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This is a famous piece from the Gestalt tradition, which I think is very important.

The Paradoxical Theory of Change

Arnold Beisser

Arnold Beisser


For nearly a half century, the major part of his professional life, Frederick Perls was in conflict with the psychiatric and psychological establishments. He worked uncompromisingly in his own direction, which often involved fights with representatives of more conventional views. In the past few years, however, Perls and his Gestalt therapy have come to find harmony with an increasingly large segment of mental health theory and professional practice. The change that has taken place is not because Perls has modified his position, although his work has undergone some transformation, but because the trends and concepts of the field have moved closer to him and his work.

Perls’s own conflict with the existing order contains the seeds of his change theory. He did not explicitly delineate this change theory, but it underlies much of his work and is implied in the practice of Gestalt techniques. I will call it the paradoxical theory of change, for reasons that shall become obvious. Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.

The Gestalt therapist rejects the role of “changer,” for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. He believes change does not take place by “trying,” coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is. The premise is that one must stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move and that it is difficult or impossible to move without that footing.

The person seeking change by coming to therapy is in conflict with at least two warring intrapsychic factions. He is constantly moving between what he “should be” and what he thinks he “is,” never fully identifying with either. The Gestalt therapist asks the person to invest himself fully in his roles, one at a time. Whichever role he begins with, the patient soon shifts to another. The Gestalt therapist asks simply that he be what he is at the moment.

The patient comes to the therapist because he wishes to be changed. Many therapies accept this as a legitimate objective and set out through various means to try to change him, establishing what Perls calls the “topdog/under-dog” dichotomy. A therapist who seeks to help a patient has left the egalitarian position and become the knowing expert, with the patient playing the helpless person, yet his goal is that he and the patient should become equals. The Gestalt therapist believes that the topdog/under-dog dichotomy already exists within the patient, with one part trying to change the other, and that the therapist must avoid becoming locked into one of these roles. He tries to avoid this trap by encouraging the patient to accept both of them, one at a time, as his own.

The analytic therapist, by contrast, uses devices such as dreams, free associations, transference, and interpretation to achieve insight that, in turn, may lead to change. The behaviorist therapist rewards or punishes behavior in order to modify it. The Gestalt therapist believes in encouraging the patient to enter and become whatever he is experiencing at the moment. He believes with Proust, “To heal a suffering one must experience it to the full.”

The Gestalt therapist further believes that the natural state of man is as a single, whole being — not fragmented into two or more opposing parts. In the natural state, there is constant change based on the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment.

Kardiner has observed that in developing his structural theory of defense mechanisms, Freud changed processes into structures (for example, denying into denial). The Gestalt therapist views change as a possibility when the reverse occurs, that is, when structures are transformed into processes. When this occurs, one is open to participant interchange with his environment.

If alienated, fragmentary selves in an individual take on separate, compartmentalized roles, the Gestalt therapist encourages communication between the roles; he may actually ask them to talk to one another. If the patient objects to this or indicates a block, the therapist asks him simply to invest himself fully in the objection or the block. Experience has shown that when the patient identifies with the alienated fragments, integration does occur. Thus, by being what one is–fully–one can become something else.

The therapist, himself, is one who does not seek change, but seeks only to be who he is. The patient’s efforts to fit the therapist into one of his own stereotypes of people, such as a helper or a top-dog, create conflict between them. The end point is reached when each can be himself while still maintaining intimate contact with the other. The therapist, too, is moved to change as he seeks to be himself with another person. This kind of mutual interaction leads to the possibility that a therapist may be most effective when he changes most, for when he is open to change, he will likely have his greatest impact on his patient.

What has happened in the past fifty years to make this change theory, implicit in Perls’s work, acceptable, current, and valuable? Perls’s assumptions have not changed, but society has. For the first time in the history of mankind, man finds himself in a position where, rather than needing to adapt himself to an existing order, he must be able to adapt himself to a series of changing orders. For the first time in the history of mankind, the length of the individual life span is greater than the length of time necessary for major social and cultural change to take place. Moreover, the rapidity with which this change occurs is accelerating.

Those therapies that direct themselves to the past and to individual history do so under the assumption that if an individual once resolves the issues around a traumatic personal event (usually in infancy or childhood), he will be prepared for all time to deal with the world; for the world is considered a stable order. Today, however, the problem becomes one of discerning where one stands in relationship to a shifting society. Confronted with a pluralistic, multifaceted, changing system, the individual is left to his own devices to find stability. He must do this through an approach that allows him to move dynamically and flexibly with the times while still maintaining some central gyroscope to guide him. He can no longer do this with ideologies, which become obsolete, but must do it with a change theory, whether explicit or implicit. The goal of therapy becomes not so much to develop a good, fixed character but to be able to move with the times while retaining some individual stability.

In addition to social change, which has brought contemporary needs into line with his change theory, Perls’s own stubbornness and unwillingness to be what he was not allowed him to be ready for society when it was ready for him. Perls had to be what he was despite, or perhaps even because of, opposition from society. However, in his own lifetime he has become integrated with many of the professional forces in his field in the same way that the individual may become integrated with alienated parts of himself through effective therapy.

The field of concern in psychiatry has now expanded beyond the individual as it has become apparent that the most crucial issue before us is the development of a society that supports the individual in his individuality. I believe that the same change theory outlined here is also applicable to social systems, that orderly change within social systems is in the direction of integration and holism; further, that the social-change agent has as his major function to ‘work with and in an organization so that it can change consistently with the changing dynamic equilibrium both within and outside the organization. This requires that the system become conscious of alienated fragments within and without so it can bring them into the main functional activities by processes similar to identification in the individual. First, there is an awareness within the system that an alienated fragment exists; next that fragment is accepted as a legitimate outgrowth of a functional need that is then explicitly and deliberately mobilized and given power to operate as an explicit force. This, in turn. leads to communication with other subsystems and facilitates an integrated, harmonious development of the whole system.

With change accelerating at an exponential pace, it is crucial for the survival of mankind that an orderly method of social change be found. The change theory proposed here has its roots in psychotherapy. It was developed as a result of dyadic therapeutic relationships. But it is proposed that the same principles are relevant to social change, that the individual change process is but a microcosm of the social change process. Disparate, unintegrated, warring elements present a major threat to society, just as they do to the individual. The compartmentalization of old people, young people, rich people, poor people, black people, white people, academic people, service people, etc., each separated from the others by generational, geographical, or social gaps, is a threat to the survival of mankind. We must find ways of relating these compartmentalized fragments to one another as levels of a participating, integrated system of systems.

The paradoxical social change theory proposed here is based on the strategies developed by Perls in his Gestalt therapy. They are applicable, in the judgment of this author, to community organization, community development and other change processes consistent with the democratic political framework.

Cover image from the book 'King, Warrior, Magician, Lover'Enjoy deeper connection with your clients, and broaden your range and fluency of interventions through a fun and challenging workshop to explore Jungian archetypes, Tantric Magical Rites and personal style in coaching and interaction.

why?

  • To make your interactions with clients, colleagues and friends more conscious
  • To explore your habits and assumptions about communication, and
  • To increase your choices, and expand your range of responses

what?

A day workshop that will include:

  • Mining our collective knowledge of myths, fairy tales, books, movies and real life to explore the archetypes of the King/Queen, Warrior, Magician/Wise Woman and Lover.
  • An introduction to the Tantric rites of Attraction, Prospering, Pacification and Destruction and their correlations
  • Music and Opportunities to dress up and role play
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • An afternoon of coaching and being coached in different styles – bring some live issues!

when?

Thursday 26th May 2011, 10.00am to 4.30pm

where?

Just a couple of minutes from Highbury & Islington station (on the Victoria line), or there is parking nearby (it is outside the Congestion Charge zone).

how much?

£250 (£150 for private individuals). This price includes refreshments, but doesn’t include lunch, which is available in lots of places locally.

how do I book?

Send me an email at ash@helpingchange.co.uk or call me on 07986 451498 and I’ll send you a booking form.

There is a profound teaching in the movie Wayne’s World. When asked by the evil Benjamin “How do you feel about making a change?”, Wayne’s friend and side-kick Garth responds in a deadpan voice “We fear change.” It’s a popular part of the movie, with thousands of references to it online, and like many jokes it has a significant truth at its heart.

We really do fear change. We don’t know what change may bring us, and for many people that fear of the unknown is so strong that it not only stifles their growth and development, it keeps them in abusive relationships or jobs that they hate. For many people the security of the familiar, however unpleasant, appears preferable to the uncertainty of change.

I recently took part in some training on the Solution Focus coaching methodology OSKAR, and I was very struck by the way that this approach is particularly effective in working to overcome our innate fear of the unknown.

As you’ve probably guessed, OSKAR is an acronym, and the O stands for Outcome. (I don’t intend to explore the whole methodology here, you can follow the links if you’d like to know what the other letters stand for.) In OSKAR, Outcome has two aspects:

• clarification of what the client wants to achieve, both overall and within the context of the particular coaching session (known as Building the Platform)

• imagining a Future Perfect, in which a miracle has taken place and the desired outcome has been fully achieved (in Solution Focus this is known as the Miracle Question)

In demonstrations of the OSKAR approach I was struck by the way a whole session could focus almost exclusively on clarifying what the client wanted to achieve. Sometimes we’re so hung up on what we don’t want in our current situation, that it’s hard to see through to what we do want instead. Just gaining this clarity about the desired goal can be all that we need – a strategy and the imperative to act seems to naturally emerge from it.

Of course different people have different responses to the idea of change, and different responses to life itself. In Buddhist psychology a simple distinction is made between what are traditionally known as ‘greed types’ and ‘hate types’. I usually explain this by asking people to imagine a buffet table at a party or event. A greed type will approach the table and have an internal discourse along the lines of “Ooh look, mushroom vol-au-vents, I like those … and there’s some nice looking samosas … oh, and look at the puddings!” because he (or she) pays attention to the aspects of their situation that they find attractive.

In contrast, a hate type’s inner discourse will be much more along the lines of “I hate eating standing up … and I can’t eat chicken wings … and look they’ve put celery in the salad, I can’t stand celery … and those puddings are really fattening”, because they pay attention to the aspects of the situation that they dislike.

When they look at the future, greed types and hates types imagine very different things: greed types get excited and enthusiastic about all the things they’re looking forward to, and hate types worry about how everything might go wrong! Greed types are natural optimists and hate types are inveterate pessimists, and as the pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman points out in Learned Optimism, optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives – albeit with an occasional tendency to naivety and seeing life through overly ‘rose-coloured spectacles’.

Of course I’m exaggerating the differences here to emphasise a point. We are all greed types and hate types to different degrees at different times, depending on circumstances and how well-resourced we are. Nevertheless this simple model can be one of many useful lenses to look at our habits and help to address our resistances to change.

Useful though the OSKAR methodology can be, the importance of clarifying your goal is fundamental to change of any kind. It’s not a new observation, but we seem to need reminding of it again and again. Back in the 1940s the Hindu teacher Swami Ramdas was unequivocal: although many embark on a path of spiritual development few make progress because most lack a clear idea of the goal they wish to reach, and they also lack a clear idea of how to get there.

If you don’t like where you are now, then be careful to clarify where you’re trying to go at the very start of the journey, otherwise fear of the unknown may undermine your ability to get anywhere at all.

In his recently published book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’, Malcolm Gladwell draws attention to research that suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of experience to become excellent in performing an activity. His rule of thumb is that this equates to something like 10 years of doing the activity for three hours a day.

One example he gives is of a German music college where staff were asked to divide the students into three categories: the potential stars, the likely professionals, and those who would probably not become professional musicians. In interviewing the students, it became clear that their level of prowess on their instruments directly correlated with the amount of time they spent practicing. There were no brilliant musicians who simply winged it with little practice, and there were no students who put in the practice hours but just weren’t as good as their peers.

Gladwell uses this, and a range of other examples, to make the point that many of the people we think of as being outstanding – in fields ranging from composing and performing music to computer programming – are exceptional not because they are born with some innate genius, but through what they have made of themselves. They have had the determination to spend huge amounts of time developing their expertise, combined with the good fortune of having the opportunity to do this.

I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a few weeks now, and have some suggestions about their significance both for leaders in organisations, and for everyone else.

Keep Learning

The most obvious point that Gladwell is making is: if you want to be really good at something then do lots of it. I think this is great advice.

At the same time, I’m not convinced that simply doing lots of something is enough on its own to develop excellence – or perhaps I should say that you can only develop a certain sort of excellence through unthinking repetition. I’m sure each of us has spent a lot of time in our lives washing dishes, or undertaking other routine tasks, but I’m not sure many of us have become expert at them.

I was reminded of this recently when I was asked “when was the last time you got in a car and thought ‘this is an opportunity for me to drive better than I did last time’?” I confess that my answer was never – or at least ‘not since I passed my test over 25 years ago’. The sad truth is that I haven’t spent 25 years becoming a progressively better drive, I’ve just become really proficient at being a mediocre driver!

So, if you want to become a better leader (driver, dish-washer or whatever) you need to do more than just turn up and do the same as you always have. What you need to be doing is consistently asking yourself questions about how you could be improving, what you could be learning from your successes and failures, and those of your peers and competitors. Just putting in the hours isn’t enough on its own.

You won’t get better just by hoping

On the other hand, you really do have to put in the hours. If there is something that you aren’t very good at, and you want to improve then there is no substitute for practice and experience. Unless you work at it, you’re not going to get any better at dealing with difficult customers, badly run meetings, your own states of mind, etc, etc. I’m afraid there really isn’t any way around this one – although of course you can always practice through role plays and in other less crucial contexts, so that you’ve improved your skills when you have to face real situations. As Gladwell observes, these people didn’t get excellent by working hard, or even working very hard, they worked very, very hard!

You need some skill and some interest

And of course, you do need to have some talent and interest too. There’s a virtuous circle here: it’s much easier to put in a lot of effort when you’re engaged and interested in what you’re doing. I’ll always be a better singer than drummer, not least because I’m much more interested in singing than drumming, and so my energies have naturally flown in that direction.

I had a client once who was crestfallen that he wasn’t going to be manager of the year. I didn’t do a very good job of explaining to him that his brilliance as a theoretician and problem solver had led to him developing a set of skills that were essential to the organisation, but not at all people focused. He could become manager of the year, if he worked very, very hard at it over a number of years, but it was hard to see that the effort require to achieve this would serve either him or his organisation well – it would mean that he had little energy left to do anything else.

So, while it is always useful to be widening your range of skills, if you try to sail directly against the wind you’ll almost certainly take on so much water that you sink.

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