Becoming a Practitioner-Researcher: A Gestalt Approach to Holistic Inquiry

Becoming a Practitioner-Researcher: A Gestalt Approach to Holistic Inquiry

by Paul Barber

Employing a Gestalt approach that places investigators in the center of their own practice, this is an indispensable guide for anyone undertaking inquiries in complex or changing organizational settings. Aiming to build a picture of awareness by prioritizing how people perceive, feel, and act, this resource provides entries within an ongoing practitioner-research


Employing a Gestalt approach that places investigators in the center of their own practice, this is an indispensable guide for anyone undertaking inquiries in complex or changing organizational settings. Aiming to build a picture of awareness by prioritizing how people perceive, feel, and act, this resource provides entries within an ongoing practitioner-research journal throughout the text. Mini case studies to help clarify key points, as well as three extended case studies designed to illuminate the real-life drama of being a researcher are also included.

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Becoming A Practitioner Researcher

A Gestalt Approach To Holistic Inquiry

By Paul Barber

Libri Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Paul Barber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907471-88-9


Researching Holistically – Doing 'Less' and 'Being' More

1.1 Illuminating a Holistic and Transpersonal World – The Universe as a Dancing Gestalt

1.2 Gestalt – Illuminating Patterns within a Contextual Whole

1.3 Innate and Tacit Intelligence – Transpersonal Influences over and above the Self

1.4 Humanism – Ethics with a Human Face

1.5 The Practitioner-Researcher – Life and Work as Research

1.6 The Researcher is the Primary Research Tool – Developing 'Mindfulness'

1.7 Existence as Life-long Research – A Concluding Summary

1. Researching Holistically – Doing 'Less' and 'Being' More

Research is akin to a tree: the roots draw from metaphysics and philosophy; the trunk is formed from observation and experience; the branches are shaped from interest, experiential engagement and imaginative speculation and the fruits are further questions.


This chapter is designed to orientate you with the aims, style and content of this text. To encourage your reflection upon how Gestalt and holistic facilitation may be integrated in an approach to research, you will be invited to consider how what is on offer here compliments the world view that is gaining ascendance in the twenty-first century, which is suggested to be rapidly moving towards an ecologically informed holistic position. I also attempt to illuminate the core concepts that underpin this work. The definitions provided should not be taken to be truly definitive but rather as starting-points of your own research. We will also survey what holistic inquiry might focus upon, along with poetic aspects of inquiry in this vein. Hopefully, by the close of this chapter you will have begun to reflect upon your own world-view plus the bias and values you operate by.

1.1 Illuminating a Holistic and Transpersonal World – The Universe as a Dancing Gestalt

One of the great shocks of the twentieth century came about when Science began to realise – largely from insights born from the study of ecological systems and quantum physics – that it could not reach an understanding of the physical world merely by collecting ever more quantitative data or statistical analysis. This was especially brought home when physicists discovered that solid matter started to dissolve at the sub-atomic level into wave-like patterns of probabilities. There were therefore no 'things' to be studied, but rather sequences of dancing gestalt-like patterns that interconnected with everything else:

The final net result is a whole-making universe, that it is the fundamental character of this universe to be active in the production of wholes, of ever more complete and advanced wholes, and that the Evolution of the universe, inorganic and organic, is nothing but the record of this whole-making activity in its progressive development.

Smuts quoted in Clarkson 1993 p.5

Periodic leaps in awareness which questioned established 'scientific paradigms', the world-view of the scientific community used to define legitimate problems and solutions (Kuhn 1962), were termed by Kuhn 'paradigm shifts', times when the dominant world-view underwent a revolutionary break from tradition. At the dawn of the twenty-first century the 'old paradigm' that has been on the wane for some time appears to be one that venerates:

- The universe as a mechanical system composed of rudimentary building-blocks

- The human body as a machine

- The view of society as a competitive struggle for existence

- The belief in unlimited material progress achievable via economic and technical growth

- The belief that the female is subordinate to the male as a basic law of nature.

After Capra 1997

Conversely, the 'new paradigm' that has already begun to take hold:

- Is holistic and sees the world as integrated rather than a collection of dislocated parts

- Fosters a gestalt-like appreciation of the interdependence of the individual and their socio-cultural field

- Is deeply ecological (see Devall and Sessions 1985) to the degree that it includes spiritual awareness

- Views the world as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent

- Recognises the intrinsic worth of all living things and sees human beings as merely a part of the web of life.

After Capra 1997

Evidence for this shift is not just confined to physics (Capra 1991) but is also discernible in the emergence of such new disciplines as 'transpersonal ecology' (Fox 1983 and 1990) and 'eco-psychology' (Roszak 1992), where 'the whole' rather than 'the parts' are emphasised. As our postmodern world looks to the non-physical sciences and metaphysics, a holistic Gestalt-inspired stance to the facilitation of research, one which is alive to the transpersonal, is not just for now – but something of the future.

The deep ecological and holistic awareness fostered by eco-psychology where care for 'the whole' is expressed, in a Taoist-like way stresses man's place in the natural world while honouring the 'oneness' and interdependency of his existence and being. Note how this influence is expressed in the quote below:

Care flows naturally if the 'self' is widened and deepened so that protection of free Nature is felt and conceived as protection of ourselves ... You care for yourself without feeling any moral pressure to do it ... If reality is like it is experienced by the ecological self, our behaviour naturally and beautifully follows the norms of strict environmental ethics.

Fox 1990 pp.246-7

In a Gestalt and transpersonal approach to human inquiry, as with quantum physics, you don't end up with solids so much as phenomenological patterns determined and shaped by a greater whole. At the simplest level, a facilitator cum practitioner-researcher – be they a teacher, researcher or counsellor – who attempts to account for influences of 'the whole', must automatically take note of the transpersonal, for their search for understanding of the larger picture leads them naturally to consider influences above and beyond the self: God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger: but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savour of each ... Men do not know that what is at variance agrees with itself.

Zohar quoted in Clarkson 1991

But Gestaltists don't jump to the conclusion that nature is the 'hand of god' nor indeed ascribe properties to deities or theories; they rather keep the question alive and, in a postmodern sense, shun big narratives in favour of more local and situational events (Flick 1998). In this way, though alive to 'the whole', they keep the holographic germ of individual experience firmly in focus. Interestingly, the quantum physics notion of an innate non-personal intelligence holding fields of influence together (Capra 1991), again comes uncommonly close to the Taoist concept of the 'natural mind':

Tao, when put in use for its hollowness, is not likely to be filled.
In its profundity it seems to be the origin of all things.
In its depth it seems ever to remain.
I do not know whose offspring it is;
But it looks like the predecessor of nature.

Tao Te Ching

Taoism extends and moves Gestalt notions of the 'field', 'interrelatedness' and the 'fertile void', into transpersonal territory. It also cautions us to consider the 'unknown' and 'unknowable', and to be alive to metaphor and paradox, while raising our awareness to a kind of knowing which extends beyond the intellect and senses. When quantum physics and Eastern philosophy start to converge in this way, it is wise for us to reappraise our world-view.

All the world is working together. It is all one living whole, with one soul through it. And, as a matter of fact, no single part of it can either rejoice or suffer without all the rest being affected. The man who does not see that the good of every living creature is his good, the hurt of every living creature is his hurt, is one who wilfully makes himself a kind of outlaw or exile: he is blind, or a fool.

Murrey quoted in Clarkson 1991 p.31

1.2 Gestalt – Illuminating Patterns within a Contextual Whole

Gestalt, through the cultivation and development of an aware and respectful relationship, inquires into the unique patterning of forces that shape perception and behaviour. It stresses that within every person and relationship we meet with a quality that we have never encountered before nor can ever meet again – for all is in flux. In this context, any conclusions we come to are current and temporary (Frank 1939), situational and relative:

One cannot step into the same river twice nor grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers: it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.

Heraclitus quoted in Staemmler 1997 p.46

Framed by such unique influences, the present is approached as a wondrously never-to-be-repeated moment.

For us to appreciate uniqueness and immediacy to this degree, three components must come together. First, a practitioner-researcher facilitating inquiry in the Gestalt mode needs to practise what Buber (1951) calls 'inclusion': an existential position which is open and sensitive to novelty, curious about the human condition, suspending of judgement and alive to uncertainty:

Cultivating my uncertainty to me means two things: First, I have to stay aware all the time that I am uncertain in regard to my attribution of meaning; I deal with a positive, desirable and delightful feeling that reminds me of the interpersonal reality of which I am a part. On another level, this can provide me with a feeling of security, for it tells me I am in touch with reality. My uncertainty becomes an aspect of my internal support system. It warns me not to attribute meanings one-sidedly and reinforces me to regard my client as a partner in the therapeutic process.

Staemmler 1997 p.45

Here practitioner-researchers pay attention to what is 'becoming' as much as to what is obvious – hence the title of this work. Second, in order to encourage 'whole-hearted' and meaningful inquiry, they convey understanding through the cultivation of a genuine, congruent and authentic presence founded on interest and concern. Third, they develop a transpersonal communication style which is:

... committed to dialogue, surrendering to the between. This is a form of contact without aiming, with truth and healing emerging from the interaction rather than from what is already known ...

Yontef 1996 p.94

Inquiry of this nature is best performed through the medium of a transparent relationship which emphasises 'existence' while bracketing-off abstract theoretical explanations and 'cause and effect thinking'. For instance, although existential and witnessing, Gestalt does not represent a philosophical discourse but rather a philosophy for living:

Existentialism wants to do away with concepts, and to work on the awareness principle, on phenomenology. The set-back with the present existentialist philosophies is that they need their support from somewhere else. If you look at the existentialists, they say they are non-conceptual but if you look at the people, they all borrow concepts from other sources. Buber from Judaism, Tillich from Protestantism, Satre from Socialism, Heidegger from language, Binswanger from psychoanalysis, and so on. A rich heritage, indeed. Gestalt therapy is a philosophy that tries to be in harmony, in alignment with everything else, with medicine, with science, with the universe, with what is. Gestalt therapy has its support in its own formation because the gestalt formation, the emergence of needs, is a primary biological phenomenon.

Perls 1969 pp.15-6

Being both inter-relational and holistic, Gestalt is a close cousin of field theory which attends to what Lewin (1952 p.150) calls: 'the constellation (the structure and forces) of the specific field as a whole'. This view represents a sort of social Taoism, in that it suggests a person cannot be understood in isolation from their dynamic cultural, social and physiological network – their total field:

Now what is first to be considered is that the organism always works as a whole. We have not a liver or a heart. We are liver and heart and brain and so on, and even this is wrong. We are not a summation of parts, but a co-ordination – a very subtle co-ordination of all these different bits that go into making the organism. The old philosophy always thought that the world consisted of the sum of particles. You know yourself it's not true. We consist originally out of one cell.

Perls quoted in Clarkson 1993 p.5

At root, in its approach to inquiry, Gestalt stands for creativity, contact and experiential wisdom founded upon the authority of the 'lived experience':

The therapeutic process is therapeutic in itself because it allows us to express and examine the content and dimensions of our internal lives. We live full lives to the degree to which we find a full range of vehicles which concretise, symbolise, and otherwise give expression to our experiences. The depth, duration, and extent of cultivating each medium of expression are the other significant factors in defining the fullness of life. I have known many people who have spread themselves so thin that their lives took on a shallow, translucent, and sadly contrived quality. In the frantic flight to touch all we can in life, we wind up feeling like hurried tourists, snapping pictures of everything and seeing nothing.

Zinker 1978 p.8

Gestalt-inspired inquiry emphasises not just intercommunication – but 'contact'. By attending to the inferences, assumptions and values exerting influence over current behaviour, and to distortions and limitations of awareness, it creates an organismic picture of a person or group's immediate experience, as they move within reach of the contact-zone or boundary of others:

People regulate themselves organismically through the actions or processes called the contact boundary. The contact boundary is a function or organ of the entire organism/environment field. The individual components of boundary processes comprise awareness (what one is in contact with); motor behaviour (what one does); and feeling (affect). The contact boundary differentiates the field and has the dual functions of joining the individual with others and also maintaining separation. (...) But it is only by active exchange with the rest of the field that life and growth are possible.

Yontef 1996 p.91

Just as 'action', 'contact' and 'choice' are seen to signify health, so rigidity, stasis and control – characteristics that interrupt our organismic flow and cause boundary disturbance – are taken to be symptomatic of a person, group or organisation's state of dis-at-ease.

We see from the above discussion that a Gestalt-informed researcher is more concerned with what is actually experienced and being felt, seen and heard in the immediate environment, than what is thought or interpreted. By following the movement of a person or community's 'continuum of awareness' – moment-to-moment focus – we then begin to appreciate what is of greatest need or interest (being brought to the fore) and what is contextual (left to melt into the background). This is not to say intellect, theory and interpretation are forgotten, but rather that they play second fiddle when we endeavour to refine 'immediate experience', to develop a 'felt sense' of the world and to build a 'picture of awareness' (Yontef 1996). Awareness is then stalked by attending to the individual's 'personal psychological process', plus exploration of the 'immediate experience of the person embedded in her or his environment' (Smith 1996 p.3). In this context, 'raising awareness' to how we co-construct our world becomes a primary outcome:

Through a creative involvement in the Gestalt process, it is my hope that a person:

- Moves toward greater awareness of himself – his body, his feelings, his environment

- Learns to take ownership of his experiences, rather than projecting them on others

- Learns to be aware of his needs and to develop skills to satisfy himself without violating others

- Moves towards a fuller contact with his sensations, learning to smell, taste, touch, hear and see – to savour all aspects of himself

- Moves towards experience of his power and the ability to support himself, rather than relying on whining, blaming or guilt-making in order to mobilise support from the environment

- Becomes sensitive to his surroundings, yet at the same time wears a coat of armour for situations which are potentially destructive or poisonous

- Learns to take responsibility for his actions and their consequences

- Feels comfortable with the awareness of his fantasy life and its expression.

As the work progresses, the person flows more comfortably in the experience of his energy and uses it in a way which allows his completeness of functioning.

Zinker 1978 pp.96-7


Excerpted from Becoming A Practitioner Researcher by Paul Barber. Copyright © 2013 Paul Barber. Excerpted by permission of Libri Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul Barber is a fellow of Roffey Park and a visiting professor within Lifelong Learning at Middlesex University. He has a private practice as a consultant and therapist and teaches group facilitation, organizational consulting, and research methodology on masters and doctorate programs at several institutions in the United Kingdom.

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