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28 May, 2009

The many shapes of Gestalt

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: Coaching Articles

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Gestalt psychology is a framework that can be applied to a wide variety of psychological phenomena and processes. Within the school of thought, human beings are viewed as ‘open systems, in active interaction with their environment’. The framework helps particularly in understanding our response to structure and order.

The movement is credited to Max Wertheimer, but was developed largely from the contemporary philosophy and psychology of Christian von Ehrenfels, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernst Mach. It seems to be largely based on a paper written by Mach ‘Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations’ published in 1886.

Wertheimer’s contribution came in the early 20th Century as he considered the developments about how we perceive an environment according to all of its elements – ‘a global construct’. This ‘gestalt’ or whole form approach isolates principles of perception and our own innate mental ‘laws’ that affect how we perceive the objects around us. The theory has been criticised as being very descriptive, but it actually contributed to a lot of further research into issues of our perception and patterns of behaviour, thinking and problem solving.

Let’s look at this – the psychology theory refers to the form-forming capabilities of our senses. Most often, this refers to our visual sense, and our ability to work with two-dimensional forms. But the same rules are responsible for forming other senses as well, which act in three dimensions.


a) Nearby lights that are switched on/off can look like running dots.


************* ************* *************

You are probably seeing three lines of stars, and not a single star or a rectangle.

+ – - – - – + : : +—+ : : | | + – - – - – + +—+

Are you seeing characters, dots or lines? You are most likely to see two rectangles in this case.

+ – - – - – - – - + : : : /\ /\ +—+ : : \/ \/ | | : : +—+ : + – - – - – - – - +

Do you see three geometrical forms lying on a tablet, grouped into two groups, consisting of the two rhombi left and the quadrant right, or are you seeing alphanumerical characters?

These examples represent the three principle laws of gestalt at work

  1. Figure and Background

Human cognition arranges surfaces in forms that are recognised as the actual figure, and in forms that are recognised as background to the figure. In some geometrical arrangements, the relation between figure and background isn’t clear. In that case, we see one part of the image as figure and the other part as background, until they change.

  1. Internal Arrangement

If there are lines forming overlaying figures, we see this as overlay of those figures whose outline has the least changes of direction. This is known as pregnance. If there are alternative figures that could be seen, we see the figure or gestalt, which is, based on the most simple, uniform, closed, symmetrical form.

  1. Deepness

The pregnance principle is seen best in the cognition of three dimensions or deepness in two-dimensional pictures or drawings. A simple drawing of a cube is seen as a cube — and not as flat arrangement of surfaces.

Why do you need to know this?

You need to know the basics of the psychology to get to grips with the therapy. It’s also useful to know that our understanding of Gestalt psychology influences things like design, industrial design and functional design and usability.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is a psychological school that transfers the gestalt effects from optical perception to the cognition of figures, forms and wholes in social groups. The most striking characteristics of this seem to be ‘the key role of epistemological grounding of the critical realism of gestalt and its applicability to the fundamental, theoretical and practical problems of psychotherapy… the methodological approach is closely bound up with holistic, phenomenological, experiential, existential, dialogical and field approaches to psychophysical and psychological approach to psychotherapy’.

Theory in a Nutshell: the heart of the experience of gestalt therapy is awareness – of your own feelings, of your behaviours, of your effect on your environment.

The Gestalt Therapy Experience involves the client in looking at:

  • Living Now – being concerned with the present, not the past or future
  • Living Here – dealing with what is present rather than absent
  • Stop Imagining – and experience reality
  • Stop unnecessary thinking – stop over procrastinating!
  • Express feelings – rather than manipulate, explain, justify or judge
  • Give in to unpleasantness and pain – just as you do for pleasure, it’s all part of your awareness
  • Don’t accept anyone else’s judgments on you – their ‘should’ and ‘ought’ don’t belong to you
  • Take full responsibility for the way you feel, think and act
  • Surrender to being as you are

Why do you need to know all this?

I was wondering the same myself until I got to the last bit and saw the similarities between the ‘therapy bit’ rather than the ‘theory’ bit. The crux of this seems to be in the standard approach to psychotherapy, which is about ‘curing or helping solve behavioural and other psychological problems, usually by talking to a therapist’. Gestalt moves this to the next level, where it is starting to focus on the present, rather than in the past looking for roots of problems, as typical psychotherapy does.

There are huge similarities between the gestalt experience and coaching, and gestalt is kind of the bridge between the two camps.


Sergio Sinay (1997) Gestalt for Beginners, Writers and Readers

Frederick S Perl (1984) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human

Personality, Souvenir Press

2 Responses to "The many shapes of Gestalt"

1 | Stress Training Mark

May 29th, 2009 at 11:46 am


Interesting – thanks. Seems like a hard subject to “pin down” in many ways. How practical is it for business folks?

All the best from Brighton,

2 | Katrin Schlenzka

June 15th, 2009 at 3:34 pm


With regard to how it could work for business people I think there are certain traits that work for example the avoiding procrastination. Also being in the present and dealing with the reality of a situation rather than justifying or moaning about it has value. Often business people shy away from examining the negative side of a situation and so miss an opportunity or fail to spot a growing trend. Equally businesses can over-focus on thoughts over feelings and perhaps there is an opportunity to help people to reconnect with their instincts (or good old fashioned gut-feel). Finally, in a world of over-commoditised ‘worker-bees’ there is value in being true to your own principles (once you have identified them) and standing out and taking responsibility for expressing that clearly. Just an idea but it’s not as alien to business people as it might first seem.
Anyway thanks for opening us up to some new ideas.

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