A review of Mending the World‚ A Social Healing Interventions by Gestalt Practitioners Worldwide
Edited by Joseph Me!nick and Edwin C. Nevis. Published by Gestalt International Study Center, South Wel!fleet, MA, 2009, 373 pages. Price: £23.00 (hbk), £14 (pbk).
I am always looking for Gestalt books that provide the rare and uniquely important combination of being both theoretically illuminating and personally inspiring. I am, therefore, delighted to be able to say from the outset, that Mending the World intertwines both these elements at its very heart. Since the idea for the book was cemented between the editors during a conference on social change (sponsored by the Gestalt Inter-national Studies Centre), and specifically by a shared trip to Robben Island Prison where Nelson Mandela was held, this is perhaps not surprising.
The book aims to tell the stories of organisational practitioners who have devoted themselves to 'creating social change'. In addition, it also aims to articulate the social networks and relationships that enable such change to flourish.
In the foreword, Philip Lichtenberg emphasises that as the world enters more troubled times, there is increasing need for those of us who wish to resist authoritarian and reductive institutions to work ever harder to ensure that benign structures continue to exist. Indeed, this book contains thirteen chapters demonstrating how Gestalt ideas have been used to develop, and in some cases create, supportive relational conditions and social institutions. These chapters are flanked at the outset by two chapters from the editors who contextualise the case studies by providing a complex and challenging theoretical exposition of Gestalt psychotherapy theory as applied to social change interventions. Of particular interest to me was the comment made by Melnick and Nevis on p. 18:
It is a book for people who appreciate the tension generated by the two competing cultural drives that get played out in situations around the world over and over again: one for inter-dependence and inter-connectedness and the other for increasing autonomy and independence.
This statement grabbed my attention since it articulates and integrates two forces that are frequently polarised and only attended to singularly. For example, one of the arguments against so called 'classical Perlsian' Gestalt practice is that it is 'over individualised'. Accordingly, while the method may well enable one individual to meet their needs successfully, the impact on others in the environment can be frequently over-looked. Alternatively, critics of a more radically relational Gestalt stance might argue that creation of utopian support structures, whether it is within a therapeutic dyad or protected community, can serve only to increase longing for such perfectly attuned support and decrease ability to deal with the 'real world'. Such polarisations have tended to characterise recent debates on the literature and panel discussions at conferences, and I found it relieving to see both these forces named and positioned in inextricable figure ground relationship as foundational field forces.
Focus is on social healing
The book, dedicated to the memory of Paul Goodman, aims to explicate how Gestalt practitioners working outside a therapeutic frame have used Gestalt theory and methodology 'in the service of creating a better society, rather than as an exercise in self-development' (p. 20). The contributors are generally individuals who have studied with Melnick and Nevis, frequently not psychotherapists, but individuals from a range of back-grounds where social healing interventions are 'the business'. As such, the thirteen chapters all implicitly or explicitly focus on employing key Gestalt concepts as outlined by Melnick and Nevis in chapter two. Here, these concepts are organised into the following three categories: first, underlying philosophical perspectives; second, principles of learning and change; and third, the centrality of relationship-building in creating change. This relatively short (15 page) chapter is a brilliant synthesis of both Gestalt epistemology and methodology, and I have no doubt that it will rapidly earn a place as required reading on all Gestalt organisational change programmes around the world.
Surrendering power for greater good
I was particularly impressed by Melnick and Nevis's outline of the importance of 'connecting intimate and strategic interventions' as a way of thinking about consensus models of decision making versus negotiation and more strategic interactions. They point out that recently, social change has been leveraged mainly through power-based strategic/structural interventions, with the result that there are often clearly delineated groups of 'winners' and 'losers' amongst key stakeholders. Organisational change interventions have, therefore, focussed on trying to persuade, or in some cases force, all parties to negotiate based on the formulation that continuing conflict resolution requires both parties to lose something in order to gain a lasting solution. Indeed, Melnick and Nevis see this identification of 'super-ordinate' goals, and the surrendering of smaller aspirations in order to achieve them, to be a key feature of dialogically-based, Gestalt change programmes. It is in this context that they make the fascinating statement that 'the Gestalt approach is somewhat underdeveloped in its theory and use of power' (p. 40). This theme of power, how to recognise it, work with it and persuade individuals who have it to surrender it for the greater good ‚ is a recurrent theme in the case studies that constitute the book. I personally found it fascinating to see this, and many other, ethical and values-based themes within organisational work explicitly addressed, and the difficulties of naming and working with them identified.
Such ethical issues are often considered by the Gestalt psychotherapy community and indeed, are identified by Bloom (2011) as lying at the heart of the 'relational turn' in Gestalt psychotherapy theory. I quote:
The relational approach is an explicit statement of a different set of values from the one of Gestalt therapy that focuses on self-support, self-regulation and need frustration. The paradigm has shifted from a need satisfying, self-regulating, self-responsible individual, to that of a person always in relation to others and whose own satisfaction is itself inextricably of the social fabric, the field. (in press, page number unknown)
Of course, the same is true in organisational work and indeed, was highlighted by myself and Marie-Anne Chidiac in 2009 as fundamental to relationally-focussed organisational praxis (see Denham-Vaughan and Chidiac, 2009, for further details). With this in mind, it is fascinating to see the courage, persistence, bravery, and passion that the editors and contributors to Mending the World exhibit while trying to find ways to persuade traditionally defined 'winners' that they have something to gain by authentically entering a change process with groups that could be defined as 'losers'. To this end,
issues of trust, support, and definitions and explications of classic views of power and power dynamics occur again and again throughout the cases.
A particularly impressive chapter for me is presented by Lohmeier and Wyley who record their experience of training managers of development projects and pro-grammes across the developing world. These authors highlight that such change initiatives have tended towards interventions on global and national levels of systems, with a focus on establishing the frame conditions which constitute the environment/context (pure Gestalt theorists might term this 'configuring the field'). Lohmeier and Wyley point to the specific tension between structuralist theories (within a Gestalt formulation termed 'attending to field factors') and postmodernist actor theories (`supports/affordments for individuals to take leadership actions'). Interestingly, these authors cite the difficulty of selling the process and systems (field approach) in developing cultures that are often primarily focused on personal individual development. Paradoxically, the latter is also more frequently attractive in the highly individualised 'corporate world' where individualism and resulting competition are inbuilt and outstanding individuals are richly rewarded.
Reading this particular chapter, I was frequently reminded of the need to bring into awareness our implicitly held normative images of human behaviour and what it means to be a 'good' and/or 'successful' person (obviously these are not necessarily synonymous) when working with change processes. For example, many of us in the western world have been hugely influenced by the combination of Hegelian ideas of progress and radically individualist formulations of evolutionary theory. Accordingly, we often act in subtlety competitive ways, believing that only winners get prizes and that individual survival is somehow dependent on successful individual, or small family grouping, success. At worst, this leads directly to positively aggressive action towards others. Alternatively, a simple lack of awareness, or denial, of the impact of our behaviour on others can leave many `casualties' in our wake.
Collaboration a support for change
The efforts of radically relational Gestalt theorists to emphasise interconnectedness, relational impact and the way in which all individuals flourish within supportive field conditions, frequently requires a dramatic shift in our normative views of human behaviour, from individual and separate to connected and co-operative. Gordon Wheeler and Mark Fairfield describe this as requiring a 'new human story'; one that is backed by scientific evidence. Indeed, Sarah Blaffer Hardy (2009) provides a range of compelling arguments demonstrating that although competition and out-group enmity are clearly apparent in provocative conditions, nonetheless, it is humankind's peculiar co-operative and hyper-social tendencies that are responsible for our success as a species. She states, 'hunter-gatherers almost everywhere are known for being fiercely egalitarian and going to great lengths to down play com-petition and forestall ruptures' (p. 20). It is these prosocial tendencies that form the basis for our inter-subjective relating and recognition of which has led Gestalt theorists to focus on creating and structuring field conditions that are supportive of social change.
In Mending the World, Melnick and Nevis have managed to collect together case studies that ably demonstrate the above point. For example, in another outstanding chapter, Frances Johnston and Eddie Mwelwa describe their attempts to deal with HIV/ AIDS issues in Cambodia, where the epidemic is still predominantly hidden. These authors emphasise that the Gestalt theory of change offered them both a way to think 'about' the task ahead as well as, uniquely, a way of 'being' in the work. In particular, they lean heavily on Gestalt theory's optimistic and philosophically roman-tic view which assumes 'that people are doing the best they can with what they see and know' (p. 291). It is this single and profound assumption that supports them to see their task as one of increasing awareness of what is seen and known, rather than one of diagnosing and treating problems. Fundamentally, there is a belief that change interventions and social healing can be formulated more accurately as a task of supporting prosocial human behaviours (albeit ones that may be temporarily hidden or elided), rather than a reparative task of problem diagnosis and remedial action. The emphasis is always on support for co-operative and collaborative human process and the creation of field conditions where these tendencies can flourish. Vitally, it is the authors' struggle to remain congruent with this belief in their ways of being that form the crucial learning points in this chapter.
Interestingly, as the editors point out in the introduction to this chapter, Johnston and Mwelwa find themselves using highly provocative and seemingly even coercive strategies for 'supporting and enabling' specific awareness's to emerge. This factor reminded me of a previous paper of mine, 'Dialogue and Dogmatism in a Post-modern World' (Denham-Vaughan, 2008), wherein I grappled with the difficulties of whether to 'impose dialogue' in situations where powerful and dominant individuals wish instead to pursue and protect their own self-interests. It was comforting, there-fore, to maintain my own awareness of Melnick and Nevis's stated 'key tension': that which always exists between relational collaboration and individual autonomy. I was reminded again and again throughout this Book review: Mending the world, Melnick and Nevis 63 book that creating large-scale social change utilising organisational Gestalt methodology consists of balancing these two factors and aiming to foster field conditions that bring out the cooperative aspect in individuals. Sometimes we have to be remarkably persistent, resilient, and patient in pursuit of this goal.
Indeed, in Sean Gaffney's chapter concerning the use of Gestalt to develop social change practitioners in the North of Ireland, he identifies the 'taking of sides' (formulated as working with polarisations and polarities) as both the problem and the solution in most change situations. Gaffney reworks potential polarisation as 'taking a stand' and in this way reintroduces the importance of explicitly naming affiliations and declaring passionately-held political and ethical allegiances. Gaffney takes the opportunity within his chapter to articulate these dimensions by reference to 'borders and boundaries'; where a border refers to the 'fixed Gestalts of identification' (page 272), and 'boundaries' refers to the co-created and constantly changing shared situation in which we find ourselves. Indeed, Gaffney states that as Gestalt organisational practitioners, 'it is precisely our ability and readiness to accept these border conditions as well as our availability to let go of them and engage when "boundaries" (contact‚Äîboundary dynamics) may suddenly become figural, that is the core and defining feature of our work' (p. 273).
A truly global book
As may be clear from my review, Mending the World is a truly global book with international relevance and significance. Change projects facilitated by Gestalt organisational practitioners are reported from countries as diverse as Brazil, the United Kingdom, America, Sweden, Cambodia, The Netherlands and Denmark The scale of the projects and programmes described ranges from the vast (Lukensmeyer tackles system change in post-Katrina New Orleans and Saner and Yiu are working within the United Nations) to smaller scale and more tightly focused interventions (Meulmeester's chapter focuses on changing culture in a nursing home in The Netherlands). The outcomes of the projects are equally wide-ranging, from seemingly very successful, contrasted with those where the core issues of appropriateness of a Gestalt model at all are raised. It is fascinating, therefore, to read the final chapter written by Nevis and Melnick, where they review the major implications and conclusions that they believe can be drawn from their collection of case studies. They organise these around four themes: contracting and building credibility, support, passion and power dynamics. I believe that this list of four deserves close inspection, and accordingly I am now going to spend time reviewing these points before finishing with my own summary and conclusions.
With regard to 'contracting and building credibility', Nevis and Melnick comment that 'for many social change projects, the ongoing clarification of the con-tract is the major part of the work and cannot be rushed' (p. 362). Indeed, Nevis and Melnick point to a potential positive relationship between this process and positive outcome evidenced in two of the case studies in the book presented by Susan Blom (Working with Union Branches in Denmark), and Nigel Copsey (Working with Mental Health Service in East London, UK). Of particular note, however, is Nevis and Melnick's questioning of whether these 'process skills' per se are sufficient to gain the necessary ongoing buy-in and sign-up of key stakeholders or whether 'technical/con-tent expertise' is also needed. What is clear is that notwithstanding the high-level process consultancy skills that are the hallmark of the Gestalt organisational practitioner, expertise in specific areas of competence related to the specific organisational project can bring clear advantages. For example, to work effectively with an international banking group, is it necessary to have technical skills in finance? Nevis and Melnick deliver a tentative 'yes' in response to this question and in doing so, I would argue, point to one of the essential differences between Gestalt psychotherapeutic practice and Gestalt organisational practice: the self-development required of the psychotherapist during training is deemed to give them 'content' credibility and expertise. In contrast, therefore, some organisational practitioners may find themselves lacking in the necessary content/technical skills to work with a specific organisation, as in the banking example. In the absence of this, Nevis and Melnick argue that a 'content-knowledgeable' person should be added to the intervention team thus increasing credibility needed for buy-in and trust from stakeholders.
Secondly, Nevis and Melnick attend to the issues of support required by the Gestalt organisational practitioner who is, by definition, engaging with very complex, stressful, demanding, and rapidly changing situations. While they do not link outcomes of projects to the support available for interveners, it does seem that the maxim 'you cannot give what you haven't got' would be likely to hold in these situations. Interestingly, the issue of stress and burn out in organisational cultures is referred to within the book but not addressed head-on. I would personally cite this as an area that would be worthy of specific further research.
Linked to the theme of support is the issue of 'pas-sion', which I would possibly reconsider labelling as 'ethics and values'. Indeed, Nevis and Melnick point out that many of the authors within Mending the World are touched by the projects they work with in much more of a personal way than is perhaps obvious from the case studies themselves. My personal perception was that this is because each of the authors is operating from a set of 'hyper goods' or ethical principles that motivates, sustains, and inspires them throughout their work; so what is at stake is of vital importance.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the principles touched upon in this book are those of social justice, egalitarianism, democracy, and fairness. It was interesting to me to ponder, however, what the book might have looked like if the same methodological skills, but different ideological values, had been held in the hearts of the interveners. For example, if maximising power or increasing profit had been the main sustaining motivators, then I suspect that the outcomes of interventions, the shapes that they took, and indeed the projects themselves would all have had a different focus.
Change, power dynamics and ethics
For this reason, I would point out yet again that the values of collaboration and co-operation, which lie at the heart of our epistemology as relational gestalt practitioners, are an intrinsic part of the motivation and integrity that inspires these Gestalt case studies. I found myself wondering, therefore, if explicit examination of one's own ethical principles is, or should be, part of fundamental basic competency training for Gestalt OD practitioners. Of some concern is the fact that while an individualist stance may be readily apparent when working with one individual within a dyad, and may be also easily illuminated within a small closed group, such values are more easily obscured when working with large and complex social institutions. For example, while it is clearly absurd to think that a Gestalt organisational practitioner might have facilitated the Nationalist Socialist Party in Germany to become a more effective organisation, we should perhaps consider whether we wish to use our organisational skills to facilitate and enable certain institutions to become highly successful profit-making machines for their shareholders; particularly if that involves an annihilation of other organisations attempting to run alongside.
This brings me to Nevis and Melnick's consideration of 'power dynamics', which I have alluded to in my arguments concerning evolutionary theory and relevant discourses, and which the editors state is 'underdeveloped' in Gestalt theory. First, I must say that I was personally delighted to see Nevis and Melnick formulate power as 'an experience occurring between or among people and not something lodged in an individual person or group' (p. 365). Equally however, we must recognise that this formulation contravenes cultural majority views of power, usually defined as 'having control over key resources'. It is in this formulation and contravention that I found my first major question mark concerning the coherence and applicability of Nevis and Melnick's work (with only one page of the book remaining, this is obviously a huge achievement). The editors are open in recognising this contravention, but rather than grapple with the issue head-on (which they suggest may be appropriate for revolutionaries, or advocates for the overthrow of a system), they instead move to formulating social healing interventions as 'the opening up of relational spaces . . . to promote a joining of energy to achieve collective action around an issue of concern' (p. 365). In making this move, they do not address the practicalities of two specific issues that I have encountered in routine organisational work and which I will now discuss.
First, difficulties occurring when a power group do not want to cede resources to pursue a superordinate goal but, for a range of sociopolitical reasons, want to be seen to do so (‚Äîthe well known 'consultation' exercise being a case in point, where huge amounts of time and energy are expended in what looks like dialogue, but with no opening for change). Nevis and Melnick do address this issue by wondering how it is possible to harness the power of the 'full system', in order to create a sufficiently robust relational space for organisational change interventions to stand a chance of achieving positive outcomes. Indeed, they argue, and I agree, that such considerations are vital to defining relevant units of work, goals that might accrue, and evidencing whether they have been achieved. Sadly however, they offer very little practical guidance about how to facilitate engagement and authentic participation with such resistant factions. I found myself wondering (like some of my organisational trainees) if this leaves us only `preaching to the converted' and at a bit of a loss when attempting to get buy-in from unwilling power groups.
Second, and related, are difficulties that emerge when the stated `superordinate goal' of the organisation is either not shared by, or not trusted by, the intervener. I would argue that here lies a fundamentally important task for the Gestalt organisational practitioner, which is to ensure that the core goals and values of the full system are ones that we would wish to promote. I hope a small example will be useful. I have worked in the British National Health System for over thirty years. I entered the system in order to promote a set of values concerning social compassion, equity of access, and care of vulnerable members of society; this is expressed in the British health system by health care being free to all at the point of delivery. The magnitude of the National Health Service as a social experiment cannot be over-emphasised and indeed, it has for over half a century been a social institution of huge national affection and pride. In recent years however, the global economic recession has meant that financial and business constraints have introduced a predominance of terms such as productivity and competition. Attendees at my workshops on 'Co-operation, Com-petition and Complicity' will know that I have not infrequently found myself 'the wrong side of the line'; supporting organisational initiatives that turn out to have fiscal objectives at their heart, as opposed to the stated service objectives that were initially highlighted and agreed upon. I consider this to be illustrative of the `shadow side' of cooperation, where willingness to be prosocial and a 'good team player' can lead to unwitting complicity with full system objectives we would not wish to promote.
I hope this illuminates a crucial issue for organisational practitioners of ensuring that the outcomes achieved by the projects we work with are those that we ethically subscribe to, and the concomitant need to constantly review this element. For this reason, I want to add the issue of 'trust', often mentioned by Melnick and Nevis, to the four major themes outlined in their summary and implications. Specifically, I am referring to trust in one's own integrity, sets of values and motivations when negotiating and agreeing units of work, and the willingness to exit projects if it becomes clear that one's integrity might be threatened. It is undoubtedly the case that while an organisational intervention may have been deemed to be 'successful', there are many full system organisations that, for ethical and political reasons, we might not wish to see succeed. When this is clear from the outset, problems are unlikely to occur; but I hear too many tales of times when goalposts have moved, or when small system interventions have been found to be in pursuit of ethically dubious full system goals.
In summary, although I have finished by raising a concern that I would have liked Melnick and Nevis to address, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The contributions and case studies featured within it all raise fascinating issues, each of which could act as a teaching tool or discussion piece for any organisational development programme. The book is technically and theoretically sound and full of personal reflections concerning theory, practice, and personal ethical dilemmas from all of the contributors. The commentaries by the editors are illuminating and thought-provoking. As such, I would recommend it most highly, not only to all Gestalt organisational practitioners, but to organisational practitioners from all theoretical backgrounds who share the core concern of how to 'mend the world'.
Blaffer Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and Others. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Bloom, D. (2011, in press). One Good Turn Deserves Another... and Another . . . and Another: Personal Reflections on Relational Approaches. In a 'Festschrift', as yet untitled, from GestaltPress, to be published 2011. Routledge, Taylor & Francis, New York.
Denham-Vaughan, S. (2008). 'Dialogue and Dogmatism in a Post-modern World'. Studies in Gestalt Therapy, 2, 1, pp. 119-124.
Denham-Vaughan, S. and Chidiac, M. A. (2009). 'Dialogue Goes to Work: Relational Organisational Gestalt'. In Jacobs, L. and Hycner, R. (eds.), Relational Approaches in Gestalt Therapy. Gestalt Press, Gouldsboro, ME.
Dr Sally Denham-Vaughan
Dr Sally Denham-Vaughan is a UKCP registered Gestalt psychotherapist, trainer, and supervisor. She is the author of many articles and has presented at a range of conferences and workshops. At Metanoia Psychotherapy Training Institute in London, she is a primary tutor on the Gestalt Psychotherapy Masters programme, an academic advisor on the Doctoral programme, and joint course director of the Organisational Gestalt programme. She is a member of the editorial advisory board of the British Gestalt Journal, board advisor at The Relational Center in Los Angeles, and international faculty associate at the Pacific Gestalt Institute. Her background is in psychology and she is an HPC registered, and BPS chartered, clinical and counselling psychologist. She is also an accredited coaching psychologist who currently designs and delivers training related to leadership, coaching and transformational shift for a range of clients in the UK and internationally.