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Gestalt in Organisational Development: Making Meaning

Tony Fraser presents the second article, Making Meaning, of a series called Gestalt in Organisational Development, shedding fresh insight on the practice.
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This article about Making Meaning is the second in a series of three about the practical application of the Gestalt Method to organisations: Raising Awareness; Making Meaning; Encouraging and Supporting Contact.

Mayvin Chairman Tony Fraser describes the distinctive Gestalt Organisational Development interventions. Moreover, these interventions bring fresh insight and recognition by getting around the typical defences used by individuals, teams and organisations including avoiding uncomfortable truths. Once again Tony offers real-life examples from his own experience to illustrate Gestalt interventions in practice.

Gestalt in Organisational Development (OD): Making Meaning

Gestalt is a German word that has no direct translation into English but roughly translates as a meaningful whole. For example, we look at an elegant line drawn by Picasso and although the depiction is literally sketchy, we see a camel. We ‘know’ what we are looking at. In Gestalt we say, we ‘form a figure’, a meaningful whole, or something we recognise.

Mayvin Gestalt Organisational development

Similarly, if we hear a fragment of music on the radio when there is bad reception and we ‘recognise the tune’, we fill in the missing elements and know what it is. Subsequently, we ‘naturally’ prefer to translate our experience into something that we can recognise, that means something to us.

In Gestalt terms, recognising a powerful reality or ‘forming a clear figure’ can sometimes be life-changing.

A personal example:

After 5 years in senior management roles in a large financial services business, I was feeling jaded. As I was leaving the rail station on my way to the London head office for another meeting, by chance, I met our head of talent and career development. We walked across the concourse together. She asked how I was doing. I must have looked a bit off but said:


To my surprise she said:

“You’ve been in your current job a while, what do you think you’re next move might be?”

She caught me unprepared. I had been feeling stuck. So, without being fully aware of it, I had no career expectations. I was just going along, trying not to make a mess of things.

Then, we walked the next few paces and I thought about the handful of senior roles in the business for which I might possibly be eligible. At that moment, I realised none of them appealed to me. The figure formed:

“There is no future for me (that I want) in this organisation….or any big business!!”

Later, I made some lame response like:

"’l'll have to give it some thought to that tough question”

and changed the subject.

In the end, something basic in me had shifted – a new realisation. My life had just started on a new track that led me to become an Organisational Development consultant. As it happens, with plenty of bumps in the road, it turned out well.

Making Meaning in personal relationships

Overall, in relationships with people, we quickly sense when there’s something happening that we don’t understand. In Gestalt we say we are unable to ‘form a figure’. A tense exchange with a partner or an unusually friendly greeting from a colleague sets us to wonder ‘what’s going on?’.

Even our own reaction to an event may take us by surprise. Why am I so hurt those old school friends that I have neglected for years (and with whom I do not want to revive the relationship) did not include me in a recent reunion? What is going on with me?  What’s that about? We know our understanding of the situation is incomplete.. we don’t know exactly what’s bothering us..and that bothers us.

Making Meaning in organisations

Indeed, there are myriad experiences and encounters in organisations which we don’t understand – we can’t make sense of what is happening. Mostly, life is too short. We set aside our uncertainty, disturbance or confusion to get on with stuff that we can make sense of.

However, we need to know ‘what’s going on’, it matters to us. Therefore, when we don’t understand straight away, often we speculate about causes: what our own and others’ behaviour means and then attribute a plausible explanation. For most of us, at a personal level, uncertainty and ambiguity in relationships are uncomfortable.

“Did I do something wrong?” “Is he fed up with me or is something else bothering him?” “Nobody commented on my proposal – does that mean they don’t agree or don’t understand….what am I supposed to make of that?”

Usually, by carefully feeling our way back through the fine threads of our experience – what is now often called mindful enquiry - we discover something we need or want that the recent experience has re-activated. As a result, we take time to enquire: why did I react like that? Why is he behaving like that? What was that all about?

An individual example:

I heard that there had been ‘a difficult conversation’ at the morning’s business meeting due partly because Sales and Finance both needed extra support. The meeting discussed which of them would be the priority. The relationship between the Sales and Finance Managers was normally warm and supportive but on this occasion, there was tension.

Afterwards, I had an unconnected reason to call the Sales Manager and asked about the business meeting. She was clearly troubled but said that the meeting concluded that finance was the first priority. I asked:

"How are you feeling now?".

She replies:

“I’m not happy, I’m bothered but I really shouldn’t be, I can’t make sense of it all” 

I tried making meaning:

“Here’s what I imagine might be happening. You don’t usually ask for help. This time, you asked and you would only ask if you were desperate. Still, your need was set aside. I suspect you feel let down and abandoned?” 

Next, the Sales Manager starts to cry and it is clear that 'the figure has formed'. She realises that what this has been about for her.

This is an example of how things change after making meaning. The experience is:

“It all makes sense” – “That’s what’s happening”.

We ‘make meaning’ and the realisation enables us to ‘let go’ of what was bothering us and create the opportunity to do something about it.

In this case, I moved on to the third core function of the Gestalt Organisational Development consultant – to encourage contact, suggesting that she talk to the Operations Manager to clear the air and find some additional practical solution.

Finally, making sense of individual relationships and experience is only one part of the story. Frequently, teams and whole organisations are driven by priorities and ambitions that operate without being recognised or acknowledged.

A team example:

A Divisional Finance Director of a global energy company and his team are holding their regular monthly meeting in preparation for presenting the management accounts to the Executive Committee.

The conversation is all about how the production and marketing directors will respond to the figures. Everyone’s attention is on how the figures can be presented in such a way as to make the division look good. The intention is to avoid any sense of failure or anyone feeling ‘exposed’. The underlying assumption is that only good news is allowed and nothing can look negative.

So no-one in the finance team is doing the job of analysing the numbers to understand what story they are telling about internal performance or external market conditions.

The external Organisational Development consultant (attending at the invitation of the Finance Director) points this out and says:

“here’s what I see going on right now. He makes meaning”.

The response is a barrage of defensive justifications and interpretations.

The consultant provides feedback on this also:

"So now this is what I see going on”

…another meaning-making intervention.

He invites the team to review the pattern of activity and what purpose and intentions their approach might reflect.

It took some time and further interventions from outside the organisation for the team to recognise and accept the ‘only good news’ culture. Once that change of perspective had taken root, it brought to light serious performance problems that had been covered up. That led to changes in the financial reporting process…and in the Finance team!

Making meaning - a core function of the OD consultant

Enabling an individual, team or organisation to notice and make sense of ‘what is going on right now’ is a critical first step in stimulating change. Sometimes it is all that is needed. Once the new figure has formed, and the organisation has recognised what is happening, it finds the will and the capability to adapt and succeed.

So, Making Meaning is at the core of Gestalt intervention. Making Meaning consists of naming what is going on when it is being ignored or is not recognised. At its most obvious, it’s naming ‘the elephant in the room’. For the Gestalt oriented OD consultant, it is often something much less obvious. It starts with acute, detailed observation and attention to internal experience. A good intervention, in most cases, encourages figure formation as a collective endeavour.

“There’s something interesting happening at the moment, I don’t know what it is…let’s see if we can work it out between us”.

The first article in this series of three focuses on awareness as the starting point for effective Organisational Development interventions. Additionally, the article is based on the Gestalt in OD workshops that Mayvin runs at the Gestalt Centre London. This piece about ‘making meaning’ shows how detailed noticing, combined with curiosity and often a bit of courage, enables the next step, which is supporting the client in recognising more about what is going on. Often, but not always, this can be something uncomfortable or difficult.

To conclude, the final piece of this series will be about encouraging and supporting contact. In the Gestalt approach, contact is a powerful concept and transformative experience that is fundamental to personal and organisational change.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Join the conversation on Twitter @MayvinLtd and @TonyFraser or contact us here.

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