, strategic planning: will you act on what you know? Gestalt is unrelenting on this question.

This is the essence of freedom, of relationship, of a fully lived life. These are central to changing organizational culture. The dominant narrative of system living is that predictability, consistency, and control produce high performance. A childish myth. Mostly they produce fear, isolation, and compliance.

Asking how you feel and what you want, collectively, in a context of support, is the essence of transformation. We learn and shift our thinking and our relationships with others at the citadel of our own experience, put into words in the presence of others.

If you care about transformation, or learning, or creating an organization that delivers on its promise, put best practices aside. Pay no attention to learning from history. Pay no attention to learning from your elders. Or what your precious children taught you. Pay no attention to what gives you bliss, or joy, or letting the ocean remind you of what a small and lucky being you are. These are fine comforts. So are a pillow and socks that fit.

This is not cynicism. It is the expression of faith. Existential faith.

Gestalt for me is an unsentimental version of a life. It demands we accept our own human landscape. That freedom occurs when you understand that no one is watching. That understanding and judgment are the booby prizes. It ends the need for violence in its more subtle forms of self-improvement and trying hard.

Two years ago, at the end of a workshop that I ran which went well, I declared to a participant that this experience was so different, more powerful, than other groups I had led in the company. I said that I wondered why. He said, “Peter, can’t you just enjoy this experience, and stop trying to analyze everything?”

Evidently not.


Excerpt by Peter Block from Gestalt Practice: Living and Working in Pursuit of wHolism,” Mary Ann Rainey and Brenda B. Jones, eds. (Faringdon, UK: Libri Publishing, 2019).

Peter Block is an author, consultant and citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. His work is about empowerment, stewardship, chosen accountability and the reconciliation of community.

What’s Thanksgiving Without Pizza?

Thanksgiving: a time for family, friends, football, and food… turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and of course pizza. What’s the matter? Don’t you have pizza on your Thanksgiving table?

Our Thanksgiving pizza tradition started years ago when I invited Bob, Diane, and their family to our house for Thanksgiving. They had recently moved to Connecticut and would be alone for the holiday. When I asked Bob’s children what they wanted for thanksgiving dinner his teenaged son yelled, “Pizza”! This drew a rebuke from Bob. He apologized to me and informed his son that pizza was not a traditional food for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Day came and I set a large pizza on the table, near the turkey. Bob and Diane were stunned. My in-laws were shocked. All the kids were ecstatic. It was a first. Some one commented that pizza wasn’t traditional… and invoked the Lord’s forgiveness for what I’d done. “Be careful. You are tampering with sacred Thanksgiving traditions!”

Many things we take for granted were not at the original Thanksgiving. Sorry, there was no pumpkin pie, stuffing, or sweet potatoes. And no football games or forks! Forks? There were no forks at the first Thanksgiving. They were not in use at the time!

We all create traditions. For example, when our family learned that many international students at the nearby university stayed on campus for the holiday, we started inviting a few to join us for Thanksgiving.

They came from countries like China, Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Taiwan We would include a dish from their countries at the meal as a way to honor them. Our pizza grew into many other dishes. Sharing their stories about life and foods in their country became part of the tradition. Great memories!

You’ve seen traditions in your work life—these are the “policies, procedures, rules and regulations” that once organized us later taking on a life of their own. Some of them are sacred. For example, I tried consolidating engineering reports into a single format. One report that took 4 hours weekly to complete went to 5 people who filed it away without reading it! I asked to eliminate it and was told, “We can’t, that’s SVP X’s report.” Seemed strange since he had retired nearly a year ago!

So, what do traditions have to do with Flawless Consulting? In Flawless Consulting Skills workshops, we confront “organizational traditions”—the choices people make about the roles they assume and the conversations they have.

Some traditions may hinder growth—individual and corporate. The workshop helps people see the alternatives to their “traditional roles.”

Ask yourself a few questions like these to confront your own traditions:

  • What is the original purpose of our tradition?

  • What makes it important us?

  • How does this tradition strengthen us and add value to our lives and work?

  • What appeals to us or concerns us about this tradition?

Now if you find yourself still thinking, “This is silly. We would never have pizza at Thanksgiving,” it may be time to ask yourself, “Why not? Maybe you could make the pizza with turkey and cranberries! Remember it’s not about the food… it’s about sharing the food with others, giving thanks, and experiencing fellowship.

So, this year at your Thanksgiving dinner, add something new, something unusual, give thanks to God, and bless your family. That day I’ll send you my greetings from our home, where we’ll be eating a seafood pizza as part of our celebration. Who knows? Maybe you’ll add that to your traditional Thanksgiving!

I’d love to hear about your traditions. Drop me a note. Let me know how you celebrate.

Charles L Fields was a highly acclaimed Senior Consultant at Designed Learning and a lover of life. He traveled the world by car, rail, plane, and ship, watched the sunrise on Croagh Patrick, and set on Victoria Peak, weathered a perfect storm in the Pacific, bartered for a darbuka in the Grand Bazaar, prayed at Lord Nelson’s Sarcophagus, ate lunch in the oldest restaurant in the world. His prolific and thought-provoking writing contributed to the design and re-design of many DL products, including Flawless Consulting, Empowerment, and Stewardship. Charlie shared his passion for this body of work in over 25 countries. His impact is a blessing.

Consulting Complexities: Final Thoughts on What to Do

The promise of consulting is a commitment to care and to serve. We promise to act in the interest of another, the client. This series of blog posts explored some of the complexities consultants face that interfere with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. With this post, we wind the series up with a few more thoughts on what to do.

Show How Everybody Counts

The whole system is your client. All parts of it need to be supported to learn and to be fully informed. Ensure that the client manager making the decision to hire you is as vulnerable to the effects of the change effort as those at other levels of the organization. If a project begins as a way to control or change others, it will be very difficult to leave this intention behind, regardless of how inclusive and participative the process. Real change has to be chosen; it is a voluntary act. If we are in the business of joining with the top to change others, we have become an agent of top management—and a part of the problem. We have become a stealth operation that will eventually undermine trust and make it harder the next time around.
Ask whether you would be willing for all members of the client organization to be witnesses to the selling and planning conversations you have with the client—a fresh-air test to the promises we make and the plans we develop. Meeting this test would change many conversations. Plus, it would be harder to blame people not in the room and harder to plan for the transformation of others.

Leave It All Behind

Commit yourself to the concept of building capacity. Clients have the capacity to learn and create for themselves the future they thought they needed a consultant to provide. Your job is fundamentally to be an educator, not a problem solver.

You may have to solve problems in the short run, but over time you need to develop ways for people to learn about your expertise. Be a support system for your clients’ self-sufficiency.

And Finally, Forgive

In thinking about these conflicts and paradoxes, forgiveness is required. No one can fully live according to his or her beliefs. That is why we are called humans. In fact that is why, in the first consulting act, God suggested to the serpent that he chat with Eve. By eating the apple, she and Adam lost their paradise and gained their humanity and all the freedom and flaws that go with it.

What we can do with our freedom is tell the truth, at least to ourselves, about the choices we make. If we take business because we need the money, so be it. If we over-promise because that is the only way things will move forward, if we seek too much approval from the top, if we are swept along with a fad and find ourselves mimicking the language of others—all of these are forgivable.

What is hard to forgive is self-delusion and positioning ourselves as a cut above our clients and others who do our work. This is pride and hubris, and it seems to come with our working papers. It is our own awareness and courage to see who we are that enables us to offer the service and care that is the best of the profession.