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Interview "The shadow of the leader"

Peter Cole, Sierra Institute for Contemporary Gestalt Therapy - interview by Piergiulio Poli

Peter Cole, Piergiulio Poli

The three questions I made to Peter Cole come from reflections we exchaged during the last month (December 2016). These reflections deal with a type of disclosure work leaders do in Gestalt Therapy groups that Peter calls "working with the shadow of te leader". In 2013 Peter depicted this way of working in a now famous article published on Gestalt Review. The first question illustrates the work with the shadow of the leader bringing in an example from a very recent group session. The second question deals with the unquestioned theoretical and diagnostic ground that is present in therapeutical work. The third question deals with deliberateness, term which frequently appears in PHG but doesn’t find any specific treatment in current Gestalt literature.    

 Peter Cole is a gestalt therapy trainer and psychotherapist with 20+ years of experience in the field. Peter and his wife Daisy Reese are founders of the Sierra Institute for Contemporary Gestalt with offices in Sacramento and Berkeley. He is a Certified Group Psychotherapist and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry with UC Davis School of Medicine. He also has an interest in the psychology of money and co-authored two books on that subject. He is in the process of writing a book on Gestalt psychotherapy in groups.  


Piergiulio: in the article “In the shadow of the leader” you talk about how group members dynamically cooperate in keeping out of awareness unwanted or anxiety ridden actions and words. Each group member has some degree of awareness of this fact (i.e. becomes reflexive about words said inadvertently, experience a feeling, a sensation, have thoughts, do a slip of tongue, imagine something). Sharing this awareness could shed some light into the whole unfolding group process. What convinces individual, subgroups or couples to withhold or share awareness in a group? Have you got interesting examples?    

Peter: Frequently, group members have a very complex relationship with the leader.  The leader is the most crucial member of the group in that, without the leader, the group really cannot function.  If group members are invested in the group as a place of connection, growth and healing, they have a lot to lose if they "kill off" their leader.  Additionally, the leader has a great deal of power both help and hurt group members. His/her reactions, attention, praise, criticisms all carry a special weight within the group field.  So, one factor that inhibits awareness and dialogue is protecting the leader, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the group is protecting itself from the leader.

In a group last month a member looked very uncomfortable, and I thought it might have something to do with me.  I inquired about what was going on, and she told me that she was very angry with me about a message I had sent to the group after the Trump election.  I had sent an email saying that group members may well be upset and that the group is here as a support.  She, as a gay person of color was feeling very vulnerable after the election, but felt it inappropriate and manipulative for me to have sent the email out.  I was surprised at first, but felt it important to hear all that she was willing to say.  Others in the group lent support to her, and joined with their own feelings about my email.  When I felt that I had really practiced inclusion - had deeply listened, and practiced confirmation - letting her know what I heard and felt from her, then I practiced presence by speaking from my experience and taking responsibility.  I told her that on reflection, I had been deeply dis-regulated and put into a state of trauma on election night.  My email to the group had been couched in my reaching out to them, but underneath I was also reaching out for them, in my need for reassurance and connection.  Thus, I connected with the needs I had been perhaps projecting onto group members -- needs for reassurance and connection.  With this contact, the situation felt resolved.  


PG: The ground of a training group holds a number of relatively unquestioned theoretical and diagnostic affirmations along with established training practices. Both trainers and trainees for instance are loyal to mainstream professional organizations which developed their own way of framing anxiety, suffering and diagnosis. Do you explicitly talk about this ground with your trainees?        

P: Yes -- we talk about such things explicitly.  Of course we cannot know all that is going unquestioned!  Likely much more than we imagine!


PG: For linguistic reasons and editorial choices of translators in Italy we have a partial understanding of how Goodman uses the expression deliberateness in PHG. The word was often translated with intentionality, a concept rooted in phenomenology.  As I said before, what a person or a group makes figural at a certain moment in time dynamically relates with a constellation of unexpressed actions and words (ground).  Am I right in saying that deliberateness describes the emotional quality of what is surfacing into awareness? What do you think of deliberateness?  

P: In psychology, we are always pushing against theory in order to create new theory.  Any theory worth its salt is grounded in the tradition -- or else it is just wild.  In my view, Perls and Goodman were primarily pushing against Freud.  The deliberate is conscious (not a product of Freud's unconscious), it is chosen (not determined by psychic forces) and is an expression of free will.  Of course if the deliberate is figure, this relates to the ground of experience.  There is a process of awareness, or a flow of consciousness in which the field is felt in the body and in the emotions.  With sufficient support, awareness emerges -- the situation becomes clear -- and we can now choose.  Choosing with deliberateness is the taking of existential responsibility.  Gestalt therapy expands our windows of awareness so that we can chose with deliberateness.  This is of course no guarantee that we will choose rightly -- but we have found that greater awareness tends to support more integrative and courageous choices.  So yes -- I think well of deliberateness -- I think well of choosing.  And even though there are many forces at work with which we are not yet aware, I prefer to think of myself and my clients as responsible free agents.