Stretching into Our Boundaries – 8 Principles and Practices from Gestalt for More Powerful Coaching

During our sixty plus years of combined experience coaching and consulting with a wide variety of people in a number of different of contexts, we have witnessed—and been part of—the ‘birth’ of the Coaching Field, watching it become the fastest-growing arm of our discipline over the past decade. More people around the world are entering the field all the time, and more clients are asking for coaches. As America’s TV personality, Martha Stewart, would say, ‘It’s a good thing’. As the field matures, we want to go beyond the boundaries of what have now become ‘traditional’ coaching modalities to share with you eight ways of thinking and working from the psychotherapeutic field which have enriched the way we work with clients. To borrow a description from Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology, we are serving as ‘bumblebees’. By cross-pollinating ideas from Fritz Perl’s Gestalt Psychotherapy, Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management and John Scherer’s work on The Shadow, we hope to enhance your coaching practice so that you can become even more effective than you are today. First, let’s set some context.

The Client’s ‘Default World’: Their Operating System

Whatever triggers a client to look for coaching, our approach invariably involves helping them look at how they may be ‘living on automatic’. In John’s book, Five Questions that Change Everything, this way of living starts with our Operating System which serves as our ‘default worldview’ that shapes everything. We often work with clients using the graphic shown below. Attempts to effect conscious behavioral or attitudinal change with clients without exploring their Interpretation, Intention and Alternatives would be short-lived. The dieting industry is awash with such examples! However, there is a layer beyond—or above— the Conscious, the Pre-Conscious layer, where the majority of our ‘wiring’ or patterning structures live. From our own experiences of working with both therapeutic and coaching clients, it is our opinion that therapeutic work tends to focus in the Pre-Conscious world and coaching tends to focus on the Conscious and Choice worlds.

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We believe, however, that without surfacing the Pre-Conscious layer, coaching practitioners are potentially missing an important and fundamental relational link in the client’s world of sense-making, which calls into question how long a piece of coaching will last. If you are interested in working at the Pre-Conscious level without doing the job of a therapist, the question is whether it is possible to do so. We believe it is possible—even necessary—and can be accomplished by adopting some of the principles and practices from Gestalt Therapy we have found useful.1

1. Organism and Environment

Both the organism and the environment exist in cyclical 

relationship with one another. What is happening in the external environment flows into the organism, and aspects of the environment are integrated and become part of the organism; in the same way, what exists in the internal life of the organism flows out into the environment, and aspects of the organism are integrated and become part of the external environment. The organism and the environment are both changing in a never-ending dance of life. 1For the purpose of this article, we have synthesized the following list of ‘Gestalt people’ worth looking into (in no particular order): Perls/ Hefferline/ Goodman, Yontef, Wheeler, Barber, Woldt & Toman et. al., Phillipson, Johnson, Latner, Leary-Joyce, Ellis, Nevis, Joyce and Sills and the Polsters. If you are interested in more links and references to Gestalt, please contact us. Healthy functioning occurs when this two-directional flow is natural, graceful and lively. Problems arise when that natural flow is interrupted by out of-date learned behaviours, which may have helped us adapt and survive at a different time and place, but have ‘gone beyond their sell-by date’ and are no longer helpful to us in our current situation. If we are working with a Gestalt approach, it means that we are interested in what is happening ‘here and now’, in how the person is choosing, integrating, and satisfying needs in the present, coupled with their feelings of satisfaction (or otherwise) when they take action to meet their needs.

2. Figure/ground field

The organism/environment relationship gives rise to ‘figure and ground’ and what Joyce & Sills (2001) described as the Gestalt ‘cycle of experience’. In healthy functioning, a need arises, which means the need has become a ‘figure’. It moves forward and stands out from the field or ’ground’ in our awareness. We take action to satisfy the need, staying in contact with it until the need is satisfied. When this happens, our need (the figure) melts back into the ground, and our cycle of experience ‘completes’. It is important to note that these needs are context-specific. A simple example: I am ‘starving’. I see a fast food outlet. I wolf down a burger with gratitude, ‘completing the Gestalt’. In contrast, if I am not hungry, I see the same fast-food outlet and might smell the oil, imagine the grease, and wonder why anyone would eat such ‘rubbish’. 

We have hundreds of these moments or ‘cycles of experience’ every day. Some are mundane; others are more challenging. Over the course of our lives, these moments—and how we handle them—become woven into threads of structures/maps/patterns via neuro-pathways. According to Wheeler (1991), they act as the ground-structure against which present needs are held. Our ability to meet a current need depends on both the strength of the figure and the strength of our ground structure in a given situation. What we did or didn’t do ‘back then’ will impact on our ability to recognise and resolve our needs now and vice-versa. ‘Unfinished business’ in the past affects us in our present because whatever the need was ‘back then’ has remained figural in some way to us now. Contexts have changed but inside ourselves, the old ‘map’ has been transferred to the present and we are unable to respond appropriately to what is different and new. 

Working with this principle means that we are not only interested in discovering and exploring the patterns at work in the client and how they manifest as behaviors, we are also interested in the relationship between contexts and how they affect different behavioral patterns.

3. Paradoxical Theory of Change

The more we try to change ourselves, the stronger the resistance becomes to the change we seek. Sometimes the more we want ourselves—or our clients—to be different from what and who they are, the more they stay the same. The ‘paradoxical theory of change’ puts emphasis and trust in the process of awareness. The principle: by increasing our awareness of the current situation as fully as possible, the natural and creative process of ‘adjustment’ will kick in at some point and a change will occur to restore equilibrium. This principle, when put into practice in the here and now leads to an intense interest in helping clients experience ‘what is’ as fully as possible, and to accept ‘what is’ as a necessary pre-condition for change to occur. As John likes to say: ‘If you are in Seattle and you want to go to Singapore, you have to start in Seattle’.

4. Attending to the Here and Now

Coaching schools teach a process or a set of protocols for working with clients. When a coach is consciously working their way through the steps in their protocol, it is possible—even likely—that they will miss something important happening ‘in the moment’, right in front of them. Mastery is being able to notice and attend to what is happening in front of you, AND being able to check in with where you are in the steps of your protocol. 

ξ Attending to your coaching protocol ensures you don’t miss an important step in the problem-solving process

ξ Attending to ‘The Moment’ ensures you don’t miss what is happening in the present

Tuning into what is going on right now means that we are giving our immediate situation 110% of our attention. This means that in addition to tracking what the client is saying, we are also paying attention to the way they are speaking, their stance, how they hold their bodies, their energy, gestures, breathing, colouring, and also the way we are speaking, feeling, the sensations we have, the thoughts we have, what we are choosing to share/ not to share, our energy level and so on. We also pay attention to our relationship and energetic flow- conversational points that are taken up, points that are left alone. The light, temperature, sound and smell of the room and beyond- in fact, all points of data are treated as equally relevant and equally able to offer insight for self and client.

When we are 110% tuned into what is happening, we often find ourselves in moments of ‘grace’ or serendipity. 

For example, Amy was in the last fifteen minutes of working with a client over a six month period. The client spoke about how she always felt stronger when she was on holiday in the sun. Just at that moment, the sun came out and sunlight flooded our meeting room through a skylight window. Amy asked her client whether she wanted to stand in the sunlight for a few minutes to enjoy and anchor the positive feelings of success that had come from her coaching. She took up the offer and stood with her face in the sun for several minutes in the peaceful quietness of their co-created space. This awareness and treatment of all points of data as equally valuable is an important practice of Gestalt.

5. Disclosure

Disclosure can be a controversial topic in both therapeutic and coaching fields. What we mean by disclosure is when a coach shares what is happening inside of him/ her with the client. Gestaltists are sometimes known for their more ‘confrontational’ stance by sharing their thoughts and feelings in the moment. We want to stress that the purpose why we are being open with our own thoughts and feelings is in the service of increasing awareness, for trusting in the paradoxical theory of change and for ensuring that the coaching conversation is grounded in the liveness and reality of the moment. For example, ‘….I am hearing your description of how devastating it was that you lost your job…I hear the words but I am not getting any feeling of how you are affected by it…’ The effect of this type of disclosure can often be surprising and grounding both client and coach are snapped back into relationship in the moment rather than for the client to get lost in their story. 

Another example is from John’s coaching. One senior manager has been working with recently began to talk with him about members of his workgroup and what was needed from them for greater team effectiveness. Within minutes, John felt like he was back in college, being ‘talked down to’ by an expert know-it-all. John asked him: ‘Have you gotten the feedback from your people that they don’t experience you open to their ideas, and that you don’t seem to listen to them but lecture them instead?’ (John had heard this from his one-on-one interviews with his team about his 360 feedback data.) He looked surprised, and then said, ‘No. . . I listen to them all the time. They are so bright— some of them.’ ‘Hmmm. . . That’s interesting,’ John replied. ‘Sitting here now with you I feel like I am being lectured to by a college professor who is telling me exactly how-it-is. There is no room in this conversation for what I might think or have to say. . .’ Stunned, he looked as if John had caught him red-handed in a crime of some sort. He became very alert and wanted to explore what it was that had him behave that way. 

Without the awareness of what was happening ‘in the moment’ and the courage to speak it, they would have gone on for the whole session talking earnestly about his people and how they needed to be motivated.

6. Experiments

In the previous section, we advocated that you learn to know and trust your ‘self’, your feelings and hunches, and deepen your understanding and acceptance of human beings—starting with yourself—as they show up. One result of this personal development journey will be greater courage in creating ‘experiments’ with your clients, where neither of you know exactly how things will turn out. This creates an ‘open space of not knowing’ that gets created between you and your client where something truly transformational can show up, something not developed out of the steps in your process. Great coaching occurs in that space. It presents an alternative to clients being given ‘homework’ to go back and try some new ways of doing things somewhere else. The creative scope available to us in experimenting is limitless: from the use of paints, creative writing, sculpting, drama, constellations, and the empty chair to the very simple (‘On the one hand/ on the other hand’), exaggerations/ minimisations, and speaking the ‘unspeakable’. The main objective is simply to see what happens when we allow ourselves to more fully occupy the state/ situation we are trying to describe. Experiments often enable a richer understanding through engaging and tapping into our whole body’s knowing. Making links between body, feelings, thoughts, and actions often reveal more than verbal dialog alone. The immediacy of experiments also bring both of you into the here and now, providing new data points which have been kept ‘out there’ or ‘back at work/ home’. Examples abound. We have selected a few to illustrate the range of possibilities. 

Exaggeration is a method from Gestalt and is one of the simplest—and yet most powerful. When a client is upset or complaining about something or someone, invite them to exaggerate their feelings. ‘Really get into it! Make that feeling bigger/louder! Come on. . . Go for it!’ In the process of

consciously exaggerating their complaint or upset, several good things can happen: 

ξ They can realize that they are in charge of how they feel, regaining a degree of self-management if they have been out of control. 

ξ The over-expression of an emotion usually morphs into a kind of disgust or a realization of the ‘too-muchness’ of how they are reacting. ξ It often releases some humor as the client laughs at what has been happening and how they have been seeing things. 

For example, in a recent client meeting, a theme emerged about the way the client’s ‘unrewarding’ relationships he had with others. We were having dinner when all this came up. Without looking up from his food, John began to play back what he had heard using the client’s tone and demeanour. It was comical, but true, and broke the trance he was attempting to create with his ‘story’. The client laughed out loud, shook his head and said, ‘That’s ridiculous. . . OK, OK, fair enough… I get it!’ He instantly began to look at the role he had played in creating the relationships he had with his colleagues. 

Another example of creating experiments is using what is available in the immediate environment. A client wanted to work on her ‘assertiveness’. She had been trained from an early age to put up with her lot and ‘trust that things will be ok’. Forty years on, she felt trapped in her life, her marriage, even where she lived. She felt she had no space. She desperately wanted to break free. Amy had some dried flowers on display in the room, went over and picked a long thin piece of dried leaf and gave it to her. She immediately knew what the invitation was for. She became very emotional. Amy said to her, ‘It’s an invitation…You don’t have to do anything with it. You can wait until you are ready, wait for another day or simply put it to one side. It’s up to you.’ The next day when she returned, she tore the dried leaf into shreds. A few weeks after that exercise, she started to look for a new place to live. A more elaborate example was when we were working with a group and we wanted to give each person a chance to experience their ‘Persona’ more fully by a playing out a short scene. One of the participant’s character was ‘Evita’, and we used the chairs in the room to set up a balcony. Her version of the scene with Evita was those of us playing antagonists we had to be stronger and louder than the protagonists. After playing out this scene for a few minutes we brought this scene to a close. She was asked what she noticed—and we also shared what we noticed. This gave her the insight that it was her usual pattern to pay more attention to people who were against her than for her to even notice those who were on her side. The scene also reflected perfectly her workplace dynamics, which she felt to be very draining. This short drama was enough to help her switch her attention from those who drained her to those who wanted to work with and for her.”

7. Working with Polarities

This section owes its sources to Gestalt and to Barry Johnson (1992) for his work in Polarities Management and warrants an article in its own right. In simple terms, polarities are an extension of the ‘figure-ground’ concept. To every one thing there is ‘the other’, the opposite. Sometimes, these opposites are Either/ Or decisions in which case, whatever is the presenting problem simply requires a decision and then it is resolved. In cases other than Either/ Or decisions, which we often experience as difficult dilemmas, Johnson makes a case for paying particular attention to ‘Both/And’ inter-dependent opposites. For example: 

ξ Being Tough, and being Understanding 

ξ Taking care of Myself, and Taking care of Others ξ Wielding Power, and Yielding Power

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As you can see from the diagram, in the example, both Activity and Rest are equally valid and necessary. In healthy functioning, we oscillate smoothly from one set of polarities to another with the downsides of one providing the impetus for sweeping us into the upside of the opposite state. But because of our internal patterns and structures described in the funnel diagram, we tend to ‘lean’ toward one pole and away from the other. As we become ‘positional’, our field narrows.

Even though we begin to experience the inevitable downside of our preferred pole, and at the same time, losing out on the much-needed benefit of the pole we are resisting or avoiding, our fears of the downside of the resisted or less preferred pole means that we only allow ourselves to do more of the same. In effect, we lean further toward the pole that is over-used. For example, if being ‘hard working’ is considered better than being ‘playful’ or ‘frivolous’, my fear of the judgements and downsides of ‘playful’ stop me from looking at that pole as having anything of value to offer. So in this scenario, the answer to the downside of ‘hard working’- fatigue, impaired effectiveness etc. only results in more hard work. 

An important aspect of our coaching in this context is to bring into our client’s awareness the idea that many situations, particularly when they are dealing with dilemmas or “stuckness”, are polarities to be managed rather than problems to be solved. (Johnson 1992). Some of the better-known Gestalt techniques, such as The Empty Chair, ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’, or standing on a continuum, are ways of working with polarities. When polarities are combined with experiments, we have found this to be very fruitful in helping clients bring disparate and resisted parts into an integrated whole.

8. Shadow Work

A unique way of working with polarities in personal development is John Scherer’s work on the Persona and the Shadow (Scherer 2009). Again, this is worth an entire article, but, in short, by the time someone gets to be a teenager, they have developed both a ‘Persona’ (the way they would like to be seen) and a ‘Shadow’ (the way they would never want to be seen). When a coaching client is facing a tough situation, they usually don’t need more Persona. In fact, we like to suggest they have ‘maxed out’ relying on their Persona. Rather, we suggest what they need to keep them from trying more-of-the-same only-harder, is just a touch of one of the ‘gifts’ embedded in their Shadow. When we have senior leader clients who say they would never want to be seen as ‘weak’ or ‘needy’, we ask them: ‘What ‘gift’ is actually buried inside someone’s ability to risk being seen as weak or needy?’ After some work getting the client to let go of their judgments, they might get around to, ‘Well. . . They would be able to let other people help them. . . Or allow other people to be strong in a situation. . .’ Then BOOM! The lights go on for them. On the other hand, a client who would never want to be seen as ‘cruel’ or ‘dictatorial’ needs to experiment with being decisive or clear about what they want. Using Amy’s personal example, her Shadow character is Paris Hilton. She could not possibly see what Paris had to offer the world except to use up oxygen and waste time. However, it was also Amy’s tendency to ‘go at something’ so intensely- almost to the point of obsession- that she can sometimes lose perspective. So, by squeezing out all that she found disdainful about Paris, she was able to identify things such as ‘playful’, ‘looking after myself’ and ‘taking care of my needs’ as being essential stretches if she were to become even more effective and free up more space for creating new things rather than being bogged down and not being able to see the wood for the trees. 

Every time we work with our clients on polarities and their shadow they have found the experience to be both freeing and transformational.

To conclude

We wrote this article in response to the conference title ‘Coaching Beyond Boundaries’. Becoming a certified coach usually means learning a particular process or set of protocols that will work in most situations. And they do. Until they don’t. At that point the coach faces a choice: Do I go back to what I know and do it again, or do I reach for something that is not in my process? The safe path of action is, of course, to stick with the process you trust. The downside of this solution is that no coaching plan, or process, or set of protocols—even the ones we suggest in this article—are 100% effective in every situation. We knew of one colleague who was truly intuitive as a coach, who went to a well-known coaching course and became certified in their method. As she told us later, ‘It dawned on me one day that I was not seeing all of who the client was anymore, that I was seeing the client through the “lenses” of the coaching model I was taught.’ This is a Catch 22. We have to have some kind of plan or process to use, yet we know the real world will always place us in situations where our plan or process will not work! What to do? As you will see in this article, we advocate learning to know and trust your ‘self’, your feelings and hunches, deepening your understanding and acceptance of human beings—starting with yourself—as they show up and to be alive to the present moment. One result of this personal development journey will be greater courage in creating ‘experiments’ with your clients, where neither of you know exactly how things will turn out. Great coaching occurs in that ‘open space of not knowing’ that gets created between you and your client where something truly transformational can show up, something not developed out of the steps in your process.


Johnson, B. (1992) Polarity Management, HRD Press Inc., Amherst, MA. 

Scherer, J. (2009) Five Questions That Change Everything, Word Keepers, Inc., USA. 

Joyce, P. & Sills, C. (2001) Skills in Gestalt Counselling & Psychotherapy, Sage Publications Ltd., London. Wheeler, G. (1991) Gestalt Reconsidered, GIC Press, Cambridge, MA.

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