I’ve always found the gestalt concept of contact hard to grasp; it has an elusive quality in the text books, often ‘explained’ through metaphor and analogy rather than clear definition and illustration. However, I think we can have an intuitive grasp of what it means; a sense from our own experience of what’s involved in contact. Let’s begin with some examples. We can then distil the elements and explore the link with the gestalt theory of perception. Finally, we can ask, what does this mean in practice?
Some of the themes/characteristics of contact in these example:
Summing up all of the above, contact is the absorbed involved engagement with the environment organised around needs (intentions/interests/concerns), through which I and the environment are changed and new possibilities emerge.
Contact and the Gestalt Theory of Perception
It’s important to understand that contact in the Gestalt approach is not a ‘stand-alone’ concept but rather rooted in the Gestalt theory of perception. Here are some quotes from the founding text of the Gestalt approach, Perls, Hefferline, Goodman Gestalt Therapy which show that contact and figure/ground formation are two sides of the same coin:
Let’s review the discussion above to understand it from the perspective of Gestalt theory of perception.
Firstly, it is our intentions (more strongly framed as our ‘needs’ in the shift from the original gestalt theories of perception to the later gestalt therapy approach) that ‘configure the field’, that is, make something figural against a (back)ground – as described in (3) above.
Secondly, as we become interested the figure becomes more distinct, clear, enlivened for us, and the ground ‘withdraws’ more; the ever-present but unnoticed context.
Thirdly, as we attend more closely, become involved, engaged, the figure becomes more differentiated; we see it more fined grained. The figure can itself become the ground for new figures to emerge, like looking through a microscope. Attending to the figure also draws the ground, the wider context, into view, and through these processes the meaning of the figure itself can change – as in (6) above.
Fourthly, as implied by saying the ground is configured by intentions/needs, contact is always concernful and feelingful: contact involves emotion, often strong emotion (excitement, fear, anger, anxiety, joy, jealousy) – as in (4) above.
Fifthly, as said in the paper on The Gestalt Approach to Perception, perception is just one aspect of an embodied involvement in the world, so a strong figure/contact means active engagement with the world which inevitably involves changing/transforming the world and the self who is so engaged – as in (5) above
Lastly, and drawing together the strands of all that’s been said, contact is the means/process through which learning takes place, lives and situations change, creativity is possible and new possibilities emerge.
Interruptions to Contact
Let’s return to one of the quotes above:
“When the figure is dull, confused, graceless, lacking in energy (a ‘weak gestalt’), we may be sure there is lack of contact, something in the environment is blocked out, some vital organic need is not being expressed; the person is not ‘all there’, that is, his whole field cannot lend urgency and resources to the completion of the figure” p.232
We’ve talked so far of contact as if it is a straightforward process; as if contact is easy. However, at the heart of the Gestalt approach is the belief that contact is anything but easy because the personal history of each of us has meant that we have not had our needs met in straightforward ways; indeed, we’ve had to make compromises in getting our needs met because we can only get them met through other people who are more powerful than us. We’ve all made creative adjustments in our involvements with others, such that we get some of needs met by behaving in ways that are acceptable to parents, teachers, peer groups, , people in authority, etc., but in doing so compromise on getting our needs fully and directly met. Such creative adjustments and compromises mean that needs are often not clear, and are only partially or obliquely expressed – “the figure is dull, confused, graceless, lacking in energy (a ‘weak gestalt’)”.
Interruptions to contact is the term given to the ways we have learned not to notice and act upon what we need from the environment. They are the inevitable outcome of the creative adjustments we necessarily made and still make in our involvement with others. You can read about the kinds of interruptions to contact in the various texts – introjection, projection, confluence and so forth. These processes were originally called ‘defence mechanisms in psychoanalysis and have become common currency in virtually all therapeutic approaches. Understanding our own creative adjustments and interruptions to contact is the vital work at the heart of personal development – and the heart of professional development if you want to work from a Gestalt perspective, or the ‘psychological dimension’ more generally.
The defence mechanisms that have come from the psychoanalytic tradition may be described as ‘intrapsychic’, something that goes on in the mind. There are a whole range of other interruptions which we might call (following the language of Harry Stack Sullivan) security operations, which are ‘interpersonal’ behaviours that reduce anxiety. These might include looking away when the conversation gets difficult, constantly talking, drinking, eating, taking control – all the things we do, the creative adjustments we’ve developed, that reduce anxiety, makes us feel safe, allowing us to manage situations, but at the cost of fully contacting and engaging with the situation (including other people).
If you re-read the quote above you’ll see how it exactly expresses what we’ve been describing here, in the interrelated gestalt concepts of figure/ground, need and contact. It’s worth noting that Gestalt practitioners nowadays tend to speak less of ‘interruptions to contact’ but more of ‘modifications to contact’, to catch hold of the sense that our creative adjustments have become part of who we are, our way of being in the world, fundamental to our personality, our ‘presence’. This move underlines the significance of these processes and the challenges posed when trying to address them, as our creative adjustments are now so deep rooted – our ingrained patterns of behaviour. Indeed, these modifications to contact may be the source of valued strengths and capabilities which have brought us success in the world – like always striving to do a perfect job, or be strong for those around us. Being challenged to review the place of such strengths (“What got you here won’t get you there”) can be a deeply unsettling and anxiety provoking experience.
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience
The discussion above helps us make sense of the Gestalt ‘Cycle of Experience’ in a practical, useful way.
The diagram separates the stages in the formation and completion of a gestalt, from its emergence to satisfaction and withdrawal. Sensation
Sensation: The initial stirring of ‘something’, often a bodily felt sense, a noticing of ‘something there’. This could be called a ‘weak gestalt’, something present but unclear, still hard to distinguish from the background.
Awareness: Attention is focused on ‘what’s there’ (maybe deliberately in a coaching session) and the figure becomes stronger and clearer. It can now be articulated “I need an honest conversation with ….”.
Mobilisation: The energy rises around the figure and its possible implications. The is ‘excitement’ – in the sense of being stirred up, anticipation, which may be articulated as anxiety, commitment, and so on.
Action: Taking the steps to engage with the figure (seems to me like Prochaska’s preparation stage).
Contact: Meeting and having the conversation with the characteristics described above.
Withdrawal: If the contact has been full its likely there will be a sense of having ‘completed a piece of work’, that the relationship has shifted, a sense of satisfaction. The need has been addressed and the figure dissipates.
Interruptions to contact: At each stage there can be interruptions to contact, and a few have been added to the diagram. For example, at the Sensation stage ‘desensitisation’ or ‘denial’ of what I’m experiencing – in this instance, and without deliberate intention, not paying attention to what’s there, or if noticing then turning away (“it doesn’t matter; it’s not that important”). The move from awareness to mobilisation might be interrupted by introjects around being nice, not upsetting others (“Yes I know Its there, but it’ll just upset him if I say anything).
At the heart of gestalt practice are the two interrelated activities of raising awareness and enhancing contact. If we return to the kind of interventions from the previous paper on perception, you’ll see that they can be understood as invitations to enhance contact with self and the situation:
What’s added then when we focus on contact?
The Cycle of Experience: This can be used as a diagnostic tool. Where is the client on the cycle and what is needed to enable the client to complete the cycle? What are the interruptions to contact that may be operating, and how to address these?
A key thing is the intention to enhance contact, both with self and the environment (most often other people) and with this raising awareness and addressing interruptions to contact. It is almost inevitable that inviting stronger contact will evoke anxiety and other feelings, sometimes strong feelings. So it’s important to be aware that challenging habitual modifications/interruptions takes courage and support. The best place to start is with ourselves. How do I, and how do you, make and break contact? Bring to mind a situation that challenges you around contact – for example an honest conversation you should be having – and be aware of what it’s like committing to be more contactful– having that conversation.
Inviting contact with self is making figural bodily sensations, feelings, behaviours, then holding attention there and seeing what emerges from the ground. Gestalt invites us to be attuned to particular emerging figures: what are the needs that have been held out of awareness; what are the creative adjustments the person has made and now become default in their contact with the environment; what is the quality of contact here between us, and what is needed to enhance the contact between us in the here-and-now of the coaching relationship? Words like should, must, ought can signal and signpost modifications/interruptions to contact
Inviting contact with the environment is making figural the quality of contact with people and situations the person is involved with. Experiments tailored to the person’s particular situation can be powerful in raising awareness of habitual ways of interrupting and modifying contact, and possible ways of challenging those ingrained patterns.
Focusing on the Coaching relationship: posing the question to yourself as coach ‘what kind of contact do I have with the client’ can be very powerful, as it is likely to immediately draw into focus what is happening in the relationship, and likely to lead to the follow up question “what needs to happen here to enhance the quality of our contact”. Use of self may well be the way forward.
Environmental support: The client must feel safe if they are to take the risk of engaging in the of making enhancing contact and challenging interruptions/modifications to contact. The gestalt notion of ‘environmental support’ is important here – there must be enough support for the client to feel sufficiently ‘held’ in doing the work. This support may come from friends, colleagues and also the coach and the coaching relationship. As part of the ‘diagnostics’ of the cycle of experience, the environmental support should be addressed
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior