Paul Laughlin's Reviews > Contact and Context: New Directions in Gestalt Coaching

Contact and Context by Ty Francis
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it was amazing

I'm so glad I was asked to review this book. Otherwise, there is fair chance I would passed over it as either not what I was looking for, or too advanced for a novice in both coaching & Gestalt.

Interestingly, the very reason I would have considered it not what I was looking for, has proved to be why it was so relevant. As a neophyte coach, it is easy to always be seeking models to use or questions that have proven to work. A prescriptive answer to the perennial self-doubt of 'am I doing a good enough job'. I was certainly not seeking anything as apparently esoteric as 'a way of being' with clients & in wider life. But, I can now heartily recommend this book.

For readers, new to Gestalt theory or practice, I'd encourage them not to be put off by the Preface & Introduction. Although they do a good job of setting the context & overviewing the contents, the lack of simple definition of Gestalt, together with use of terms that can feel abstract can leave the reader bemused. Instead, start by reading Chapter 1.

Although I suppose it could be accused of pandering to my thirst for models, chapter one helps demonstrate simply what a Gestalt approach might look like in practice. By sharing their PAIR model, Dunham-Vaughan & Gawlinski walk the reader through the practical application of 5 key principles of Gestalt. It has sufficient detail, ideas & examples to be intriguing. As well as engaging the reader early on, this has the added benefit of encouraging personal experience. I certainly found myself hooked & starting to try things in my own coaching sessions.

In the next chapter, it feels like Parlett takes us deeper. Despite being a little harder to digest, the concept of 'whole intelligence' feels self-evident. Given how much material is covered, it is very helpful that this chapter contains frequency quotes from what acts as a case study (a coaching session with 'Alexander'). Once again coaches will be intrigued & left considering what might work in their own practice. For me this chapter deepened my appreciation of the importance of embodiment & being emotionally authentic with clients.

Most professions share that voyeuristic concern about how others practice, so chapter 4 tempts you in with the promise of research into Gestalt coaching. An interesting additional dimension to this is that the research focuses on aesthetics. How do these play a part in the 'artistry' of coaching interplay? For me, the beginning of this chapter is hard going and much of the content aimed at experienced Gestalt practitioners. Perhaps it is the number of terms, analogies & flowery prose. One is left with the feeling of aesthetics being part of the coaching dynamic, but little else in understanding. Some quantification of research findings, given the number of different themes & sub-themes explored would have helped.

Chapter 5 is tremendously practical & brings to life the themes of embodiment & environmental awareness when coaching in large organisations. The sets out to prove a premise, that management & coaching can be understood more deeply by exploring some common dynamics. Writers often reference the importance of trust in commerce, Farrands use of Commitment is more insightful. Within the context of collaboration, we explore how management and coaching requiring reliability & mutual commitment. Going deeper the role of manager as embodied memory in the organisation, undertaking conservation work. This latter theme, when applied to coaching, gives opportunity to raise the importance of the organisation as the other client (tri-partite commitment).

The next chapter is another change of style, this time focusing on one case study within a not-for-profit organisation. Under the heading of ‘Resources for Relational Leadership’, Fairfield & Shelton share their own experience of applying Gestalt principles to resolve leadership challenges. Positioned in contrast to the traditional solitary hero model of leadership, they share how a CEO struggles with feelings of inadequacy & blaming others because of an overly isolated approach. Demonstrated by frank reports back from coaching discussions, we get to see the applicability of considering sensitivity, diversity, dependency & resiliency can help. Considered as alternative stories or ways of viewing how to be an effective leader, we see how a Gestalt focus on context helps this CEO see another way of being. A positive encouragement to explore more relational solutions, rather than assuming just be resourceful in isolation.

Chapter 7 returns somewhat to the creative perspective of chapter 4. However, instead of sharing a research summary, Congram shares 3 case studies to demonstrate the power of ’the imaginal field’. By this term, she refers to the use of imagery & imagination, in forms like metaphor, story, myth, poetry and use of colours/objects. Although some of the introductory text can sound rather ethereal, this is wonderfully grounded & demonstrated in practice through case studies. They provide a real insight into how clients can be helped by coaches listening for use of language or other references to imagination & then engaging creatively. Congram also explains such work as application of Field Theory, itself explained by the analogy of a tree having 3 layers. The imaginal field offers opportunities to work with people’s ‘deep roots'.

Following that, almost playfully creative, chapter, in the next Carlson & Kolodny share their convictions about relational coaching and leadership. There is a significant amount of theory within this chapter, some of which feels ‘jargon heavy’ for those not familiar with the Gestalt world. However, the reader is helped through by the fundamental idea of taking a ‘relational turn’. That is, adjusting your approach to leading teams or coaching, to focus on inter-relationships and what emerges between you. A large volume of ideas & concepts covering broader sensing & attunement are brought to life through 2 case studies later in the chapter. Frank reviews of working with both other coaches & senior leaders help demonstrate what can go right & wrong. Above all, this perspective is a great tonic against coaches thinking, as the writers put it: “…if I just skill-up enough, buy more books on coaching, get certified, I will be able to whip any group into shape!”

Chapter 9 adds to the refreshing variety of this collection, but offering an interview with an experienced practitioner. This interview with experienced Gestalt coaching practitioner, Georges Wollants, brings to the fore the principle of embodiment. Being aware of your own & the coachee’s and (to use Wollants’ language), the ‘bodying forth’ (i.e. sensing what is being suggested as a direction by physical responses). What is perhaps of greater interest, or at least provocative in this interview, is the concept of not asking questions because there is no problem. Perhaps a more purist perspective on applying Gestalt theory to coaching, Wollants shares his perspective on why the goal should be simply helping the client more richly experience their current situation (rather than directively leading them towards your solutions, even vis open questions).

For the penultimate chapter, Gaffney plays with the metaphor of music making. Explaining the practical application of field attunement theory, as a more relational & responsive coaching approach. As with some of the previous chapters, the esoteric nature of some of the theory espoused can be a bit off-putting at first. However, the two cases studies included bring the practical application to life. Even if the metaphor of co-creating music or harmony might feel a little forced, the point is well made. As a coach, how can you listen better to what emerges, from the context & wider conversations/constellations, to change tack or open up other options to explore (that might better help your client)?

To close this interesting (and at times inspiring) collection are a set of case studies and reflections from joint editor, Ty Francis. Through these, he builds on the themes of embodiment & attunement to what is happening in the ‘field’ right now. This includes a definition of a ‘living moment’ during coaching interactions and mastering the skills to ‘field-smith’; co-creating & working within such moments. As with some of the content throughout this book, that can sound very abstract and another excuse to make up new words, if you are left with just theory. However, the inclusion of case studies including a bat cave, a dog as coach and touching your client - really help bring this mindset to life! The case for watching, for elements of your (joint) environment (including bodies), that afford opportunities for creativity or deeper exploration, is well made.

On completing this book, I was left with the strong impression that I will be dipping back in, to steal ideas or dream up experiments. Anyone looking for a training course on Gestalt coaching will probably be disappointed. This material is not curated nor presented in a logical sequence for step by step learning. However, perhaps that is the point. If a reader is willing to open their mind to new aesthetics, this engaging menagerie of people, environments & interactions can take you on what is more like an experiential learning journey. Perhaps that is true to the spirit of Gestalt, that this work is seeking to share with coaches? Treated more like a welcoming place to explore, you can then appreciate the variety of styles of writing, metaphors, personalities, experience & advice offered.

For those reasons, I recommend this book to anyone coaching or mentoring. At the least, it should provide you with a refreshingly different perspective on how best to help your client. At its most inspirational, perhaps it could even act as a call to a ‘different way of being’ in this work.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
March 6, 2020 – Shelved

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