Coaching, in essence, is a journey of change.
That change is brought about through navigating layers of experience, raising awareness, and taking action to arrive at transformative change.
Over the years, I have found one particular framework, the Gestalt Cycle of Experience, to be particularly useful for exploring the emergent style of change that clients of transformative coaching tend to go through.
The framework offers an invaluable approach to exploring how individuals recognise their needs, take action to meet them, and ultimately experience growth and satisfaction.
In this article, we unpick this framework, exploring its stages from sensation to withdrawal. We consider its role as a powerful lens to consider coaching sessions and the coaching journey itself. And we uncover how this cycle can be disrupted and left incomplete, shedding light on defence mechanisms such as desensitisation, retroflection, confluence, egotism, projection, and deflection that can hamper progress.
Furthermore, following on from my recent article on the topic of Biesser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change, we investigate the connection between these two concepts, exploring briefly how self-acceptance can foster organic, meaningful change.
Finally, we contemplate emergence as a form of change within this cycle, leading to profound insights and transformation.
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience in a Nutshell
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience, rooted in Gestalt Therapy, provides a comprehensive model for understanding how we navigate experiences.
The model represents the fluid, non-linear process through which we continuously interact with our environment, addressing needs as they arise.
In brief, the model is made up of seven stages that we pass through in order to satisfy a need.
The stages are:
This stage marks the inception of the cycle. Here, individuals encounter raw, unfiltered stimuli from their environment, triggering a preliminary recognition of a potential need or desire. This might manifest physically (such as feeling thirsty), emotionally (such as a sense of loneliness), or cognitively (for instance, curiosity about a particular topic).
As the stimuli intensify, individuals progress to the stage of awareness. This transition involves processing the sensation and understanding its implications. It’s at this point that a vague sensation, such as discomfort, crystallises into a clearer need or desire – for instance, recognising that discomfort as hunger.
Having recognised a need or desire, individuals then prepare to address it. This mobilisation might involve physical preparations (like looking for food when hungry), cognitive ones (such as planning a conversation when feeling challenged by a colleague), or emotional ones (like mentally preparing to explore a challenging topic).
The mobilisation culminates in taking steps to meet the identified need or desire. This stage encompasses a range of potential actions tailored to the specific need at hand – from eating to address hunger, to initiating a conversation to alleviate loneliness, or researching a challenging topic.
This stage denotes the actual meeting of the need. It represents the moment of connection between the individual and their environment, leading to the satisfaction of the identified need or desire.
Post-contact, individuals experience a sense of satisfaction or relief. Having addressed their need or desire, they often feel a sense of accomplishment, contentment, or relaxation.
Finally, after the satisfaction of the need or desire, individuals withdraw, returning to a state of relative equilibrium. This stage offers an opportunity for rest and reflection before the cycle recommences with a new sensation.
The phase between these sensations is known in Gestalt Therapy as the “fertile void” since so much possibility lies in this moment.
Each stage of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience sheds light on a critical component of how individuals perceive and respond to their needs.
Together, these stages present a holistic picture of human experience, providing a dynamic lens through which coaches can help clients understand themselves and their experiences.
The understanding of this cycle can serve as a roadmap for coaches, but it’s crucial to note that this process is not always smooth. People frequently encounter blocks or interruptions that leave their cycle of experience incomplete, leading to unresolved issues or ‘unfinished business’.
Later in this article, we will explore the common blocks to completing the Gestalt Cycle of Experience.
This is where the art of coaching is particularly instrumental.
Indeed, we could say that all coaching is about enabling clients to reflect on and complete cycles of experience, whether these be short-term goals or the longer term life issues.
The Origins of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience is a central tenet of Gestalt Therapy, which was developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Fritz and Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman.
Fritz and Laura Perls were both psychoanalytically trained therapists who found traditional psychoanalysis too limiting in its focus. Paul Goodman, a writer and social critic, contributed significantly to the theoretical foundation of Gestalt Therapy. Their collaboration resulted in the development of a holistic therapeutic approach that considers the totality of human experience.
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience was conceptualised as a model to describe the dynamic process of human interaction with the environment and is based on the observation that individuals continuously cycle through stages of sensation, awareness, mobilisation, action, contact, satisfaction, and withdrawal as they respond to arising needs.
The Cycle of Experience is designed to illustrate this fluid process and can help coaches work with clients to recognise and address interruptions or ‘unfinished business’ that may arise within the cycle.
A very simple example of this might be an individual who is studying when they notice a gnawing feeling in their stomach (sensation). Being a common daily experience they immediately recognise that they are hungry (awareness) and start wondering what to eat for lunch (mobilisation). They get up from their desk and head to a local cafe where they order a panini (action). As they bite into the panini they experience a delightful pleasure (contact) until they have finished it and no longer feel hungry (satisfaction). At this point, they leave the cafe to continue studying (withdrawal).
If only all change and all cycles of experience were that simple. If they were, of course, coaches would be out of jobs!
The Role of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience in Coaching
In a coaching context, the Gestalt Cycle provides an insightful framework for helping a client understand their needs, behaviours, and experiences.
Coaches can utilise this cycle to help with traditional coaching aims such as setting goals, plan actions, and evaluating outcomes. However, it is even more useful for navigating complex change in which the client is learning and changing through a process of emergence rather than cause-and-effect planning.
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience can be used to explore the client’s current experience that they have come to coaching for but it can equally be used to explore the emerging process within the coaching session itself.
We often think of this as there and then and here and now use of the model.
There and Then
For example, by helping the client identify a stage where the client has become stuck or interrupted in their wider life context, the client can gain valuable insights into the nature of their experience.
For example, a client might repeatedly reach the stage of mobilisation—considering various career paths or avenues for growth, yet never seem to take concrete action.
This consistent pattern might indicate a fear of failure, a lack of self-confidence, or other deep-seated barriers.
By recognising the broader patterns of interruption in the cycle, the coach can help the client explore and address these larger issues, thereby facilitating movement towards completion of the cycle and resolution of the stuck process.
Here and Now
At the same time, however, the Gestalt Cycle can also unfold within the coaching process itself, either within a single session or over several sessions.
During a coaching session, the cycle might commence with the client and coach sensing something about a particular issue (sensation). This might be about the topic of the coaching but it could also be about the coaching relationship itself.
Through conversation and questioning, the client and coach together begin to clarify the sensation until some sense of focus emerges (awareness). Again, this could be about the coaching topic, but it could also be about the relationship – perhaps the coach recognises in themselves some countertransference that is leading them to feel intimidated.
Thus multiple circles of experience are at play between these two people.
Further exploration should eventually lead to mobilisation as the coach and the client agree the way forward – in a sense, the contracting phase.
The coaching then begins to address the main goal of the coaching, and the coach and client make progress in addressing the theme of the coaching (action).
As the coaching continues, learning, decision, and awareness emerge enabling the client to become clear in their next steps (contact).
As the coach and client feel they have gained what they need from the coaching session (satisfaction), they begin to end the coaching session (withdrawal).
This represents a sprint through the here and now of the cycle within the coaching but, more often than not, this will emerge through a process of false starts, reversals, new ideas, refined awareness, changing approaches and so on, leaving the cycle to unfold over a whole coaching journey.
An awareness of this on the part of the coach can offer a powerful framework for understanding what is happening in the coaching. Coaches can become anxious when coaching does not follow a linear path by recognising the nonlinear nature of this cycle can help to stay present with what is emerging for the client and within the coaching relationship.
Emergence and the Gestalt Cycle of Experience
In the context of Gestalt therapy and coaching, emergence is a key concept. It refers to the natural, spontaneous process through which new insights, understandings, or behaviours surface and become integrated into an individual’s experience.
This notion is tied to the idea of change as a self-organising principle – it’s not forced or contrived but arises organically from within the individual’s own system.
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience provides a potent framework for understanding and facilitating emergence in the coaching process. Each stage of the cycle – sensation, awareness, mobilisation, action, contact, satisfaction, and withdrawal – offers an opportunity for something new and unexpected to come into consciousness.
For instance, in the initial stages of sensation and awareness, a client may become mindful of a certain feeling, thought, or desire they hadn’t previously recognised.
As the client moves through mobilisation and action, they might discover new ways of responding to or addressing their needs. In the stages of contact and satisfaction, the client may experience novel interactions or responses from their environment.
And in the stage of withdrawal, the client has a chance to reflect on their experience and integrate these new insights into their overall understanding of themselves and their interactions with the world.
The cycle, seen in this way, allows change to emerge in a fluid, organic manner, rather than being imposed from the outside or forced through sheer willpower.
The individual is not trying to create change per se, but rather is allowing change to emerge naturally from their ongoing experience.
This approach, aligned with the Paradoxical Theory of Change, can lead to more authentic, sustainable change as it arises from the individual’s own perceptions, experiences, and responses.
In a coaching context, the coach can facilitate emergent change by guiding the client through the stages of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience and providing support and space for new insights and behaviours to surface.
This involves creating a safe, accepting environment, asking probing questions, providing reflective feedback, and encouraging the client to fully engage with their experience at every stage of the cycle.
Through this process, the coach helps the client to navigate their own path towards understanding and change.
Incomplete Cycles of Experience
I mentioned earlier that we would explore the challenge of incomplete cycles and, I would argue that, from a Gestalt perspective, this is the primary purpose of coaching – to complete, or let go, of unmet needs.
Ideally, individuals would progress smoothly through the stages of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience, satisfying their needs or desires effectively and efficiently.
However, reality is often more complex. Many factors can interrupt the seamless flow of the cycle, leading to what Gestalt Therapy refers to as ‘unfinished business’ or incomplete cycles.
Lack of Awareness: Sometimes, individuals might not fully recognise or understand their sensations, and therefore, the needs or desires arising from them. For instance, they might misinterpret physical exhaustion as laziness, overlooking the need for rest.
Societal or Cultural Norms: These can also prevent individuals from progressing through the cycle. For example, societal expectations might discourage someone from expressing their emotions openly, causing them to suppress their need for emotional connection.
Internalised Beliefs: These are often unconscious, ingrained thoughts that dictate how individuals perceive and respond to their needs. For instance, someone might believe that asking for help equates to weakness, leading them to struggle alone rather than seeking support.
Fear or Anxiety: The prospect of mobilising and taking action can be intimidating, particularly when the need or desire at hand involves potential risk or vulnerability. This fear can halt progression through the cycle.
Past Trauma or Experiences: Previous negative experiences or traumas can affect how an individual responds to their needs. They might avoid certain stages of the cycle to prevent reliving painful memories or feelings.
Environmental Constraints: Sometimes, the environment itself may hinder an individual’s ability to act upon their needs. This can be in the form of limited resources, societal restrictions, or other external obstacles.
All these factors can disrupt the Gestalt Cycle of Experience, leaving it incomplete.
Such incomplete cycles often manifest as unresolved feelings, persisting issues, or recurring patterns of behaviour that impede personal growth and wellbeing.
Thus, understanding and addressing these interruptions is a crucial part of facilitating effective movement through the cycle.
The Role of Defence Mechanisms
I have often described unmet needs as being like a hammer that keeps knocking at one’s head, always reminding you that it’s not yet resolved.
The discomfort created by this knocking forces us to create defence mechanisms that allow us to continue with life despite that unmet need.
In other words, if we fixated on that unmet need, nothing else would get done. But this is clearly not sustainable.
Even the most lovelorn individual figures out how to continue to eat and drink and go to the bathroom! Somehow, they build defence mechanisms that allow them to continue functioning.
The problem is that these defence mechanisms, when too effective, can also curtail our ability to meet needs that are within our control.
Again, I would argue that this is a prime role for coaching.
Individuals often employ various defence mechanisms to cope with unmet needs or incomplete cycles of experience.
By understanding these mechanisms, coaches can help clients recognise and address the barriers that impede their progression through the Gestalt Cycle.
This is a mechanism where individuals numb or dull their responses to certain sensations or emotions, essentially disconnecting from the intensity of the experience. For example, a person might stifle their emotional response to repeated disappointment, which can prevent them from recognising and addressing their need for reliability or consistency in a relationship.
This occurs when an individual does to themselves what they would like to do to others or vice versa. For example, someone might self-criticise harshly as a reflection of their internalised judgement of others, blocking their need for self-compassion and acceptance.
This refers to a lack of differentiation between the self and others, causing individuals to lose touch with their personal needs and desires. For instance, someone might consistently prioritise a friend’s preferences over their own, leading to an inability to recognise and fulfil their individual needs.
Egotism, or self-absorption, can create a barrier to the healthy completion of the cycle. When someone is excessively focused on their own needs and desires, they may neglect to consider the consequences of their actions on others, potentially leading to conflicts or strained relationships.
As mentioned earlier, projection involves attributing one’s own feelings, thoughts, or impulses to another person. This can prevent an individual from acknowledging and addressing their personal needs, leaving their cycle of experience incomplete.
This mechanism involves diverting attention away from oneself, usually by focusing on others or on irrelevant topics. This can prevent the recognition of personal needs and desires, hindering progression through the cycle.
Each of these mechanisms can interrupt the flow of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience, causing individuals to get stuck at a particular stage. Identifying and addressing these defence mechanisms can help individuals progress through their cycle more effectively, ultimately meeting their needs and resolving their ‘unfinished business’.
The Paradoxical Theory of Change and the Gestalt Cycle
The Paradoxical Theory of Change is a fundamental principle of Gestalt Therapy. The theory suggests that authentic change occurs not by trying to be what we are not, but by fully embracing what we are in the present moment. In other words, by becoming more deeply aware and accepting of our current thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, we set the stage for organic, lasting change.
The connection between the Paradoxical Theory of Change and the Gestalt Cycle of Experience is potent. It offers individuals a means to navigate through the cycle more effectively, particularly when encountering blocks or interruptions.
When applied to the cycle, the paradoxical theory encourages individuals to deeply acknowledge and accept their current stage in the cycle without rushing to move forward or striving to be at a different stage. This acceptance could mean recognising one’s sensation without hastily trying to make sense of it, or allowing oneself to stay in the mobilisation stage without pressing to take immediate action.
In doing so, the individual creates an environment that promotes self-understanding, reduces self-judgement, and minimises the influence of defence mechanisms that may hinder progress.
For instance, acknowledging and accepting a sensation of restlessness (rather than ignoring or suppressing it through desensitisation) allows the individual to become more aware of their underlying need, possibly leading to more effective mobilisation and action.
By fostering an atmosphere of self-acceptance, the paradoxical theory facilitates the natural flow of the cycle. It reduces the likelihood of interruptions and promotes the healthy completion of the cycle, leading to authentic, meaningful change.
In a coaching context, a coach can facilitate this process by encouraging clients to fully acknowledge and accept their current experiences. By reinforcing the client’s understanding and acceptance of their present state, the coach can support the client’s journey through the cycle and, ultimately, their process of change.
10 Practical Approaches to Use the Cycle of Experience in Coaching
Coaches can integrate aspects of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience into their practice without necessarily becoming full-fledged Gestalt practitioners.
Here are ten practical ways to do this:
- Promote Self-Awareness: Encourage clients to tune into their physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This mindfulness can help identify the initial stages of the cycle and provide a basis for further exploration.
- Encourage Expression: Allow clients to express their feelings, thoughts, and desires fully and openly. This creates a safe space for exploration and helps progress through the cycle.
- Identify Blocks: Help clients to identify where they get stuck in the cycle. Is it at the stage of awareness, mobilisation, or elsewhere? Recognising these blocks is the first step to overcoming them.
- Explore Defence Mechanisms: If clients consistently find themselves unable to complete the cycle, explore possible defence mechanisms they might be employing. Help them understand these mechanisms and how they may be interrupting their cycle.
- Reframe ‘Failures’: Reframe incomplete cycles or ‘failures’ to meet needs as learning opportunities and ways to understand oneself better. This can remove some of the stigma or fear associated with perceived failure and promote a more positive approach to addressing needs.
- Support Action Planning: Once a need has been identified, support clients in developing an action plan to address it. This corresponds with the mobilisation and action stages of the cycle.
- Promote Self-Acceptance: Encourage clients to fully accept their present state, in line with the Paradoxical Theory of Change. This acceptance can facilitate movement through the cycle and promote authentic change.
- Celebrate Completion: When a client successfully navigates through the cycle and satisfies a need, celebrate this accomplishment. This reinforces the value of completing the cycle and encourages further progression.
- Facilitate Reflection: After the completion of a cycle, facilitate a reflective conversation. This helps the client internalise the learning from the experience and prepares them for future cycles.
- Use Visual Aids: Consider using visual aids to help clients understand the Gestalt Cycle of Experience. This can demystify the process and provide a clear structure for clients to refer back to.
These practical tips, while not exhaustive, provide a robust foundation for integrating the Gestalt Cycle of Experience into coaching practice, fostering a deeper, more effective coaching process.
Conclusion: The Power of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience in Coaching
The Gestalt Cycle of Experience, steeped in the rich tradition of Gestalt Therapy, offers an extraordinarily valuable framework for coaching. With its sequential stages – sensation, awareness, mobilisation, action, contact, satisfaction, and withdrawal – the cycle provides a roadmap for understanding and facilitating personal growth and change.
As we’ve discussed, coaches can use the cycle to help clients identify and understand their own patterns, behaviours, and defence mechanisms that may be blocking their progress. This increased self-awareness, coupled with understanding of where they may be getting stuck in their cycles, can empower clients to address their ‘unfinished business’, meet their needs more effectively, and experience healthier interactions with their environment.
Understanding the Gestalt Cycle of Experience can also deepen coaches’ understanding of their clients’ experiences. By recognising the stages of the cycle, coaches can more effectively support their clients through the complex process of change.
Whether it’s helping clients articulate their sensations, encouraging them to become aware of their needs, or supporting them in mobilising and taking action, the cycle offers coaches a practical, flexible tool for facilitating personal growth.
Furthermore, we’ve seen how defence mechanisms such as desensitisation, retroflection, confluence, egotism, projection, and deflection can interrupt the flow of the cycle and leave needs unmet. An understanding of these mechanisms can help coaches identify the causes of ‘stuck’ cycles and support clients in developing healthier patterns of behaviour.
The connection between the Gestalt Cycle of Experience and the Paradoxical Theory of Change emphasises the power of self-acceptance in fostering authentic change. By embracing their current experiences, clients can navigate their cycles more effectively, allowing for change to emerge naturally from their own systems.
In the end, the Gestalt Cycle of Experience is not just a theoretical concept but a living process, one that unfolds in real-time within each coaching session and across the coaching relationship.
As such, it offers a dynamic, client-centred approach to coaching – an approach that respects the unique journey of each client and supports them in becoming more fully themselves.
By integrating the insights and practices associated with the cycle, coaches can enrich their work, deepen their impact, and contribute to the ongoing growth and evolution of their clients.