Figure and Ground
The foundation of the gestalt approach is the gestalt school of perception. A fundamental premise of this approach is that perception is structured in terms of figure and ground. The ‘figure’ is the focus of our attention at any particular moment; the ‘ground’ is the background which provides the context for the figure but is not in focus.
Arguing against the Associationist school of perception the gestaltist demonstrated that we are wired to perceive such figures as meaningful ‘wholes’; in fact, we actively (though not usually consciously) seek meaningfulness in what we perceive. This process happens virtually instantaneously so we don’t notice it happening. There are, however, occasions when we may catch ourselves actively seeking meaning, when momentarily we’re not sure what we’re seeing. Travelling in a car I may have a moment of confusion unsure if what I am seeing is the sea in the distance or a bank of clouds. Usually the confusion is quickly resolved then I clear ‘see’ one or the other.
The gestalt psychologists used illusions and other graphic means to demonstrate the active, constructive nature of perception. For example, with the picture below, it’s hard not to see a bear (with ears, eyes, mouth, body, legs) rather than areas of blackness on the white page.
The gestalt approach also argued that perception is intentional, that is, what I am perceiving (seeing; hearing; feeling; etc.) is given focus by what I’m doing and seeking to do. What is ‘figure’ and what is ‘ground’ depends upon my concerns in the moment. For example (a real recent one), I am walking in the woods after heavy rain and find myself going down a steep muddy slope and my concern is to safely get to the bottom of the incline. What becomes ‘figural’ – what becomes the focus of my attention – are rocks for firm footing and trees to slow my speed. In the same moment the wood has become ‘ground’; ever-present but not the focus. Digging slightly deeper, I don’t perceive these entities as simply rocks and trees, but as things imbued with qualities that engender a sense of safety in me. I realise that I’ve unconsciously assessed them for their stability for my weight (the rocks) and strength (the trees/branches) to slow my speed; I experience them as the right rocks/trees. Safely arriving at the bottom of the slope the rocks and trees cease to be figural; my needs have been met; I simply don’t notice them in the way I had a few moments before, and something else becomes figural, the focus of my attention.
This example illustrates another aspect of perception that is fundamental in gestalt, it is not a separate, isolated function, but rather an aspect of an integration of our bodily (embodied) involvement with the world. Going down the slope involved coordination of arms, legs, whole body balance along with anxiety, and a sense of satisfaction when the moves turn out to be the right moves (I get to the bottom ok without falling).
The relation between figure and ground
The gestalt psychologists argued that the meaning of what is figural is not given by ‘the thing itself’ (in my example, rocks and trees) but conditioned by the ground. This ground includes whatever is present in the situation and the intentions of the person. We could say that the ‘figure’, what is ‘figural’, is configured (actively formed) in the interaction of the person and their situation. In my example, what I ‘saw’ were rocks and trees with certain qualities to aid my safe descent. On another day, maybe after a period of dry sunny weather with firm footing, and with the intention of enjoying a walk in the woods, I probably wouldn’t have noticed those rocks and trees at all, and certainly not in the way I did. Instead I might have been entranced by the new buds growing on those trees, or, if interested in geology, by the significance of particular rocks in the landscape, or then again, trying out the camera on my new phone, setting up a particularly nice photograph.
The figure and ground is not just what is physically present in the situation; it also includes our past and future as they influence how we configure what we perceive (shaping intentions, expectations, etc.). For my walk, the past may be present in my levels of fitness and my familiarity with the woods, and the future in term so the particular interests I bring (to get fit; to try out new routes; as a geologist looking for evidence of glaciers; a participant in a ‘mass trespass’ to open up fenced off public rights of way).
The punchlines of all the above are that:
What is the significance for coaching of the Gestalt approach to perception?
When a client arrives with their agenda it is inevitable that they will have ‘configured the field’ in a particular way. In other words, they will ‘see the situation’ in a certain way, and their agenda will make sense in terms of this way of seeing the situation. In terms of figure/ground, the agenda they have brought is the initial figure (“my manager is critical and controlling”) and the ground is the situation/context for that figure (analogous to ‘reality’ in the GROW model).
The role of the coach, from a gestalt perspective, is not to join the client in their focus on what is figural (the problematic critical, controlling manager) and to sort this out in terms of a pragmatic action plan of some kind. Rather the approach is to raise awareness of figure and ground as organised by the intentionality of the client, and in doing so allow new ways of configuring the situation to emerge (i.e. allow new meaning/new ways of ‘seeing the situation’ to emerge).
Raising awareness in this way may surface a sense for our client that they have an enduring lack of confidence and often feel criticised by others and so seek to stay safe by always doing a perfect job whilst maintaining distance between themselves and those in authority (“I like to keep my head down”). Raising awareness of the ground may also surface that the ‘criticisms’ could be perceived as valid feedback alongside some (previous unnoticed) support from the manager, who in turn is under pressure to maximise performance in their department.
You can see from this example that the ‘ground’ also includes (has been configured by) the past history of the client – their enduring lack of self-confidence, and their future focus – ‘keep my head down’ – which are present in the here-and-now. It is likely then that through the process of awareness raising the client will perceive the situation in new ways and this will open up new possibilities in the work.
Undirected and Directed Awareness
Undirected awareness is the kind of awareness that has no particular focus and is free to notice anything of interest present in the ‘field’. For example, walking in the woods I find myself noticing barges on the nearby canal, a couple walking their dog, the extraordinary colours of the autumnal leaves on the trees. With undirected awareness I allow myself “to notice and acknowledge anything and everything that caught the attention” (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman Gestalt Therapy p.116).
Directed awareness is a narrowing and focusing of attention to something specific in our awareness that we want to pay more attention to, to bring out more clearly what is “there”. We give “more attention and interest so that the dim figure will sharpen and become more clear against its ground (ibid p.117). On my walk, going down the slippery slope, I may stop and more closely assess whether a particular rock will carry my weight, or whether it will lead onto a further safe step. With our client above the coach my invite the client to direct their awareness, make figural, particular aspects of what they are recounting: “say some more about ‘keep my head down” or “you always need to do a perfect job ..….”. Such directed awareness, like a microscope, allows more to come clearly into view.
How does the coach raise awareness?
Michael Polanyi ‘The Tacit Dimension’ (1967) “we can know more than we can tell'.
The starting point is that we have the intention of raising awareness rather than doing something else (like making interpretations, introducing models etc.). We have to remain aware that, just like the client, we have our own figure/ground processes going on and that it would be all too easy to impose our own figures on the client, i.e. our own understanding of what’s going on, what the client should know, what they should be doing. If we do this, then we take the client away from their own experience and substitute that with our own. And it is just here that the personal development work, which is at the heart of gestalt, is so vital, as it enables us to get some kind of handle on what is going on for us, what we’re bringing into the relationship, what our intentions are and whether we can offer the client the kind of space to make their concerns figural rather than accommodating to our impingements on their process.
Once we have the right intention then there are the kind of interventions that invite the client to attend more closely to both figure and ground – particularly the ground. As a coach I’ll be using both undirected and directed awareness. Undirected – allowing myself to be receptive to, and interested in, what the client brings to the session without needing to impose direction and structure on what is unfolding (this can be quite a challenge, living with the anxiety of ‘not knowing’ where the session is going). Directed – when something becomes figural for me as the coach (in what the client is saying, a shift in mood/emotion, in body language) and I intervene to invite closer attention, to ‘open up’, that figure to see what else is there.
What then do we practically do, how do we intervene to raise awareness. Here are some examples; I’m sure you’ll know many other ways:
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior