The value of Neuroscience Theory and the Gestalt approach in coaching

The world we live in focuses on the problems that people are experiencing: attempts are made to be goal directed and develop solutions to these problems. This however does not appear to be working. Negativity and criticism abounds, people feel increasingly frustrated and inadequate. Emotional energy is sapped and change and growth appears to be even harder than when the problem was first identified.

A behaviourally-driven, goal-focused approach often makes small gains and then the individuals slip back into their old patterns and then the cycle repeats itself. Ordonez (2009) suggests that the world has gone “wild” on the need for goal driven approach and this methodology is used to almost exclusion of all else. Gestalt Coaching and Neuroscience are two fields that assist us in dealing with this challenge in a different way that leads to sustainable change.

Neuroscience takes a scientific approach and explores what is happening to the brain under a range of circumstances. “Negative” and “positive” emotions engage different parts of the brain. It may look at what parts of the brain “light up” when someone plays a piece of creative music versus what part lights up in the brain when someone plays a learnt piece of music. Understanding which part of the brain is engaged helps the coach or leader understand why the individual is perhaps struggling to move forward.

One of the most important aspect of Neuroscience is understanding when and why the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is triggered and when and why the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is triggered and the consequences thereof.

The SNS is triggered when there is stress. Hormones are released namely Epinephrine, Norepinephrine and Cortisoid. The consequences of these hormones is an increase in blood pressure, large muscles tense, eye pupil size enlarges and the heart rate increases. However, most significantly, the results of this are the shutting of non-essential neural circuits and the over stimulation of older neural paths and even the subsequent shrinkage of neural paths. This leads to the reduced ability to be creative, adaptable and open to change. The brain begins to lose its capability to learn.  Anxiety levels are increased and perceptions become distorted with individuals often perceiving comments as negative and even threatening.

On the other hand when the PNS is triggered, Oxytocin and Vasopressin are released. Systolic and Diastolic blood pressure are decreased. The outcome is an increased feeling of hope, aroused compassion and empathy for others. Excitement and feelings of optimism are present. (Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. 2002) People are able to powerfully connect with others in service of a task or purpose.

Understanding this physiological process is critical for the coach or leader as frequently the coach/leader may persist in working with an individual when they are in a heightened SNS state and the ability to learn and think is limited.

What does the coach/leader need to do to move a person to a PNS state of being?

There are attractors that will stimulate either the PNS or SNS. By awareness of where the coach/leader directs attention, different responses will occur. We have a choice. One of the major choices we have is where we direct out attention. Over time the connections we make because we are paying attention become hard wired and the basis for further action. Schwartz and Begley (2003) call this self-directed neuroplasticity. Coaching leaders has huge implications for developing “new wiring” asking one question rather than another “profoundly alters the patterns and timing of the connections the brain generates in each fraction of a second.

Application for change is that if we shine our spotlight on something new that represents change we wish to make, our brain makes new connections. This is not just a theoretical possibility, studies have been done on the quality of the attention. This is known as attention density. It is sum of the quality and quantity of the focus. You will generate more energy around the neural paths if you generate an emotional response. Questions increase attention density. Quantity of focus is the number of times we direct a circuit (Daniel Siegel).

The areas of focus that will trigger PNS include a focus on hope not fear, a focus on possibilities and dreams and not limitations and obstacles and a stronger focus on the present and future not the past. This is not an all-encompassing approach which suggests never looking at obstacles or the past but rather where is the predominant attention been given. Often a coaching approach might ask “ Where do you want to be?” and then begin to identify the obstacles that might need to be overcome to get there and plan steps of overcoming each obstacle. This focus on the obstacles could trigger the SNS and limit the growth. Focuses of possibilities, ways to reach the dream are all attractors to PNS.

The coach therefore needs to understand the impact of where we direct our attention through the use of questions and reflections and it is at this junction that Neuroscience and Gestalt Coaching meets.

Gestalt Coaching is about a process that is concerned with developing full awareness and turning awareness into action (Allan and Whybrow,2008).
At the heart of this approach to coaching is increasing the coachee’s self-awareness through the coaching conversation in order to generate what is a complete and contextual awareness of the real self.  The coach will draw on their own (the coach’s) experiences, thoughts, sensations and feed this back into the conversation in order to enquire, challenge and support the coachee. The focus will be very much on the present and what is going on in the session as opposed to interpreting the past and planning the future. This is where the convergence of Neuroscience and Gestalt processes happens.

As the coach/leader reflects on the process in the here and now – a dialogue is happening. As attention is given to the relationship and the process of enquiry something new can emerge that was not in either’s minds prior to the dialogue. The focus on the “now” is underpinned by the principle of holism which believes that an individual’s patterns and behaviours that happen outside of the coaching conversation will be demonstrated within the coaching conversation. An example might be an individual that talks verbosely and listens seldom will talk verbosely and listen seldom in the coaching session. The content is less significant than the process of what is happening in terms of patterns.

Perls, the original developer of Gestalt Therapy believed that focus on the here and now with deep awareness was the key to people becoming healthy. Through self-awareness the individual was able to access a wide range of possible behaviours, giving them greater choices and allowing them through the safety of the coaching relationship to experiment and practice alternatives (Nevis, 1987). This climate and humanistic approach would allow for the PSN to be activated and a learning culture would be cultivated.

The coach or the leader thus needs to understand some of the techniques of Gestalt Coaching and needs to be up to date with latest research of Neuroscience so that they can apply the techniques seamlessly.  Neither of the approaches however are a tool kit of techniques only – the understanding of the theoretical knowledge base is critically important as it is the assumptions and values that underpin the approaches that influence the manner in which the coach applies the techniques. One of the core beliefs of Gestalt Coaching is that the individual is healthy and functioning and the resources for answers exist within the individual.

Another belief is that it is through emotions and through failure that one learns and grows. It is thus critically important that the coaching space is safe and allows the individual being coached to be vulnerable and to experiment with alternative approaches and co create solutions without the fear of failure dominating, A further belief is the importance of the system and recognition that the coaching needs to give attention to the context and larger system in the coaching process ( Siminovitch and Van Eron 2006 ).

Two frameworks assist in this process. The Cycle of Experience (COE) and the Unit of Work (UOW)

The Gestalt Cycle of experience (see diagram below) captures conceptually the process that an individual or system (interpersonal, group, organisation) goes through in any given experience. To take a simple example: A gruGestalt approachmbling sensation in the stomach leads to awareness of hunger, the mobilisation of energy to walk to the fridge or take-away, acquire food and eat (action); the food alters the hunger state and induces change in the body (contact), producing satisfaction, resolution or closure and the withdrawal of attention from this issue, one returns to what one was busy with before hunger struck, or moves on to the next issue, according to the new sensation becoming figurative.

Constructive and uninterrupted movement through the cycle produces smooth functioning in the system. Interruptions and blockages at any stage induce a state of disequilibrium, frustrating the inherent tendency of the system to function optimally, or to finish the business at hand. Blockages or resistance can occur at any stage in the cycle; leaving unresolved or unfinished business in the system to clog further sensation and subsequent processes. To refer again to the hunger example: notice one’s mental and bodily reactions to suppressing hunger in the interests of finishing another piece of work; ultimately such unfinished business returns or reoccurs, often in a more severe form (Wyley, 1996).

The UOW model is an example of orchestrated change, denoting specific processes and necessary steps involved in implementing incremental, transitional, or transformational change. This conceptual model assumes that learning and change occur in well-defined units of experience. The COE functions in the background of UOW interventions as a diagnostic tool for the Gestalt coach. Both the COE and the UOW are rooted in observing and facilitating process. Neuroscience theory helps understand the dynamic behind the process.

So in conclusion and to recap, it is a tenet of Gestalt that “everyone is doing the best they can, with the resources available to them, at any given moment” (the wording is Sonia Nevis, personal communication 2005). The role of the Gestalt coach, in the moment, from this humanistic and respectful position, is to heighten awareness, increase those resources, in order that the client may come to a different sense of self in relation to his/her world.

The Gestalt approach has a particular term for the delicate moment (not an event but a process) of change and learning, as a coach and client engage in dialogue: Contact. As each person (organism) engages with the other (environment) their perception and processing of what is figural in the ground of the relationship, may well follow ingrained neurological patterns and preferences. It is the Gestalt coach’s task to behave and show up with the client in such a way that the client has a new felt experience of self and other through the intake of new data about self and environment, and through processing it in a new experience. New and more meaningful contact with self and other is achieved. With this comes a release of tension and the satisfaction of the prevailing need (Gestalt is a needs-satisfaction approach).

In this, the presence of the coach is key. Gestalt coaches will consciously utilise own behavioural range in order to “offer a presence that is lacking in the client system” (Nevis,1987). This ties in directly with the neuroscience approach outlined above. For example, the Gestalt coach will join with a client (using confluence, projection) in order to create trust, safety and reduce anxiety if this is the presenting need. When conducive to the client’s learning this stance may shift to one of more differentiation and challenge, delicately holding the client in a space of openness and contact in order for the new learning to emerge. Hence a coach may be more authoritative and provocative with one client, and more supportive and evocative with another: All depends on the client’s need, and the presence that best supports their learning.

The interplay between Gestalt and Neuroscience is dynamic and systemic in nature. It is powerful combination that aids the coach and facilitates real lasting growth in the individual. It is exciting to be part of this process.


Natalie Cunningham and Chantelle Wyley will be sharing more abut the Gestalt approach and neuroscience at the Coaching and Mentoring Conference, taking place on 6 – 7 March 2013 in Johannesburg.  Don’t miss the opportunity to attend this exciting event and learn the latest about Tribal Marketing, Integrated Marketing, Consumer Engagement, Big Data, Social Media, CRM and much more.  For more information, contact or click here.

Issued by Knowledge Resources – Written by:  Natalie Cunningham and Chantelle Wyley

Further reading and references:

Allan J and  Whybrow, A  2008 Gestalt Coaching  in     Handbook of Coaching Psychology Editors  Palmer S, Whybrow , A Routledge Press   p132 -159.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. 2002. Primal leadership:
Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Nevis, Edwin C. 1987. Organizational consulting: a Gestalt approach. Cleveland: Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press. 212 p. ISBN 0-89876-124-7.

Ordóñez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D. &Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of over-prescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, February, 6–16.

Siminovitch D.E and Van Eron. A 2006  The Pragmatics of Magic The Work of Gestalt Coaching    OD PRACTITIONER | VOL. 38 | NO. 1 | 2006 p 52 -55.

JM Schwartz, S Begley  2003 The mind and the brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force  2003 – Harper Perennial.

Siegel , DJ  2012 Developing Mind: How relationships and brain interact to save who we are  Guildford Press New York.

Wyely, C  1996 The Gestalt approach to organisation and systems development  OD debate 1996, 3 (5): 6-7.


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