Gestalt Coaching: The Art of Connecting

Written by Tünde Horváth, MCC

Authenticity, awareness, connection, presence. All elements of an effective coaching session. Gestalt Coaching develops these through paying attention to three areas simultaneously in the here and now.

“One day they asked [the French painter] Matisse if, when he ate a tomato, he saw it as he painted it. No, said Matisse, when I eat it I see it as everybody sees it. But Picasso was not like that. When he ate a tomato the tomato was not everybody’s tomato, not at all, and his effort was not to express in his way the things seen as every one sees them, but to express the thing as he was seeing it.”

The above quote is from Gertrude Stein, writing in her own voice. She was an American writer and great supporter of modern art living in Paris in the nineteen twenties. Her words not only describe Picasso’s art, but also provide an accurate, and important, insight to the Gestalt approach in coaching.

In her book about Picasso (1938) she continues, “Really most of the time one sees only a feature of a person with whom one is, the other features are covered by a hat, by the light, by clothes for sport and everybody is accustomed to complete the whole entirely from their knowledge, but Picasso when he saw an eye, the other one did not exist for him and as a painter, and particularly as a Spanish painter, he was right, one sees what one sees, the rest is a reconstruction from memory.”

Picasso did not represent reality the way we usually, conventionally, see reality. We expect to find two eyes next to one another on a woman’s face. If this is not the case―because we see only one eye, or the two eyes are under one another―we’re going to feel uncomfortable viewing it. This feeling of discomfort is caused by the difference between the reality in front of us and the reality we are used to perceiving.

When this happens, our brain often attempts to help us out very quickly by converting our view of what’s in front of us into something that is already familiar and, therefore, more comfortable to us. 

In a coaching session we often create similar situations. When a client smiles we might take it as a sign of trust. When they look away we might think that they’re not interested in the session. Therefore, we, as coaches, have a tendency to act accordingly. With a smiling client we may forget to pay attention to building trust. With the client who looks away we may switch into a higher gear and start to work harder in the session to keep him or her engaged.

When a client arrives at a coaching session, the Gestalt coach immediately pays attention to three different areas at the same time. She watches the client’s behavior and gestures, listens to his voice, and attends to what he’s talking about. In Gestalt this is called “external data” because the coach perceives it through her senses, e.g.: eyes and ears.

The Gestalt coach simultaneously pays attention to herself―her own reactions and feelings about the client. For example, does she feel energized, irritated, or bored by the client? This is called internal data, and are the feelings, body sensations, intuitions, etc., that are being experienced in response to the client.

While tracking the client and her own responses, she is also keeping an eye on the relationship between the two of them. For example, how much trust is there between them, are they disagreeing, does it feel like they’ve known each other for years?

These three areas of information gathering are important for the Gestalt coach because all  of this data will serve as the foundation for a coaching intervention.

This kind of attention is similar to what we read about Picasso earlier. The Gestalt coach will do everything she can to perceive reality as it is happening in the here and now. She will do her best to turn off that part of her brain that immediately turns the situation into something with which she is previously familiar.  Instead of thinking to herself, “Oh my gosh, this client is just as analytical as my grandfather! I wonder if she connects with her  emotions at all?”, she will make a conscious effort to stay curious and might say something like   this: “Hearing the many ways you are trying to find a solution to this problem (external data) I’m amazed (internal data) by your creativity. Are you aware of your high level of creativity?”

The Gestalt principle being demonstrated here is one that shows the use of awareness in the here and now. Authentic, effective “contact” between two people, one that leads to real change and transformation, only happens when awareness is heightened for both the client and the coach.

One of the tasks of a Gestalt coach is to help the client become aware of his feelings, body sensations, voice, intonation, choice of words, and thinking patterns. As the level of awareness increases, so does the level of curiosity.In coaching, just as in any other human encounter, as I become “actively curious”, I allow myself to meet the other person in their model o f the world instead of my preconceived notions about them.

The power of Gestalt coaching lies in developing those skills that bring the client into stronger, more authentic, contact with himself as well as with us, as coaches.