What is a gestaltist?

This is a question I’ve been pondering since beginning my forays into gestalt a few years ago. During my meanderings through reading and attending gestalt conferences and gatherings, I’ve found as many types of gestalt practitioner as there are shades in the colour spectrum.

I’ve found some who hold tight and true to the original work of the gestalt therapy pioneers such as Perls, Hefferline and Goodman.

Some who lean heavily into Kurt Lewins’s field theory, and others into systems theory through the work of Bateson and Luhmann.

Then there are those who are drawn more to the field of dialogue and the work of Isaacs, and yet others with more focus on Beisser’s ideas of the paradoxical change theory. And of course there’s many whose focus is phenomenology through the work of Merleau-Ponty.

I could go on, but you’ll be relieved to hear I won’t!

So as I sit back in my chair, watching the birds go to and from the bird feeders, I wonder what it is that makes many of these wonderfully talented people I’ve met ‘gestaltist’? I don’t think it’s what gestalt qualification they’ve got or how much theory they know; I think it’s how they use their knowledge and who they are. I’ve come across many gestalt-trained folks I wouldn’t describe as gestaltist!

My wonderings have led me to summarise a gestaltist as someone who…

  • Listens attentively to their body, spirit and mind, and encourages others to do the same;
  • Is aware of, and plays, their part in the systems they work in, they are not a detached, clinical observer;
  • Is patient and waits to see what emerges from the whole field before choosing which figures to attend to first;
  • Notices their own judgments and biases, and can choose to use them positively, or bracket them;
  • Is flexible and responsive to the situation as it arises, knowing they are made up of many parts that they responsively stretch, flex or hold moment by moment;
  • Is aware that they and the people they work with are always in relation to others and their situation, no person is an island;
  • Is constantly curious and open-minded, fuelled by life-long learning;
  • Is playful and makes it safe for others to experiment and be playful.

Of course, this is the result of my musings and you may have a very different perspective, which I’d love to hear – please comment below!

Written by Maggie Marriott | photo credit

Editor's note

In the July 2017 edition of the journal we asked, what is a gestaltist? Maggie's is the first response we've received to this question. We'd love to publish others' perspectives too, be they witty, erudite, or anything between. You're invited to comment below or email us with your thoughts!

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Author: Maggie Marriott

Maggie is a leadership coach and business consultant, working in the public, private and charity sectors. She combines her background in gestalt, systems architecture, business transformation, coaching and consultancy to bring holistic and creative solutions to the way organisations and leaders approach and implement organisational transformations to deliver their outcomes with humanity. Read more on her website


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Comments 3

  1. Dear Maggie, I’ve got inspired by your article and by your deep thoughts as well, John. I tried for myself a short summary of “what is a gestaltist?” I feel that it is so much more and here and now it is this sentence for me:

    A Gestaltist is a person who experienced her or his life in a multidimensional way and is able to place this wisdom at the disposal of others in an empathic way.

    And I realize that this might be a typical German sentence: complex and long. So I understand now: this is how I am as well *smile*

  2. Thanks for your lovely response John, I especially like your words “The process is the opening to compassion”. Working with compassion really struck me as true for the work I do with others and something I need to remember more for myself.

  3. Dear Maggie, I love that you’re asking what it means to be a gestalt person rather than the more familiar ‘what is gestalt’. And I appreciate that you say it in lay language.

    Your efforts inspire me to have a go, and I’ve come up with four criteria. They are less about ‘what we do’ – or ‘how we do it’ – mine are more about ‘who we are’ in my experience. Some of these are of course not exclusive to gestaltists!

    – we have a sense of life being a collective, rather than an individual journey, which means we aspire to and are motivated by something differently nuanced that self-development as narrowly understood.

    – many of us carry a wound, or a conscious source of pain, which can seem to be in tension with the above and pull us back to our separateness, but the impact is that our journeys are unique to us, we have to find them out, rather than seeing ‘self-development’ as some generalised or idealised path. What this means to me is that our challenge is to become the very best version of ourselves, however floored, wanting or imperfect we may seem. The process is the opening to compassion.

    – thirdly we embrace that life is about living with contradiction, which can literally mean living with irreconcilable difference: “I am for myself, I am for the other”; “I don’t live up to my values, and I do”. This has something of Isiah Berlin’s idea of there being many small truths rather than a single big truth, and what a gestalt worldview adds I think is the idea that these do not have to be reconcilable.

    – and finally we empahsize our ground and our materiality over the spiritual, which doesn’t preclude religion but means there’s no escaping, or glorifying, the fact of death. Some of the most real and human people I know are those who have kept hold of this stance, with dignity, in their later years.

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