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?”
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.