Forskning och vetenskap


In Transition: Gestalting Theory from Practice,
Practice from Theory


Three Gestalt practitioner colleagues, with a special interest in research, have agreed to make in-text comments and final brief summaries. Part of my agreement with them is that I will not edit their comments in any way. These colleagues are Sue Congram, almost at the end of her own doctoral journey, Brian Mistler Ph.D and Philip Brownell, MDiv, PsyD. 


This article charts my journey from being a dedicated Gestalt practitioner to becoming, first, a practitioner-author, then a practitioner-researcher, then a practitioner-theorizer and then – in brief though illuminating flashes – a theorizer. 

Brian MistlerWould you be willing to say “theorizer-practitioner” here at the end… or something like “practitioner-theorizer-practitioner”? In most domains, and Gestalt especially (which I believe aims to transcend the therapist-client context), I am doubtful that anyone can really give up the practitioner piece, or what it would mean if they did. I know this is deeply related to the whole of this piece, so I am imagining you have given thought to this and to end on have chosen “theorizer” out of the field for a reason. I’m only a sentence in, and I’m having a reaction – I want to know more about your choice in this opening line.

Practical and theoretical exemplifications of my journey are included. My hope is that this is a journey more of my Gestalt colleagues could consider making, not only for their own personal and professional development, but also in support of our chosen modality and its respectful acceptance and further validation.


This paper is a much revised and re-written version of parts of my Critical Appraisal, a document of 5,000 words to accompany my Ph.D submission at the University of Derby (UoD), England. Since both examiners at my viva voce were in agreement that my submission clearly satisfied the requirements of a contribution at doctoral level to a field of study (in this case, Gestalt practice across diverse socio-cultural settings), then the Critical Appraisal became the main focus of our discussion. 

I experienced my examination as supportive and energizing and a source of many connections and extrapolations, which I hope to explore in this paper, “with a little help from my friends”.


The transitional journey described here is one on which the generally implicit “embodied theory” of the Gestalt practitioner became more explicitly presented, in both teaching and writing,  as theory-informed embodied practice. This has not been a smooth or particularly easy journey in a modality – Gestalt – which has so many of its roots in the following contemporary statement:

  • “Gestalt therapy has a conflict within its soul. It privileges action and expression and distrusts thinking and mere talking…(it) attracted a fair share of anti-intellectuals who helped establish a rebellious culture that challenged the bloodless cerebrations of classical psychoanalysis” (Bloom, 2009, p.29).

BrianYes, I feel that conflict within me still.

As one of those who came to Gestalt from a rational management training and university lecturer background with which I was becoming increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied, part of the attraction was a focus on embodied practice, on doing rather than talking/writing about it. As is my habit (Gaffney, 2008A), I went from student to trainer within a year…so clearly to talking about it. And the journey had only started: an example of where this transitional journey has taken me can be gleaned from the following:

  • “For many years, I much preferred working with groups from a gestalt perspective rather than writing about it. My foray into publishing was an exciting challenge and a rewarding experience. I discovered that I “knew” more than I thought (though not always where it came from) and also had a contribution to make to theoretical thinking on the subject. I also found how much my practice was being influenced by my writing. New perspectives and insights occurred regularly and became embodied in my practice. I had moved from doing it to writing about it, back to doing it – and here and now writing about doing it!” (Gaffney, 2008, p. 32).

This appeared in an article written and published in a period of particular importance to me and the theme of this article – so allow me here to retrace my steps to 2003. At that time, the Gestalt Academy of Scandinavia (GA) had two established academic training programmes in collaboration with the University of Derby (UoD), England – a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy and one in Gestalt in Organisations. I had been involved in the evolution of these programmes, and had been on the training faculty and internal Examination Committee for both. Two faculty colleagues and friends became interested in exploring what possibilities the GA/UoD collaboration could offer for their possible doctoral studies. Their initial contacts opened a door for such a journey, and they asked me to join them, along with another colleague and friend.

Sue Congram: I hear echoes of my own life in some of the things that you say here. Seeing my own transitional journey from student to trainer, then to my own surprise, from trainer to researcher. I wonder if it is easier to see transitions as we look back on our lives, than to see possible transitions in front of us.

With some reluctance, I agreed to join them. My reluctance was grounded in a mixture of reactions. To begin with, I was unsure about my ability to work at a doctoral level. My opinion had long been that my competence was at being in the moment of my work, a focus fully on my embodied practice and a theoretical base so well understood and integrated that it was available as a resource whenever I needed it – on a Gestalt training programme for example or as a spontaneous didactic in an organizational setting.

Philip Brownell:  I want to insert myself at this point, mostly just to get myself into “the room” so to speak.  I notice that my experience in training has been different.  I was very interested in theory from the beginning, because I had experienced gestalt therapy early on, with someone training with Fritz at Esalen, but I had had no theory to go along with it.  When I got to my formal gestalt training I craved the explanation and discussion of “the map.”

I was also unsure about my ability to write a thesis. At the time, I had, after much persuasion and cajoling as well as a false start, one submitted article which seemed to have survived peer reviews and was under revision (Gaffney, 2004). At the same time, I had been the founding editor of – and a major contributor to – the Nordic Gestalt Journal, published in Swedish from 1994 – 2000, as well as writing a chapter for an influential collection of papers by Gestalt practitioners in Swedish (Mannerstråhle, 1995). And yet, and yet…I began to acknowledge my deep-seated inferiority complex around never having had a formal academic education. I had gone straight from school to a Cistercian monastery (Gaffney 2008A; Harris, 2009) and straight from there to Irish Rail followed by the Irish Postal Service and then emigration to England and training as a psychiatric nurse. My very working-class family could never have afforded a university education for me in the Ireland of the 1960s.

BrianReading this, I want to at once express my empathy for the pain of experiences you did not have, and my envy for those you did.

Phil:  I can relate. My working class family couldn’t afford it either. My exposure to psychiatric nursing was in the US Navy during the Viet Nam war; I was a hospital corpsman who received extensive training to be become a neuropsychiatric technician.  We were taught Transactional Analysis by Joseph Concannon, who used to work with Eric Berne as he was developing it and is acknowledged by Berne in the preface to Games People Play.  Later, before going to seminary, I worked in residential treatment of children and adolescents.

On arriving in Sweden in 1975, I was recommended by my Swedish language teachers – impressed at my ability to learn Swedish and my understanding of the mechanics of the language – to apply to their adult education organization as an English language teacher, which I did. This eventually led to a dispensation to take a post-graduate certificate course in TOEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language), which I succeeded in gaining. During this period, I became first a language teacher in the English Department at the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), and then, in 1987, Head of the Language and Professional Communication Department, which automatically conferred lecturer status upon me – and also at the same time and incidentally, formally a lecturer in cross-cultural communication at The Institute for International Business at SSE.

So I had become a back-door academic, haunted by “The Achilles Syndrome” (Clarkson, 1994). When would I be found out as a counterfeit, a fraud? Enrolling on a doctoral programme seemed like tempting fate even for such an accomplished autodidact as myself, with successful parallel careers as university lecturer, management trainer and Gestalt practitioner…

Phil:  An interesting parallel–I did enroll in formal academic and post-graduate programs, first in pastoral theology (Master of Divinity program), and then in clinical psychology (Masters and Doctoral degrees in clinical psychology); however, my experience of these programs is that they were so fast paced and demanding, and I am such a slow reader, that I could only skim at best, and what I learned the most was how to refine the “game of school.”  In the game of school you learn how to get the grade, not necessarily how to assimilate and digest the knowledge; consequently, I also began to feel like a fraud.  When would “they” discover that I didn’t know what I was talking about?  I do know now, but that realization came after I had graduated and began to understand I had assimilated more than I thought and as I came back to study on my own the subjects I found most interesting, engaging colleagues in protracted discussion at Gstalt-L and writing for publication.

My first face-to-face contact at UoD was with a professor with an Irish family name, Chris Brannigan…I spoke freely of my doubts…he responded by saying “You sound like my father…he was also from Dublin, and always regretted his lack of formal education. Then I became a professor, and he started living again”. For some reason this impressed me, I was hooked. So I joined the doctoral programme despite my qualms…

Sue: I am reminded of the work of Robert Romanyshyn, a Jungian analyst and researcher who wrote a book called The Wounded Researcher (2007). Romanyshyn describes how he believes the topic for research ’chooses the researcher as much as, and perhaps even more than, he or she chooses it’ (p4). That the re-search is about searching again for something that we have already known, but have forgotten (perhaps we once knew it in a different way). The struggle to recover what has been lost ‘is the struggle in the gap between what is said and what wants and needs to be spoken.’ (p4)  On this basis, the ‘work wants something from the researcher [unfinished business] as much as the researcher wants something from the work’. (p105).

What Romanyshyn suggests is that the researcher seeks to transform a wound in the work. The wounding is a way of being present and the research is a calling to open to that wound, so that the work it addresses can be completed.

I raise this here because you mention a couple of times in your text a struggle with your Achilles heel. Yet, I wonder if this struggle is not only your personal struggle, but a painful calling that originates more deeply in our society and culture.

In the spring of 2004, I went along with the idea of a Scandinavian/Irish doctoral group in a distance study programme. My application was accepted by the Research Degrees Committee, and in September, 2004, I formally entered the distance doctoral programme at UoD, with a proposed completion date of September, 2009. 

With this official entrance into the rigorous checks and balances of such a formal programme, the first crack appeared in my dogged determination to be and remain a practitioner, always in the moment, whose work is always a work in progress. That is, whose practice was and is always a work in progress, and which now would be examined over time…and written about…and then evaluated by criteria other than how appreciated or otherwise my practice ´may be, both by “clients” (individual, group, organizational), my colleagues and myself. The new criteria included a research-based contribution to knowledge, the ability to write intelligently and intelligibly about it, and to represent it orally at a viva voce

These now also became my work, my parallel practice – finding and implementing a suitable research focus and methodology and producing a written description of it for assessment and examination at a doctoral level.

Unknown to me at the time, I had also embarked on another career – that of author. At the time of my formal enrollment, I had one article published in English and two drafts under peer review, subsequently published (see REFERENCES for a full list of publications). I had also been asked to submit a chapter for a collection to be published by The National Training Laboraories (NTL) in the U.S.A. And my Academic Superviser, Professor Paul Weller, UoD, was already encouraging me to draft an introduction to my thesis…

On reflection, I realize how I had moved in a steady flow from doing the work of a Gestalt practitioner, to writing about doing it, to preparing to research about doing it and writing about doing that. In addition, my writing itself soon became a core aspect of my collaborative inquiry through the various dialogical processes involved, and thus an intrinsic part of the research-based “whole” of the final submission.

Sue: I find this intriguing when Gestalt practice has traditionally avoided ‘talking about’, a real taboo. Yet, we need the intellectualizing, talking about Gestalt is critical to its standpoint in the world, critical to research. Perhaps this has been a contributing factor on the issue of marketing Gestalt as a practice, and the way, it seems, that Gestalt practitioners hold back from putting themselves and Gestalt out there in the world. To start ‘talking about Gestalt’, might call for, or generate, a different language of Gestalt.

In September, 2006, I successfully led a seminar at UoD with an external examiner on my work so far, and the proposed schedule towards completion. The title, which had metamorphosed numerous times in the previous two years, had now come to its final form: “On Borders and Boundaries – Gestalt at Work in the World”. By this time, I now had five papers published or in press, four under peer review, and two rough drafts with my First Reader, my friend and colleague Anne McLean in New Zealand. My move to practitioner-author was established and growing – a second paper had been commissioned by now, outside the Gestalt or OD context (Gaffney, 2008C). Not to forget the various drafts of an introduction to my thesis, as well as my draft literature review on Gestalt with groups and organizations – writing had now clearly become one of my practices.

My supervisor, Professor Paul Weller, hinted often and gently that my writing seemed to be at the expense of any thoughts about an empirical study at the heart of my thesis. As I look back now and reflect on where I was in my process at that time, I can see two perspectives which may explain my hesitation around an empirical study. Emotionally, my over-riding experience was the growing and darkening shadow of my Achilles Syndrome – now I was really in trouble! Me? An empirical study? 

Brian: I made a conscious decision to make my first round of comments as I was reading. At this point, I’m feeling some inadequacy myself – what can I add to this wonderful story. Is there something else I should be doing? I feel admiration for your process, persistence, and reflections. Wonderful.

More cognitively, I was wrestling with the tension emerging from my preferred focus – that of practitioner – and the assumption by academics at UoD that my study was “about groups”. I knew that my study was about group facilitators, in other words – the practitioners, more specifically, Gestalt group facilitators. The more I thought about this, the more obvious it became to me that only a major and international study could do justice to the claims I was making – by confirming, questioning or demolishing them. I honestly did not feel myself capable of doing justice to such a study, and was mindful of the damage that an inadequate or less-than-perfect study would do to my work. I was increasingly aware of the importance here of methodology, and of finding one to which I could do justice, and which would provide a methodological framework for my submission.

Of significance here also is that as 2006 became 2007, I could now add a further six papers in press/under peer review (all but one of which were published – see below for the exception). The Scandinavian/Irish Doctoral group was now down to three members – a Dane, a Swede and me. Along with UoD and local supervisers, we had three-day meetings twice a year in my house in Sweden, as well as regular individual and group meetings at UoD, and each of us with our local supervisor. 

In February, 2007, much of my time at our residential doctoral meeting was spent agonizing over my next step. During the previous autumn, while attending an individual academic supervision session in UoD, an interesting choice had presented itself. As a member of faculty with a collaborating institute – the Gestalt Academy of Scandinavia on their two Masters’ programmes with UoD – I could choose to avail of the “Ph.D by publication route”. 

Brian: I am always struck by the common roots of ‘author’ and ‘authority’. For me, writing in general has often been related to a desire for the same kind of legitimacy – adulthood even, in the sense of authority on my own experience – that degrees conferred. 

This route was intended as an exact parallel to the thesis route, meaning that a body of peer-reviewed published work matched the traditional monograph in terms of academic quality and contribution to knowledge, subjected to the same assessment and examination requirements.

Sue: You raise a big question here about writing, particularly academic writing and the confidence to step into that particular transitional space. Clearly your profuse writing period served you well and I’d be interested to hear more about that and what inspired you to write so much during that short period of time? 

Writing is an ongoing puzzle for me. As a Gestalt practitioner doing research in a Gestalt way, my question is continuously how to meet the needs of academic demands with the fullness of writing authentically – and keeping my writing alive. 

The “Irish” member of my informal supervision group, Professor Chris Brannigan, offered a persuasive thought: since focused papers were clearly my medium of choice, would I consider writing up a pilot project: a mini-empirical study. I immediately thought of two opportunities: I was on the faculty of an international MBA at SSE, and also had access to Gestalt training groups in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Chris was of the opinion that such a paper would be a useful if not, in fact, necessary contribution to my submission.

Then, of course, I had my inner debate with Achilles and his vulnerable heel…would I be choosing a back-door option by going the publication route? Would I be avoiding my demons, rather than facing them? Would I be going for second-best for fear of failure at “best”, a sudden arrow in my heel? Was I paying too much respect to traditional formalities, I who had always ended up doing my own thing anyway? Was I missing an opportunity through submission to values that were not mine? My two colleagues, Sanne and Tina were a great support during this period, as was Paul, my supervisor, who had always been clear and encouraging about my ability to produce a monograph. Chris was pragmatic (as becomes a senior CBT practitioner!): “You’ve already published more than most of us, you can talk your way out a plastic bag, so a viva is an opportunity for you, not a problem…so go for it!”

During 2007, my writing continued, covering all the aspects of “Gestalt at work in the World” that were relevant to me. As the February, 2008 doctoral group meeting approached, I had some twenty papers published, in press or under review. It was clear to me that I had a body of work which could be considered a significant contribution to the theory, methodology and practice of Gestalt in a range of applications – therapeutic, group, educational, organizational, social, and in a variety of socio-cultural settings.

Where my choice of routes was concerned, this was when push came to shove. I absolutely had the material for a cut-and-paste-and-glue-together theoretical monograph, with a tacked-on pilot project for the sake of something empirical. I did not find this an attractive or worthy alternative. So I began exploring how I could best select a collection of papers which comprised an integrated body of work and which contained the theory, methodology and exemplifications necessary to support a contribution to knowledge. This contribution was primarily aimed at my Gestalt colleagues, though I had increasingly, with time, offered theory and methodologies to other than Gestalt practitioners.

And this is also where I re-acquainted myself with my demons, Achilles’ heel drumming on my forehead. What finally supported me in my decision was the protocol for the publication route. Any submission would be provisionally assessed by an external academic, preferably a professor and absolutely an expert in the field of study. In other words, someone could shoot the arrow before it was too late…so I began to accept that the publication route was mine to follow.

With regard to my possible pilot-projects mentioned earlier, SSE internal politics removed the first option. The MBA Programme was to be radically re-structured, and I became one of the original faculty to disappear. And then the internal tensions of the Gestalt Academy of Scandinavia made it impossible for me to run a pilot project from August 2008 into 2009.

So, at the February 2009 doctoral meeting, I had to make my choice. Go the publication route, and, if unsuccessful, wait another year with a new submission. I was already a pensioner. By the summer of 2009, I would be 67. Quite simply, time was running out, and if I was going to do this, well if not now, when? So I went with my alter ego, Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story 2…(and 3))…”to infinity and beyond”…and went for the publication route. Paul, my Academic Supervisor, announced his resignation as Academic Supervisor on the spot – and immediately applied for the job of Academic Advisor, which is what I was entitled to on the publications route. I accepted him as such immediately and with pleasure. We had developed a good personal and professional working relationship, both of which I valued…and then began the bureaucratic nightmare that is moving from one academic path to another…I will spare the reader the intricacies of such a move.

Brian: What a shame that such bureaucratic nightmares, so pedantic and unnecessary to the core developmental plot, should demand so much of a person’s time and energy in these pursuits.

By the early spring of 2009, I had selected seventeen of some twenty four published/in press papers as my Ph.D by publication submission, which were sent for external assessment by an American professor with a Gestalt training background. After a nervous six weeks, I was informed in mid May that my submission was approved as suitable for progression to the formal process of a viva voce examination…

During a visit to Paul at UoD in June, 2009, I was faced with the formal declaration to submit within three months…and did so, on June 10. This meant a deadline of September 10 for three bound copies of my submission, now to include a Critical Appraisal of my own work, an essential and core document on the publication route. This was separate paper, usually of 5 000 words, or 8 000 if necessary, after a formal approval by the Research Degrees Committee. The purpose of this document was to critically assess my own work and its contribution to knowledge. Drafting, revising and preparing this – as well as the seventeen papers and necessary documentation – to be printed and “bound in soft covers” dominated my summer of 2009. (As stated earlier, this paper you are reading is an extended and much revised version of relevant portions of that Critical Appraisal.) 

My viva took place on November 11, 2009. This was an exciting, challenging, supportive experience which opened up areas of my knowledge and experience that clearly were mine, though had not found their way into the submission. I am still amazed at how much I learned in what was actually an examination, and still feel gratitude to Dr. Christine Stevens and Dr. Kate Maguire for the manner in which they elicited so much of value to me, and for the brief appendix they requested based on our discussions. At the end of November, 2009, I received formal notice of having satisfied all requirements for the award of a Ph.D. On January 23, 2010, I walked across the stage in bonnet and gown at the UoD Awards Ceremony in Derby City Hall.

Brian: I am trying to imagine being there at that moment, or having tea on January 24th and hearing about your process.

My transition to becoming an official academic was now established as an ongoing process, of which this paper is a part.

Sue: “What the knower comes to know changes who the knower is” (Romanyshyn 2007, p117)


In order to establish some context at this stage, here are some extracts from the original Critical Appraisal:

  • This submission represents the development of what is it is argued can be a theory and methodology for Gestalt-based group facilitation by practitioners of any cultural background in homogenous or heterogeneous cultural settings. Such cultural border-crossings are supported by a focus on contact boundary dynamics, introduced here to combine such established Gestalt constructs as contact and awareness within a field approach. This selection of 17 journal articles and book chapters peer reviewed and/or edited, published, in press or accepted for publication between Spring, 2004 and Spring, 2010, examines the extent to which traditional Gestalt theory, methodology and practice initially intended to treat the psychopathology of individuals, has also, from the beginning provided a solid ground for Gestalt practitioners in socially complex settings, such as groups, organizations and societies.  Extrapolations of the original thinking are offered throughout to support this claim.Particular attention is paid to the multi-cultural context of a more physically and virtually accessible world such as that in which we currently live, and in which these groups and organizations function as increasingly diverse collectives in culturally diverse societies. This naturally includes the socio-cultural background of the practitioner, as well as that of the world-wide training institutes. Core to my writing is the intention to stay firmly within the parameters of Gestalt theory, methodology and practice to ensure that any experienced Gestalt practitioner or recent graduate will at least find a base of known theoretical constructs which they will recognize and with which they will be acquainted – whether or not they agree with the variations and applications I am presenting. A non-Gestalt version is included for group practitioners of other modalities.A focus on groups acknowledges the author’s contention that organizations and societies are composed of inter-dependent and interacting sub-groups, each a group in its own right. Groups and their sub-groups can thus be parts through which it is possible to approach larger wholes, such as organizations and societies, in order to explore possible extrapolations and distinctions in the interplay between the whole and its parts. Such an approach is congruent with the holistic field perspective of Gestalt theory as originally published, as well as the field theory and social-psychological focus of Kurt Lewin (Lewin 1952), an original, then forgotten and now revived influence on Gestalt theory. A synthesis of these two theoretical foundations, called “A Field Perspective” has recently been proposed and appears in the submission (O’Neill & Gaffney,  2008, page 229). This will in my future publications be named “A Gestalt Field Perspective”.The submission includes: 1 interview, to establish some personal background; 
    1 paper on individual Gestalt therapy; 
    6 papers on Gestalt group facilitation
    – 1 with 8 commentaries and a response;
    – 1 with 6 commentaries;
    – 1 with 2 in-text commentaries and a separate group commentary;
    1 paper on Gestalt group supervision with 3 in-text commentaries;
    4 papers on Gestalt OD consulting;
    – 1 with an introduction, 2 commentaries and a response;
    2 papers with a social focus;
    2 papers with a theoretical focus.
    – 1 with 2 commentaries and a response.The principal themes of a contribution to knowledge, across the above papers:Neo-Lewinian Field Theory
    Contact Boundary Dynamics
    Borders and Boundaries
    Cross-cultural Group Facilitation and Consultancy.
    Existentialism as ground for living and interacting.


Donald Schön’s “Educating the Reflective Practitioner” (Schön, 1987) has as its sub-title “Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions”. This book was a strong influence on me when I first read it in 1990, and, as a teacher, trainer and OD consultant I have regularly dipped into over the years. Clearly, since my papers are emergent from my practice as Gestalt therapist, group facilitator, OD consultant and trainer – a professional with professionals – then reflective practice was at the core of my work.

PhilI come in here, anticipating (maybe wrongly) where you’re going, to say that this project seems like a qualitative approach to research.  I may be stating the obvious. I want to put a placemarker for the use of qualitative research in the practice of organizational consulting.  I have begun deliberately using qualitative research in my organizational assessments, which is an extension of the gestalt approach of “joining” the organization so as to experience it as a first move to having an influence.  As such, I believe gestalt OD practitioners and coaches can benefit from rigorous study of qualitative research designs and strategies. As it is, I use the qualitative assessment to set up a second-stage proposal with companies, and that fine tunes the objectives and the contracting involved in what is essentially a business transaction.

The new context of my reflective practice in preparing a doctoral submission offered new opportunities and perspectives. Allow me here to summarise some of the principal learnings I have taken with me from my transitional journey:

  1. Theorising in such a practice-focused environment as Gestalt is has its challenges, especially since the theorizer in this case (me) has a decided bias towards action and practice. There were papers where I deliberately focused on the theoretical, only to be told by peer reviewers that I must use more examples of practice – and give such examples pride of place, in other words to open with them. One reviewer was very critical of my theory, and warmly enthusiastic over my examples – though the examples exemplified the theory!

A total break-down in communication occurred when one of my favourite drafts, in which I used aural and visual metaphors to sensorily illustrate theoretical positions was met with bafflement by journal reviewers whom I had apparently totally “lost in translation”. What I had optimistically seen as a potential example of experiential reading had apparently become both unreadable and untranslatable. Particular challenges have occurred when fellow practitioners became so focused on defending established constructs that new extrapolations/proposals never really seemed to get beyond an instant re-iteration of the traditional versions (Bloom, ibid ). At the same time, it is precisely such challenges to adequately communicating my thinking which became grist for the mill of my reflexive process as I explored what to take in as relevant corrections, and what to maintain as a considered position.

To coin a phrase, I seemed to have occasionally gone “a bridge too far”. Such experiences gave rise to reflections around the ever-invisible boundaries of current understanding, which only become visible – as borders – when I crossed them. At the same time, crossing these borders with the courage of our convictions is also a responsibility in our contribution to knowledge and theory-informed practice.

Phil:  There is a difference between the boundary of understanding that is experienced because words do not work equally well for writer and reader in calling forth a revelation of life, and the boundary that comes because an advancement of theory is actually taking place which requires that people set aside their ways of knowing and let the revelation of life reach them as given.

Such instances as those briefly exemplified have had their consequences in my doctoral work. I initially became wary of making theoretical statements which might be “a bridge too far” for some Gestalt colleagues, and so became implicitly/explicitly mindful of qualifying my statements, or reframing them in less assertive terms. For example, “group self” became “at least analagous to self-of-group”, after a series of e-mail exchanges.

On the other hand – and equally important for me as practitioner-researcher theorizer – some of my thinking became re-enforced into a clearer theoretical stance. The best examples of this can be found throughout my papers dealing with my extrapolations on Lewinian field theory.

Brian: Seems to me you have done a very good job in the preceding few paragraphs of capturing the theory/themes, while tying them to some great examples. 

  • 2. Gestalt in all of its many applications as a theory and methodology is an embodied practice. By this I mean that as a Gestalt practitioner I have so integrated its cognitive elements into who I am, that my use of self in my practice means that I am not theory-less but rather informed by integrated theory in my embodied practice. This has also led to a curious short-sightedness, partly maintained by my attempt to intentionally stay sufficiently within the theory and methodology of anyway mainstream Gestalt training. The opportunity to write the Critical Appraisal and participate in such a creative viva voce has opened up doors to earlier knowledge which had apparently become so integrated into my practice as a teacher and trainer that I had forgotten its sources. Particularly relevant here is the work of John Heron, Peter Reason and John Rowan on such directly related subjects as group facilitation, collaborative inquiry and humanistic research methods (Heron 1989; 1996; Reason 1988; Rowan 1988). 

Phil:  Oh my.  You bring back an experience of mine when I discovered Heron and Reason.  I was in my doctoral program and in my gestalt training group, and no one seemed particularly interested in what these guys (Heron and Reason) were saying, but I was.  I’m with you, Seán; it feels like we’ve had at some points a similar journey of discovery; at least this is what I imagine and feel reading you here.  I know this also from our mutual appreciation for the book Advances in Field Theory by Wheelan, Pepitone, and Abt.

As a teacher and management trainer even in my pre-Gestalt days, I have read and enjoyed the work of these authors. Indeed, I once held a presentation of Heron’s work to language teachers as part of a Learning Centred development programme for teachers! I can now see that such sources can easily become unacknowledged in the delimited practioner-theoriser focus I had chosen, and were thus almost lost as a support to my research methodology. I say “almost” here, since such thinking as theirs emerged anyway as tacit knowledge and therefore a supportive contribution to methodology.

I have learned here the value of reflectively exploring the sources of my practice as embodied knowledge so that both my practice and my writing can more accurately resonate with and acknowledge these influences.

Brian: I can definitely see the value in this. Since you’re doing such a nice job of arguing for the importance of writing-about, I feel freedom to express the other half of my “own conflict within my soul” on the subject. I sometimes have the experience of coming to believe something – discovering it, almost – and then wanting to find someone else to acknowledge – not as much to credit where I got it from, since it is difficult to tell, but more to inoculate against the belief (in myself or others) that I am claiming to say something new, and, in so doing to also legitimize my thoughts in some way. “I wonder if that’s just me…?”, says that same internal process in a self-conscious way. 

  • 3. The importance of dialogue as a methodology has two aspects: the first is embedded in action research methodologies which are intrinsically dialogical.
    Research then needs to be written and presented. What became important to me was to continue dialogical processes into the actual writing. This has taken a number of forms: 

1) private commentaries from colleagues on various drafts;
2) published commentaries elicited by journal editors along with my opportunity to respond; 
3) unedited in-text commentaries, elicited by me, and published as part of the paper (as in this one!). 

Brian: Reading your self-reflexive parenthetical, I feel a sense of the dialogue right now. I cannot imagine a more clear demonstration of dialog in writing – and of the act of perspective ownership which I am fond of – than this elicited process capturing pre-synthesis thesis and response in vivo.

I am particularly interested in the journal readers who contacted me to express how much they enjoyed “taking sides” in these latter papers, with me or the commentator – or finding their own voices on the issues concerned, and always as they read the paper. I can now see how these dialogical reader responses can be a future source of research material. For example, as a practitioner-researcher, I can gather my papers, the “formal” commentaries and response as published AND, with permission, of course, the “informal” responses of readers to the whole of the preceding. This would in effect be an extension of the process used in an in-press paper (Gaffney, 2010A), and would broaden the research sample. In the paper concerned, two colleagues contributed unedited in-text comments, and the resulting paper, including comments, was reviewed by three fourth-year Gestalt therapy trainees in London.

  • 4) I became increasingly aware of the richness of perspectives embraced by Gestalt theory, methodology and practice and the complexities involved in both synthesizing as well as distinguishing them. To put it another way: gestalting Gestalt offers opportunities as well as pitfalls. Let me begin with a summary of my understanding of this issue. It may help to see each perspective as a “Russian doll” of increasing size, each from the second one onwards containing its predecessor/predecessors:

BrianI take issue with the metaphor, which feels too linear and hierarchical to me. (I feel the same way at times about some of the onion examples for “layers of resistance” in Gestalt). I’m not sure what a more field-oriented three-dimensional metaphor would be… I think perhaps some Escher drawings do a good job, especially on the dimension of working subordinate paradox into a congruent higher-order whole. 

EcologicalJan Smuts
BiologicalKurt Goldstein
PsychologicalSigmund Freud
 Max Wertheimer
 Wolfgang Köhler
 Kurt Koffka
 Kurt Levin
 Daniel Stern
FieldJan Smuts
 Kurt Goldstein
 Max Wertheimer
 Wolfgang Köhler
 Kurt Koffka
 Kurt Levin
PhilosophicalSören Kierkegaard
 Martin Buber
 Emmanuel Levinas
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty
 Edmund Husserl
 Martin Heidegger
 Edith Stein
 Jean-Paul Sartre
Theological/SpiritualSören Kierkegaard
 Martin Buber
 Emmanuel Levinas
 Edith Stein

PhilI would add the Hermeneutical to perspective and list the following people there: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer.
And also add the following people to the theological/spiritual perspective: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolph Otto, Karol Wojtyla, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, for example. And thank you, Seán, for previously introducing me to Edith Stein–I am eager to read her soon.

I do not suggest that this list of names is either exhaustive or absolutely accurate in any sense. It certainly contains names that were not necessarily considered relevant in the original text (PHG, 1951), like Kierkegaard, Buber, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Levinas, even Lewin, and certainly Stern and Stein. It is also so that such sources as these have achieved increasing importance in contemporary developments of Gestalt theory and methodology (see, for example: Woldt & Toman, 2005; Spagnuolo Lobb & Amendt-Lyon, 2003; Brownell, 2010). My principal point is to illustrate the domains or categories that need to be recognized as belonging to a consideration of Gestalt theory, methodology and practice, and to show something of the complexity of their connections to each other. 

Phil:  People could make many lists of influences (roots) of gestalt therapy; likewise lists of contemporary agreements with people in collateral fields.  Let me suggest that just as gestalt therapy (and many others) have discovered a new “darling” in Emmanuel Levinas, it cannot stop with him.  He is a slippery slope into the even more contemporary phenomenological thinkers who have assimilated Husserl, Heidegger, and Levinas and gone on to tackle a phenomenology of religion/spirituality.  Just as a theological worldview influenced Buber and then influenced gestalt therapy, the thinking of people like Lean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chretien, Michel Henry and Paul Ricoeur will likely affect gestalt therapy in the near future. 

A particular example from my submission is a co-authored paper (O’Neill & Gaffney, 2008) in which we examine the distinctions and commonalities between Smuts, Goldstein, Lewin and the proposals around “field” contained in the primary text (PHG, ibid) and propose a synthesis, which we named “A Field Perspective”. I have since proposed the construct “A Gestalt Field Perspective” in order to more accurately reflect the synthesis of the approaches referenced above. A Gestalt field perspective supports the practitioner-researcher in approaching “field” as ontology, as phenomenology and as epistemology and making relevant choices in the context of their inquiry.

BrianI believe there was early talk of calling Gestalt therapy something like phenomenological behaviorism. I might have called it existential cybernetic pragmatism. I can’t imagine either would have “sold” like Gestalt. In any case, and they don’t fit neatly within categories, I might add people like Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, B.F. Skinner, and Alfred Korzybski. Of course you’re right it’s next to impossible to be exhaustive, however I would definitely argue that any list that doesn’t include Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, and Wilhelm Reich – on something like a psycho-therapeutic dimension if we stick with your schema aim – is really incomplete. 

Phil: Seán, I appreciated your distinction of the “field perspective” in 2008, and so understand and still appreciate the “gestalt field perspective” in 2010. A number of people have been discussing these two “sides” to a field perspective, and I can recall a discussion at Gstalt-L (that was published online at Gestalt!– in which a number of people expressed what you say above, but not with the apparent coherency that you are putting out.  At that time these two perspectives seemed separate from one another for some people, but now you are integrating them, and I like that.

Another example is in the various papers dealing with Gestalt with groups (see references). A core construct here is what I call “The Existential Dilemma” of moving between a social stance continuum of being “apart from” and “a part of” other group members. This moves between the ecological, biological, psychological, philosophical and maybe also spiritual perspectives (the latter with Buber and Levinas, for example).

I hope to develop this schema further in coming papers, and welcome comments and suggestions.


Of some relevance here is the felicitous phrase used by my adviser about the distinctive methodology of some of the submissions: “knowledge enhancement through a dialogical process” (Weller, personal communication). This refers to the process by which various papers were offered by journal editors to expert peer commentators, beginning with “Gestalt at Work”(Gaffney 2004) – an introduction, two commentaries and a response, then “Gestalt with Groups – a Cross-cultural Perspective”(Gaffney, 2006A) – eight commentaries and a response,  and finally “The Cycle Re-cycled” (Gaffney, 2009) – two commentaries and a response.

I became so interested in this process that I elicited commentaries on one article – (Gaffney, 2006B, commentaries now added in my submission) – and then moved to unedited in-text comments (Gaffney 2008; 2010A). 

Brian: I have at times felt frustrated as editors “destroy” my expressions, and respond not simply with clarifications, but with re-writes designed to make me sound more like them – “use this more appropriate term” or “you forgot to cite my favorite author”… yet, as I read the word “unedited” over and over again your paper, I am aware of a sense of anxiety. Will readers see what I write as-is? Will they read this sentence? Will they see ME – no editor to shield my naked phenomenology in contemporary academic prose. Oh dear, and, hello – a timid openness, and greater sense of responsibility. 

These latter articles allowed voices to be heard in-text which might or might not be in agreement with my thinking, and thus created a dialogical process in which the reader could be engaged as yet another voice, including again frequent e-mail exchanges.

The dialogical process, whether as editorially elicited and published commentaries, informal commentaries and unedited in-text comments provides a continuous and informed comment/response process of value in informing and refining my work as a Gestalt practitioner and thus my writing. A representative example here is Fairfield’s comment on the absence of “any overt reference to field theory” in a paper which to me was intrinsically of a field perspective (Fairfield, 2006, p. 225). This alerted me to the danger of taking for granted that even an informed reader did not need a more explicated theoretical ground. This led to more “overt” references in immediately following papers, and to papers with a dedicated field perspective.

In addition, two points emerged in the drafting of this appraisal with respect to methodology, and are presented here as retrospective understandings and learning rather than intentional methods.

Phil: Before I read these, Seán, I want to observe that the discipline of writing for a professional audience is rigorous and is a learning process.  I now propose writing projects with the clear understanding that I don’t already know what I’m going to know after the project is over.  My experience, furthermore, after having written, is that when I go back and read what I have written, it seems as if someone else wrote those things, and I “listen” to myself and learn all over again.  The dialogical process you are describing adds another dimension to such writing.

First, my interest in the thinking of Kurt Lewin includes an acquaintance with “Action Research”. In its current applications, this can take the form of a contracted cooperative research project which produces a contribution to the knowledge and practice of the client (subject) as well as to the knowledge and theory-building of the nominal researcher (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). See also Heron, Reason and Rowan, cited and referenced above.

Further reading and reflection has clarified for me that the submission, its various settings and the fact that my personal and professional background (Harris, 2009 p. 51) in becoming and remaining first and foremost a teacher is most appropriately viewed in the context of action research within education, with a focus on mutual learning and professional development (McNiff, 1992; McNiff, Whitehead & Lomax, 2003; McNiff & Whitehead, 2009). 

In the context of the work being presented here, I can see how first my practice as a Gestalt therapist, group facilitator, teacher/trainer, and OD consultant and then my writing became the focus of an action research project, the content of which was the evolution and development of a synthesis of my practice and thinking over time, including my personal and professional development as a Gestalt practitioner. Along with the participants of the countless groups internationally that I have facilitated and trained, the voices and inputs of 24 commentators of 11 defined ethnicities became part of an international feedback loop about my work, to my work. I truly became a “Reflective Practitioner” (Schön, ibid.), and can note now in how many papers I include my own reflections not only on the content of the writing, but also on the process of the writing itself.

The second point here also evokes Lewin. Martin Gold (Gold, 1990) persuasively argues that Lewin actually contributed with two field theories – a “meta-theory” which is an approach to theory-building, and a “specific field theory” that can generate hypotheses. (BrianI like that).This prompts me to consider the extent to which these aspects of Lewin’s contribution to method have been present throughout my work, informing it as fully integrated and therefore tacit knowledge. This is most obvious in the papers in which I deconstruct “field” and life-space”, and use the conclusions reached to generate hypotheses about individual therapy (O’Neill & Gaffney, 2008), and groups and group facilitation (see titles In REFERENCES). 

Sue: It seems to me that very early on, field theory became infused into a range of methodologies such as action research, systems theory, force field analysis. Furthermore, although Lewin’s ideas on field theory are embedded in the work of the Tavistock Institute, field theory has failed to become distinctive in its own right, ontologically and epistemologically. What is now needed of field theory is to be distinctive, and standing on its own.

These retrospective reflections are summarized in a model I developed while reading the literature referenced above and writing the Critical Appraisal, (Figure 1). Embedded as it is in the peer-commentary process outlined above, this model describes my reflective practice and writing, the connection between them, and thus the process and content of the submission and, indeed, the Critical Appraisal. It also combines field theory, Action Research and Gestalt practice.

Figure 1

Figure 1

With regard to the model, it is possible to start at any point in the circle, and I have thus left the “Planning” phase of all Action Research models as a function of the starting-point, rather than a separate first or recursive phase. The very thought of a next step at any point in the circle implies planning. For example, in my practice as a Gestalt group facilitator, I often find myself making notes and writing questions during breaks. These are preparatory to matching my experience in the moment in and of the group with the theory and methodology of my work, and thus become the basis for planning further reading and refinements. These, in turn, influence the deductive process as I plan for their implementation.

The emergence of the model while I was drafting my Critical Appraisal is itself an example of the process it describes.

What follows is a more detailed explication of Figure 1, though hopefully open enough to allow the reader room for personal extrapolations and applications. The “Field of the Work” naturally comprises the work itself, all environmental factors which impact on it, and the reciprocal influencing that occurs as this field dynamically organizes. This will include such influences as the research guidelines of the academic institution involved including both the explicit ethical considerations required by such an institute as well as the specific ethical requirements of the chosen research methodology and also research sample, children for example.

A change in environmental settings will influence the work. A change in research focus will influence the sample as environment. For example, an organizational study can be impacted by such events as downsizing, an impending merger, a takeover or an internal re-organisation. This would radically change the direction and focus of the study, or even make it redundant or impossible to complete. From an action research perspective, it could also enrich the work by providing an alternative focus and a fascinating challenge to the researcher.

In the case of this submission, the influences were fully reciprocal. Some three years into the doctoral programme, I made the decision to move from a thesis route to a publication route. By that stage, I actually realized that I had a considerable body of published/in press papers, and that journal writing was more my preferred channel of written communication than a monograph. This decision, and its approval, changed my focus from creating a whole which gave meaning to its parts, to forging a coherent whole through specific parts inter-connected by the shared and delimited theory and methodology of a Gestalt approach as the explicit whole.

Environmental events which influenced the work include a change of journal editor in mid-revision; such intrusive editing of my content in one case as to almost occasion withdrawal of the paper concerned; a three-year gap between review, revision and final acceptance of a book chapter and its final publication; and re-organisations at two academic institutes which removed two planned pilot-project research samples from the work.

Phil:  Seán, you speak as if the work is an isolated “thing” that can be tinkered with, interrupted, intruded upon, etc.  In a field methodology your work, your writing, is a group project always (isn’t it?), even though the group members change from time to time.  Here is something I have learned about writing: the role I play may be author, but there are always other players in the process, and they not only affect the final “product,” but also influence my own thinking, as well as the theory that evolves (if what one is writing about is a praxis).

With regard to the work itself, embedded as it is in a wider field, some brief examples may support understanding the model in action:

PRACTICE: as a practitioner researcher (Phil:  I will add a longer note on this; the construct of a practitioner-researcher is one used with increasing frequency, and just how a gestalt practitioner might approach the concept is not a given in every situation), this includes my professional Gestalt practice as therapist, group facilitator, teacher and OD consultant. Since these aspects of my practice are covered in the papers which make up my submission, I will confine myself here to the two specifics of practice relevant to the Critical Appraisal:

Figure 2

Figure 2

Examples of the above in action can be found throughout the varied applications of a gestalt approach in the papers of the submission.

The importance of the function and contribution of a field-emergent methodology reinforces the seminal impact of Kurt Lewin in particular and Gestalt psychology in general on this submission, and provides a practical example of the “emergent creation” construct (O’Neill & Gaffney, 2008; p. 250). I also want to acknowledge the similarities between the above model and the Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb, 1984), in itself largely based on Lewin’s action research model. As a long-time teacher and trainer, the Experiential Learning Cycle has long been a guide to my practice. These similarities are yet another example of tacit knowledge gestalting itself in embodied practice.

Sue: I appreciate your definition of ‘field-emergent methodology’. In my own research I have used ‘free flowing narrative inquiry’ as an interview method. I would say that is also a ‘field-emergent methodology’ because of the way that I have carried out the interviews, and how tacit knowledge about leadership has come to light.


The robustness of Gestalt theory and methodology is attested to by the wide range of applications covered by the submission and the consistency with which the same sets of constructs can be successfully used in such a variety of settings and levels of complexity. This confirms the claim, made in the introduction, that Gestalt practice has always held the potential for such a richness of professional use, with the important addition here of a multi-cultural context.

An obvious next step would be an empirical research project into the viability of the proposed group facilitation model as a specific methodology, informed by both theory and practice, and its applicability to more complex collectives such as organizations and societies. At the same time, arising from the cross-cultural context of the submission, a more thorough and culturally diverse project will be needed to fully explore the feasibility of my proposals, probably with a focus on Gestalt group facilitation and Gestalt OD consulting. I am happy to leave this task to others and to offer my work as a possible foundation for them to further develop.

BrianI feel a sense of disappointment reading this – perhaps a related demand from inside – “Gaffney should do the research — ”I” want to see it. It’s also a rejection of responsibility — ”I” don’t want to have to do it – perhaps somehow related to (I project) part of the distaste for pure theory. I recall Maslow struggling with these reactions from others quite a bit, when he would say similar things about leaving implementation and further validation to others. And, now, I feel a sense of freedom thinking of you and he both saying this, since this is often at times what I myself would like to say.

Finally, I am pleased to say that I am still engaged in a work in progress, and to acknowledge that I have come about as far as I can for the moment – so both a resting-place for the time being, AND a starting-point for a next step. I am still an active Gestalt practitioner with opportunities for further reflective practice and writing. My Ph.D submission therefore represents a coherent current statement of my contribution to the theory and methodology of a cross-cultural Gestalt group facilitation practice, including OD and community/society applications.

BrianComing to the end I feel quite self-conscious of the degree of self-conscious process revealed in my preceding comments. I feel an urge to redact parts, to add in citations and larger words demonstrating my academic prowess and substantiating my having value for participation in dialogue beyond my sharing genuine reactions from my personal perspective. If you (the reader) are seeing this, you will gather I have decided to sit with that urge, rather than acting on it. I imagine a variety of reactions to that decision. Interesting.
Sean, I’m excited — you’ve certainly put in a lot of work, and what a brilliantly efficient approach you’ve identified. I remain impressed.

PhilNow, let me talk about this concept of a practitioner-researcher.  Paul Barber wrote a book called Becoming a Practitioner Researcher: A Gestalt Approach to Holistic Inquiry (2006, Middlesex University Press).  Another one that is similar in some ways is Relational-centred Research for Psychotherapist: Exploring Meanings and Experience, edited by Linda Finlay and Ken Evans (2009, John Wiley & Sons).  It’s not a novel construct; people outside of gestalt therapy are using it to depict work being done in a variety of professions. Both of these mentioned books, and Seán’s work here, advocate what I called “practice-based research” in the Handbook for Theory, Research, and Practice in Gestalt Therapy (2008, Cambridge Scholars Publishing).  It is a corrective to the quantitative research that has found difficulty in being applied at the level of clinical practice. Research findings that have relevance to clinical situations and for the clinicians who inhabit them must be produced at the level of the clinic by clinicians. What I appreciate in Seán’s writing is the realization that practitioner researchers such as this can engage in diverse and multiple methods of research. Qualitative designs are useful for some things, but not for others; just so quantitative methods.  It is possible to conduct empirically rigorous quantitative research at the level of the clinic, by practitioner researchers.  I believe one contribution that gestalt practitioner researchers might make to the discipline of experimental psychology is more of an appreciation of the field of the research project.
Actually, what we hope to put together is a research tradition for gestalt therapy and its applications in such domains as organizational development, coaching, public activism, and teaching that includes a philosophy of science in keeping with our existing gestalt theory, multiple methods, and evidence that contributes to a consilient web of justification, based not just on evidence but certainly including it as a means of establishing warrant.  I believe that it is coincidental that the two needs (that of experimental psychology to bridge from the university research lab to the clinic, and that of gestalt therapy to establish a research tradition that can contribute to its evidence base) both rely on the work of practitioner researchers. In the case of gestalt therapy, if gestalt practitioner researchers do not generate this research, it will just not happen.
I have found commenting on your work, Seán, to be interesting and informative.  Thank you for the privilege.

Seán Gaffney


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