Figure emergenti

Interview "Theory, groups and organisation"

Michal Lewandowski, IAK Poland - Interviewed by Piergiulio Poli

Piergiulio Poli, Michal Lewandowski

Within a bit of research I am carrying out on the specificity of our School I wanted to meet a gestalt practitioner from a different country. with Michal we look into the role of theory in group teaching, the process of identification and dis-identification with the group, and the training function of an enlarged professional community during the training of psychotherapists/counsellors and coaches.   

Michal Lewandowski – Gestalt practitioner in the area of therapy, executive coaching and organizational change. Educated in Gesalt Therapy and OD in Krakow and Torino. International trainer and coach, managing director and owner of IAK Polska – part of global training & development company – IAK International. Particularly focused on the resilience  of leders, teams and systems. 


Piergiulio: We are reconstructing the history of the school and trying to come up with theory that represents the school. To do that is important for me to talk to you, because you belong to a different tradition of Gestalt. You are active as a professional and as a trainer in a context that is different compared to the Italian one.  In the old days our school had a tradition of producing little theory. What is your experience in the training institute of Cracow where you were trained?   

Michal: I have a variety of experiences in styles of teaching Gestalt. For me the best one are process based, working from the group process and not delivering theory itself but letting theory emerge from what is going on in the group. This is a way of working that is very specific to Gestalt therapy and it differentiates us from the rest of the world (I mean schools). Maybe people working in the Lowen - Bioenergetic tradition use a method similar to ours,but they are much more focused on body, while our approach is more relational. Psychodynamic schools in general do not work straight from the process with little theory and for sure that’s not typical for cognitive behavioral psychotherapy as well. For me that process based way of teaching, where we use our personal and group experience „here and now” to build an awareness and link it to the Gestalt theory, is a part of my identity as a Gestaltist. At the same time I see the way we teach gestalt as very challenging. 

The challenge is on both sides, teacher and students. As a leaders in training group have to be really good, which means we need to have well internalized Gestalt theory. I have met quite a few teachers but just some of them use the group and the process to teach gestalt: a few are really able to connect what is going on in the group and the theory. It’s a matter of giving a wider meaning to that experience, how it relates to gestalt, how it relates with different aspects of gestalt therapy. There is some danger in working from the process and avoiding theory. At some level I can feel the difference between the two types of leaders during training and worshops.


Piergiulio: and what is the point of working in a group without basically teaching Gestalt? 

Michael: Of course the aim is teaching gestalt therapy. I perceive Gestalt Therapy as an approach you have to experience deeply to feel and understand it. It requires from trainers an ability to merge an on-going experience with theoretical background. This is a kind of paradox: gestalt trainers need to internalize theory but at the same time need to be free of it, too. If you do group work without theory, you do something that is self development, it might be even therapy, but you are not giving a stated meaning to what is happening in the process in a Gestalt perspective. You know, during the training many students say: I had a great experience, a great breakthrough but what the hell is Gestalt? The great art of teaching Gestalt is to know, when to give a space for building a personal meaning and when to deliver a theory to give a wider meaning.


P: What is the role of reading in the training of gestalt leaders? Where do they learn the theoretical bits of gestalt?  

M: I think is a constant process of development. You read, you lead groups and you see other people teaching: all adds up. You know, this multidimensionality of development in the Gestalt is not easy in Polish reality. There are few books about Gestalt Therapy in Polish language and many Gestalt leaders in Poland do not speak English,: it is really hard for them to get to deepen their knowledge in Gestalt. to follow the Gestalt Therapy development and evolution. They are very experienced trainers, but they are often unable to exchange their experience in a wider field. Maybe in Italy it is easier because Gestalt is more mainstream that in Poland.  


P: our tradition was not to read those books. That is bullshit, actually elephant shit. Books have little connection with that you do, think and feel. 

M: At the time of Perls I believe that was true, because current approach was totally different. I believe that was a good statement at the early stage of development in Gestalt Therapy, when the new approach had started to emerge. But it was good in those times not necessarily have to be adaptive after years.  Right now we have strong, vivid gestalt community around the world. Lot’s of people share their experience and thoughts and that can be very inspiring. Do not use that potential for me is like sticking to the old, outdated patterns. Of course we are always about what we feel and think, in that subjective reality. But for me Gestalt is also about meeting the others. It’s great and useful also in personal development as a Gestalt therapist first to get access your own emotions, become more aware. But then there are other people with their thoughts and feelings, their reality. We can meet them also by their writings. And we can build a strong identity of ourselves only in relation. Beside that meeting with other with their otherness, with differences and similarities, as well as creating an open community, are the main topics of our times, not only in Gestalt. Gestalt is not about isolation, is about connection. That relational aspect in Gestalt approach started to be very important and alive lately and i believe that’s our great strength as Gestaltists and it can be our important contribution in the current -more and more- divided world.  


P: Coming back to Gestalt teaching we work a lot with identification and dis-identification with trainees and group. It’s one of main tenets. Trainees ask themselves, am I the group? What I am I for this group? Are we functioning as a group, yet? 

M: yeah, my experiences are similar, I realize it as you ask it to me! I remember in my own training that aspect was very important: who am I for this group, where are we right now etc. I treat the group field as a crucial element in teaching gestalt and in leading gestalt groups any kind. Awareness of identification with the group is fundamental to the training process and also to any group processes. When you lead a self development group or when I teach gestalt coaching my aim is to support people to become aware of themselves but also to create the group. It is also useful for me to distinguish the two cases: teaching gestalt and teaching skills that are useful for personal development. There are similar and at the same time that aim at the back of my head create a small, but significant difference.


P: What is important to keep an eye on when you do teaching gestalt coaching? 

Leading groups has a lot to do with relations. Gestalt is relational. Leading a group is following the process, what is emerging. That awareness has to do with “where is the group right now?” In other words, what is the issue we are dealing with now; what is on the table and what is under the table; what we are talking about versus what we are not talking about. I teach this way of perception to coaches in the training institute. Individual processes in group and group process are parallel. We are meeting together and we are meeting in some common subject, for instance of intimacy, power, lost and so on. I’ve noticed that every group have their one main group issue that is explored during the time. It looks like that group theme is somehow important for developing a group identity. 

There are also differences in working with therapists and coaches: therapists have worked more on themselves, and at the beginning of a training program this is evident. Therapy students are aware from the beginning that they will be working deeply on themselves. Coaches at the beginning are more task oriented, in a “give me tools” attitude. But in a short time they start to appreciate the process. In the end the goals of psychotherapy and coaching are similar, we all work with people to help them grow. My experience is that if you are in contact with the group, and if you lead in an adequate way the difference between the two types of learning shrinks. I use a lot of myself in the group. For me that is part of Gestalt way of working.    

What is also in my mind in case of students in therapy school, in a process of learning you can see the crises at the second year, when some “resistance” comes up. People need to get through that moment of frustration. There is that phase you say “what the F..k is going on!” you have to find yourself in this kind of work. They need to feel safe in this environment, to be able to handle this type of experience. There need to be some implosion before the explosion. We have different situation in coaching school. When we have only one year process of learning, everything goes faster. There is a moment of frustration and doubts first at the beginning (“what that is all about?”) and then usually after 2/3 of program (“is that for me?”, “if I’m able to be a coach?”). And there is no time to stay for a long time in that frustration. It have to be managed by students quite quickly and trainers have to support them more than in therapy school. That’s how duration of school started to be important part of the field.  


P: Community around the school. Something typical of our school. We provide a community life around the learning of gestalt. We support people to become involved with the organization of conferences, doing projects in local community, contributing to the journal.  This environment provides a good ground for learning and experiencing especially to those people we identified as low-level narcissists as stated in the DSM definition…

M: Ahhhh (pain)… I loved the idea of supporting the growth of community around the school! At the same time i don’t have a good experience in it. In my native therapy school in Cracow it wasn’t working well. I find it as a consequence of a constant process of internal conflict… and because of that the power games were very relevant parts of this organization’s life. In that situation there was little space to build community. So many people more active as students quickly soaked up the atmosphere on the top. Some of them started to be very supportive to the status quo, others started to say “this school is a mess, a shitty place”. To build a community you need trust, openness, fresh air. Space for open discussion is fundamental, creating places where you can be authentically yourself, where you do not play games: that creates a community. To create that space in school there is a need to start from the top.  The situation in our Institute was not something unique. This state of the facts is quite common in NGO’s, too. There are loads of power games in this type of organizations, especially when they grow and the resources are limited; fights start. You need to have mature and wise leaders to manage that kind of energy. 


P: How did your leaders of the Cracow school managed this situation? 

M: I missed the presence of a community, from my perspective it was not possible to create it. I found myself in a situation that I did not like, I felt I was not in the position to change that situation so I left the School. That was also the perspective of other people, who then left that place as well. When I compare our case with other NGO’s, I notice that some people who have a longer story in the organization or there are on privileged place started to protect their position. From dome point of view it’s understandable, a leader of a school invested a lot of energy, time and motivation to establish and then manage a school. Leaders start to think that school is theirs, they feel like to own it! In consequence the leaders starts to be the main problem. There are no simple rules on how to manage a situation like this, that usually have a long history in particular organization and have developed over years. I believe the most efficient way is to prevent that. Leaders have to develop more awareness about this type of situations, keep in mind that it might happen to all of us


P: You are a consultant for many private organisations. Are there different ways private and NGO’s deal with deep-seated conflict and change of management.  


M: These are two different stories, definitely. In the private sector everything is more structured. Even in the idea of lack of formal structure the process of cooperation and leaders exchange is more structured. There are important goals to achieve, roles are more clear and the leader is the leader and people accept that more easily. There are power games obviously, but in my perception in general it creates less damage that in NGOs. When you are working in a private company, you have your place, your obligations to the company, and your position more or less dependent on your contribution, results of your work for the company. Leaders are questioned less often and there are mechanisms in place to change them (except the situation when the leader is the owner, but in that case we also have very clear situation about leadership). In we look at NGO environment, most of the time quite a few people want to take responsibility as a leader, but many people want to have a power.  That less complex structure of the organization gives also people the impression that they can become one and that power is more associated with relations with others than their contribution to success of the organization. In that sense NGO’s provide more occasions for internal power struggles. 


From my perspective and observation we may have more structure or less structure, but the whole organizational environment, including especially people’s attitudes, have to be tuned to the kind of organization we want to create. Creating a community based organization demands humble leadership; leaders, which are significantly more focus on a cooperation and community than on a power. It demands sharing leadership so we need people who able to take responsibility and able to move forward and do a step back, according to the situation. It requires a clear direction we want to follow together; clear rules accordance of which we will be operation; open and honest communication and respect to build trust. And what is crucial, that of course „I am I and you are you” and in some cases we will meet and in some of them not, but to create something significant and stable together we have to go beyond that and create the meaning and value of “Us”. “We” create that organization and we – community are that organization.  



P: thank you for your time!