In this last blog post of his series about Gestalt in Organisation Development, Mayvin Chairman Tony Fraser shares his understanding of the Gestalt idea of ‘Contact’. Using real-life stories and examples, Tony explains what contact is and why it is so relevant to organisational consulting. As in the previous articles, (Awareness Comes First and Making Meaning), Tony provides some practical guidance. In this blog, it’s about when and how to support and encourage contact.
I have just been listening to a deeply moving encounter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The host of the show interviewed a resident whose uncle died in the Grenfell Tower fire and a firefighter who had been at the fire together in the studio. It is a good example of contact:
what your uncle went through that night, the actions, the phone calls that your uncle made which must have been incredibly painful for you.
…Uncle, he called 5 times in the night, he was very calm, collected, very polite. He was a disabled man, had mobility issues and he was told like many others to stay where he was, that someone was coming to get him. And even when ‘stay put’ was changed that wasn’t very clear to him and inevitably he lost his life.
Nick R to Eldo, the firefighter:
As someone who risked their own life to save lives, how painful has it been for you…?
First of all Karim, I’m sorry we didn’t get your uncle out and I’m sorry for the other 71 people that died, I’m sorry we didn’t get all of them out but on the night we were faced with a difficult task and it’s not a nice feeling inside for me when you hear the stories now and listen to the telephone recordings of what happened and I wish we had done more but we were really, really pushed.
Virtually every firefighter that was there did what they could and I can only apologise for not doing more. I went up and down those stairs 6 times and brought 9 people out. I also went in a second time. Yeah, it was just a horrific evening and it haunts me to this day, and stuff that’s gone on, and thinking could we have changed anything. I’m sorry we didn’t get your uncle out or the other 71 people.
I really appreciate your comments. I’ve never spoken to a firefighter who’s spoken about my uncle before and I really appreciate that. And in no way shape or form do I blame the firefighters for what happened that night…
What is contact?
Contact is when there is direct, open, authentic exchange with one or more individuals. Similar to physical contact, the Gestalt concept refers to the psychological and emotional contact felt when one human being genuinely connects to another, through words, a gesture, a look or even shared silence. In moments of contact, the truth is not avoided or concealed and the participants, and sometimes the situation and environment are changed by the encounter. The difference is felt when both parties have reached each other, momentarily bridging their apparent separateness. In the authenticity of contact, each party may feel exposed and ‘at risk’ as the outcome of these encounters cannot be planned or predicted. Contact often feels immediate, intense and exciting but not necessarily safe.
The characteristics of contact are:
- You have my full attention and I have yours – being present to each other at the moment
- I am interested in, open to, and willing to respond to your needs, concerns, wants, feelings
- I will tell my truth as best I can
- At the same time, I am aware of my needs, concerns, wants and feelings
- Also, I am willing to risk showing or saying to you what I am experiencing e.g. thoughts and feelings
- I meet you as you are now, without expectations or prejudgements
- Lastly, I don’t have a plan or know exactly what will happen between us at this moment.
Contact enables connection:
During a recent session, my supervisee told this story:
I’ve been in the company for 28 years and the three company bosses have been going for lunch every day together ever since I joined. In this time I only had lunch with my boss twice. Why does it bother me?
I would like to have a relationship with my boss that is more, that includes some informal, more personal connection. Furthermore, I want some personal contact, to know that I’m not only dealing with authority. I want to know if my boss likes me, cares about me a little, that I matter to him a bit some way beyond as a delivery mechanism. Besides, I imagine he is not interested in me, it’s not possible, I am not allowed“
My sister said to me “why don’t you turn things round and you invite him for lunch instead of waiting for him to invite you?” I did and he said “Sure it’s a good idea, let’s do that”. So because these three guys have their ‘holy lunch’ every day there seems to be no way that I can get in there, was completely wrong.
All it took was a moment of contact and we had lunch together. Everything changes.
Contact makes change happen:
I was working for Ford when their huge production facility employing more than 60,000 workers had been shut down for 10 days by a strike because a worker had been fired for chasing a supervisor around the shop floor, brandishing an iron bar.…no, really.
Ford’s HR Director, Europe and his team had been negotiating with Union leaders to find a way to get production going again. Amid the typical ‘position-stating’ neither party signalled their readiness to compromise or back down. There was a break. The two leading figures found themselves next to each other at the urinals. The Union leader turned to Ford’s HR Director and said: “Don’t push us on this one, Bob.” They held each other’s look for a moment. Bob’s response was a sound like “Hmph”. (I know because I was there, in the toilet at the time)
When the meeting reconvened the atmosphere had changed. The employer side started making creative proposals and the real negotiating started. The moment of contact had shifted the impasse. These two powerful men had met outside their prescribed roles and the defensive positioning of negotiations to reach a point of direct, human exchange. With a moment of shared attention, the two met each other directly…. and something shifts. Contact can cut through days, weeks, years of avoidance, deception or game playing – destroying the old order and creating the opportunity for something new to emerge.
Here is another extract from one of my supervisees, a senior leader in a high-tech company:
“A lot about successful leadership and running a good team has to do with contact, fostering contact within the group and with other groups that interact with the group. I am interested in the fine difference between holding a ritual e.g. everyone comes to a meeting and sits there, nothing gets exchanged apart from some boring facts. In a ritual you know you can wait for the next step, it’s programmed. It’s safe because it’s programmed. Or another type of meeting where things get more constructive and moving along. And this kind of setting has some magical aspects, people will shift point of view or adhere to new points of view or start moving together in one direction after some exchanges. A shift occurs for the group as they start being creative and moving forward.”
Good reasons why contact doesn’t happen very often in organisations
If contact is so catalytic, why is it so rare in organisations? It is in the nature of organisations to create distance between people. To get things done, functional relationships emerge, often based on hierarchy, power, judgement and performance. We curb our need for intimacy. This makes it difficult to fulfil personal and relational needs. Working in organisations typically restricts our humanity and constrains our emotional life. Competition, conflict and divergent interests make emotional vulnerability unsafe. People are afraid to make real contact because they don’t want risk being seen as they really are.
It’s true, inviting contact can be risky. If I ask my boss or a colleague, “How am I doing?” I make myself vulnerable. Responding truthfully may also feel perilous. Contact requires and creates honesty and the capacity to handle the truth maturely. It feels safer to stick to more conventional patterns of communicating with all the avoidance and denial. This is why fostering contact, and the safe space it needs is so valuable.
In the absence of contact, organisational games flourish. The healthy process of weeding out stand-offs, territorial feuds and bad behaviour becomes more difficult. The organisation starts to develop an unhealthy culture in which people have to divert energy and attention to self-protection.
When is contact most needed?
It takes the possibility of contact to sustain trust and strong relationships, to keep communication channels open, to resolve conflicts and settle unfinished business. The need for contact is greatest when the stuck patterns of behaving and relating get in the way of good outcomes, of getting things done or working effectively together. That is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was so successful – and one of the reasons why public enquiries like the Grenfell Tower disaster in London are essential. They not only expose the truth, but they create the opportunity for contact, for those involved to say what happened to them and to know they are seen and heard by the people that can change things. In contact, all the covering up, evasion, deflection and deception is stripped away and those involved can be open to each other and their respective truth.
Seven ways to encourage and support contact
- Make it safe
Making it safe is about being clear that this is a time to set aside judgements and expectations, blame and justification. Awaydays and teambuilding often have the purpose to explore, clarify and build mutual understanding and agreement, rather than to make judgements or assign blame. It is also about ‘permission’, ensuring all those involved know they are allowed to say what they really think and feel, that the intention is to hear and understand rather than question, disagree or dismiss.
- Help identify ‘the figure’
What are the underlying issues, what is being avoided and what is not being said? What does each of the individuals want and not want from each other? Are there evident feelings being suppressed? Gestalt encourages paying attention to what is.
- Focus on the resistance to contact
Rather than pushing for contact, it is sometimes more helpful to direct awareness to fears and inhibitions or other obstacles that might be preventing contact… “what’s stopping you?” “What makes this difficult?”.
- Encourage direct ‘I – Thou’ exchanges
To avoid putting themselves personally on the line, people can avoid referring directly to themselves or others. In meetings, people may ‘talk to the room’ or speak in abstract terms, such as “there seems to be some difficulty here” vs “you are making this difficult for me.” As a group facilitator, I ask questions like: “In saying what you’ve just said, what is it exactly you want?” “Who do you want to say that to?” “Could you say what you want using I and You?”
- Work with unfinished business
We accumulate unfinished business through needs and wants that have not been ‘completed’ and experiences that leave us uncertain or disturbed: “Why has Simon not answered my call?” “Does Angela recognise that I hold her in high regard?” “What were those two talking about after the meeting?” Unfinished business is something that is unresolved and gets in the way of being fully open to the other. It‘s a barrier to contact and requires contact to be resolved.
An exercise to work with unfinished business:
One of my favourite team workshop activities is to ask the whole team “who has unfinished business with someone else in this team that is getting in the way of performance? – I just want a show of hands, I won’t ask you to say with whom or what it is?” Normally, every individual in the team puts up their hand.
I give them this exercise – often over an extended coffee break of 45 minutes:
- Choose a partner who you believe you may have unfinished business with.
- Ask their permission to talk to them. Tell them what it’s about. Ask permission again to talk about this topic.
- Describe what happened and in particular, your experience and the effect that experience had on you in terms of thoughts and feelings.
- Ask about their experience – perhaps including what they did and why.
- Explore the events and how they landed, to get a clear understanding, making sure both parties feel heard.
- Ask for what you need/want from the other in order to be able to let go and complete what is unfinished.
- Listen to the other and what they need/want.
- Work through the requests until you feel satisfied and ready to let go and move on.
Almost always, there is a new energy in the group when they reconvene after this activity: the result of contact and clearing away unfinished business.
It’s not always about feelings and interpersonal stuff. Sometimes a simple process can create the contact needed to make things work. For example: in a high tech company the communication channels between two teams were quite mixed up. A feud between the team leaders had been going on for some time with regular flare-ups. It was causing problems with suppliers and product quality was affected. They each blamed the other and claimed decision rights. As a result of an intervention, they used the chart below and started working on it together. It was not that difficult to agree who has responsibility for which parts of the process. They discovered assumptions that hadn’t been talked about openly. Agreeing responsibilities and communication brought the team leaders closer and they began exchanging ideas and points of view. Contact was made in the session and established in an ongoing way for the teams. Everyone knew who needed to be involved, when, how and about what. Confidence and trust developed from feeling in touch. Both team leaders now report “It’s working much better, we’re moving forward and we’re happy.”
Gestalt in OD
Understanding contact is just one way that adopting a Gestalt approach provides the OD consultant with insight, understanding and effective interventions. The Gestalt approach cannot be packaged. It’s not a set of techniques or a toolkit. It’s a powerful and effective way of being and acting – the capacity to be fully present in the moment, to uncover what’s really going on and create opportunities for people who are stuck, to work sensitively with difficult stuff.
Working with Gestalt often feels different. It’s about learning to be aware in the moment (Awareness Comes First) , to help make sense of what is going on (Making Meaning) so that you can support and encourage contact. It works for OD practitioners and coaches as well as counsellors and therapists. It takes a bit of practice and skill but the learning process (on workshops at the Gestalt Centre London) is interesting and exciting.