The gestalt theory of learning

Human functioning and behaviour

© Peter Bluckert

Needs organise our field of perception

Gestalt psychology is a needs-based approach to understanding human functioning and behaviour. Kurt Lewin’s (1952) research demonstrated that our needs, and the tensions that arise out of them, influence both what we perceive and what we act on.

‘Our perceptual process is not random. It is structured and contains meaning’

Certain things stand out at any given time for a reason. For example, if you have a young family you may start to notice which public facilities are child-friendly and which are difficult to negotiate. Beforehand you probably didn’t notice any of this. If you fracture a leg and need to use crutches you will quickly become aware of which buildings have easy access and which don’t.

Lewin captured the essence of this in the following way – current needs organise our perception of the field and our engagement within it. We see what we need to see and what is both important and relevant to us at the time. This is one of Gestalt’s core organising principles.

Self-regulation, the figure-ground process and creative adjustment


From a Gestalt perspective, people have an inherent capacity to stay healthy through effective self-regulation – the natural process of maintaining a balance between gratifying needs and eliminating tensions.

When we meet our needs and reduce or eliminate tensions, we re-establish a sense of equilibrium: when we don’t, there is incompleteness and a sense of something being unfinished. We’re off balance.

At the physical level this is self-evident. When we feel hungry it becomes an increasingly dominant figure against the background (ground) of whatever else we are doing at the time. We experience a state of temporary imbalance until that need is met, when it then dissipates with a consequential withdrawal of interest and energy.

This process was first described in Goldstein’s (Hall & Lindzey, 1957) research where he introduced the concept of self-regulation.

According to Goldstein there is a biological law of balance inherent in human nature and we are programmed to move towards the best form possible to find that balance.

At a later point Goldstein coined the term, self-actualisation, which he defined as the inherent drive to fulfil one’s potential.

Maslow, a student of Goldstein, later developed the concept and conducted research into the common characteristics of people he identified as self-actualised according to a fixed set of criteria.

Creative adjustment

Whilst the concept of self-regulation originally referred to physiological processes of survival and self-preservation, it gave rise to another important Gestalt concept, creative adjustment, which is the notion that people are always seeking to do the best they can in any given circumstances to meet their needs, find solutions to their problems, achieve goals, and derive satisfaction from their lives.

This wider perspective takes into account that a person’s equilibrium is in constant flux and can be disturbed by both internal and external phenomena.

  • We exist physically, emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually in a constant flow between equilibrium and disequilibrium.
  • Changes in our family and social lives, transitions at work, loss of important people, deterioration in health, financial misfortune, all threaten and disturb our state of being.
  • The nature of how we self-regulate to deal with these challenges is central to Gestalt theory and is known as the figure-ground process. This is another of Gestalt’s core organising principles.

The figure-ground process

The figure

A figure is whatever occupies the foreground of your interest right now.  It might be a sensation, a thought or feeling. It might equally be a challenge to overcome, an issue to be resolved or, a problem that you’re worried about.

A figure can be what you are looking at, listening to or playing with. It’s whatever is taking your attention right now.

What’s figural to you could be exciting or pleasing, for example if you’ve just heard some good news. Or it might be causing you irritation, tension or anxiety.

If you’ve ever been a participant in a Gestalt workshop you might have been asked by the facilitator –

So, what’s figural for you right now?

They were inviting you to describe what was on top for you at that time.

The well-used group work exercise known as the check-in, and which I used in my personal introduction to my book Gestalt Coaching: Right Here, Right Now, has a similar purpose – to surface what’s important in the moment and begin to make connection.

Similarly, many helping professionals in the fields of psychotherapy, counselling and social work are taught early on in their training to start where the client is.

The Ground

In a literal sense, ground, is simply everything else – the internal and external world that for the moment is not in the foreground of your attention.

Ground is the context from which figures emerge. In a deeper sense your ground includes your bedrock, your ways of seeing and acting in the world, your habitual patterns, your beliefs, values and assumptions and the way you construct your reality. Some of this is available to you and some of it is not.

This bedrock, your experiential ground, is the lens that filters what you see and don’t see and how you then make sense of new events or figures.  If, for example, your ground includes a belief that you can never understand complex theories then you might quickly give up on learning new concepts.

Similarly, if you have always believed that you just cannot do athletic sport then you might subsequently avoid opportunities to try out new physical activities. And, if you received regular criticism when you were young, you may now as an adult, struggle to hear feedback because you interpret anything negative as intolerable criticism or attack.

In other words our ground has a major bearing on how we relate to current figures and can be the source of much confusion, misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Exploring the potential for assisting a leadership team

During an assignment in an African country I was asked to explore the potential for assisting the leadership team of a significant local company.

This country was only fifteen years out from a period of civil conflict that had cost the lives of many people.

Both sides of the conflict were represented on the leadership team.

The leadership team were committed to growing the company and making it an exemplar employer, creating opportunities for young people to get employment and build their careers.

They knew they had to find ways of working together despite their pasts.

During a series of one-one diagnostic meetings between myself and each team member, the conversations went backwards and forwards between today’s figures, their business challenges, their ground and, the unresolved feelings arising from the conflicts.

They were trying to operate over the top of their unfinished business, and for most of the time doing remarkably well, and yet, inevitably, finding themselves sucked back into what remained unresolved in their ground.

Resolving today’s issues versus transformational change

This story reveals in a stark way how vital it can be to understand as much as possible about the wider context, including history, if you are to make sense of current events and behaviour and be in a position to be helpful.

Without that appreciation it is simply impossible to see how present time problems and issues may be a re-activation of complex, unfinished experience.

When you take this more holistic approach, even the meaning of small events can be revealed and produce profound ‘aha’ moments.

In the bigger picture, learning and change has to do with changing the ground, not just dealing with current figures.  Otherwise people may be consigned to the very same figures emerging over and over again.

Healing, growth, and learning requires a change in our ground. This explains why transformational development requires working at greater depth and often over a longer period.

Dealing with today’s issues and problems is important in providing help with challenges, decisions and actions. It’s the problem-solving dimension to coaching.

Helping leaders solve current problems whilst also developing them as individuals reveals a far greater transformational potentiality.

This requires a change in their ground, the substance of who they are.

Unfinished actions and situations as sources of tension

Gestalt psychologists were interested in the whole aspect of unfinished business as a source of tension in the self-regulation process. Bluma Zeigarnick’s (1927) research showed that unfinished actions and situations were better remembered than finished ones and produced what came to be known as tension systems.

When people are unable to effectively regulate their tension system and achieve resolution, there can be negative consequences for health and well-being. Here are just a few examples of psychological tension systems.

Table 1.2

Examples of psychological tension systems

Pressure, demands and the resulting stress from heavy work schedules, tight timescales and imminent deadlines
Powerful feelings arising from unfinished situations
A need to understand something, and not being able to
A dilemma or difficult decision
A strong feeling of injustice or unfairness
Feeling unable to act because the timing is wrong, the situation is complex and we don’t want to make a mistake
Having to wait on a decision or event elsewhere that impacts our life in a significant way
An anxiety-provoking conversation yet to happen
Relationship issues or a lack of relationships

Tension as a source of energy and motivation

Any and all of these have the potential to immobilise people and produce a profound sense of stuckness. When they are present, and especially when they carry a strong emotional charge, it produces discomfort and the natural reaction is to want them to go away.

People sometimes refer to putting their unresolved issues into boxes and hiding them away. It’s an example of creative adjustment – the best they can do at the time.

New needs competing for attention

To compound things further, there will always be new needs competing for attention, some of which may be just too complex and emotionally loaded for people to reach closure sequentially or speedily.

These new needs may contain high levels of significance, such as when we feel let down by a colleague or, we fail to land a job that we believed was ours by right.

Working with unfinished situations

In the work context, unfinished business is a critical factor in both individual and team performance yet, because there is rarely enough support to face into it, a belief can take root that it’s not even possible or worth trying.

People come to the conclusion that they just have to learn to live with it or leave. Competent, high-achieving people leave jobs each day due to unresolved issues with their organisations, typically around their relationship with their boss.

Some teams are sinking under the weight of their historic unfinished business.

Understandably, the prospect of addressing unfinished business is daunting to many people. They fear that if they lift the lid, the floodgates will open.

On the other hand, just as crises can provide the opportunity for change, unfinished situations and the tensions arising from them can provide a source of energy and fuel for change when people feel able to face them.

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