The Gestalt Cycle of the Experience (COE): A Coaching Model For Change
Awareness of ourselves and awareness of our surroundings equals the capacity to make informed choices about how we are and what we do as each moment unfolds.
— John Carter, GestaltOSD Center
Clients come to coaching for many reasons, from learning to delegate more effectively to thinking more strategically. However, ultimately the motivation for coaching is whatever clients want to change as a result of working with a coach. As coaches, we probe to ensure that the desire for the change is compelling enough for our clients to stay motivated throughout their engagements. The coach’s role is to champion and challenge their clients as they meet their goals.
What tools might the coach use to support their clients in making change and becoming more aware of habitual patterns of thinking and doing? One useful tool is the Gestalt Cycle of Experience (COE), which has been defined as a “gestalt; that is, a coherent picture and holistic way of defining healthy adaptation and functioning.” In more basic terms, the Cycle of Experience is a way to track the natural process of change and the factors that get in the way and may derail that change. There may be conscious and unconscious resistance to change, despite the deep desire for shifts in ways of being and doing.
The COE has evolved in its uses and applications since Fritz Perls first developed it as the Cycle of Awareness in the late 1940s as a tool for working with his therapy clients. In addition to therapeutic settings, COE is widely used in all aspects of leadership development and all levels of systems, including at the individual, dyad, team, and organizational levels. Despite changes over time and variations, the COE adheres to the same fundamental elements:
- Sensation—physical or other sensations being noticed in the body by the client
- Awareness—thoughts or feelings that the client notices arising in response to the physical sensations; could be possible focus for coaching session and engagement
- Energy Mobilization—anxiety or excitement arises in the client that mobilizes energy for the client to take action; excitement is mobilizing while anxiety can be incapacitating
- Action—client takes an action that has the potential to create change
- Contact—client notices whether something has shifted or changed inside related to taking an action
- Withdrawal/Closure—client learns from and assimilates the experience leaving space and energy for a new “what is” to arise
Not all COEs are completed. In some cases, the focus that clients identified may not be compelling enough to sustain their cycles, or “resistances” may occur at various points during the process. For example, clients may shut down in response to uncomfortable sensations or deflect by changing the subject to seemingly irrelevant topics. However, while resistances are generally seen as destabilizing and maladaptive, Gestalt views them as important and informative. Resistances are only problematic when they prevent learning by the client or other system. As Ed Nevis, one of the founders of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland said, “To ‘leap over’ the resistance is to avoid the possibility of real insight or growth, and it precludes the full ownership of the resistance.”
While supporting their clients in working through their COEs, coaches are also aware of the other COEs that are occurring in coaching sessions. They are tracking their own COEs, as well as the ones happening between them and their clients. In doing so, they become attentive to their own habitual patterns as coaches, such as moving clients too quickly to take action, and how those habitual patterns have the possibility to derail the clients’ learning and progress.
Recently I worked with a client who wanted to expand her business offerings to include workshops focused on women’s empowerment, leadership and resilience. However, she realized that there was something keeping her from actually putting the program into action. One of the activities we co-created was to “give voice” to the resistance that arose within her and blocked her from moving forward with her plans despite her stated interest in doing so.
- Using the COE, I noticed that she seemed to be holding her breath as she talked (Sensation). She confirmed that she was doing so and became curious.
- I invited my client to focus on her breathing and, as she did, she began to breathe more deeply. In doing so, she became aware of the dueling thoughts about expanding her work (Awareness).
- One part of her was excited about building out her program. Another raised old stories about her worthiness to be seen. We explored which thought had more energy for her as a focus for our session. She chose the thoughts around her worthiness (Energy Mobilization).
- To break the habitual pattern of simply repeating memories from the past that reinforced feelings of unworthiness, I asked her if she would like to engage in an experiment. After agreeing, we had a conversation in which she talked about her dreams for her program while I embodied the resistance encouraging her not to move forward (Action).
- As we spoke, it became clear to her that in ignoring the resistance to moving forward, she was also ignoring answering important questions that would actually strengthen and support her efforts if she paid attention to them. As she smiled, I asked what had shifted for her. She shared the compassion she felt for herself and for the voice resistance that she now viewed as an ally to be listened to rather than ignored (Contact).
- As we finished the session, she left with a renewed focus for her business and steps to implement for its development (Withdrawal and Closure).
To benefit from the COE, a coach can use the diagram below to walk the involved client, individual or team, through their existing processes. The elements of the COE tend to support awareness of the processes that are pre-empting their success. Once it is revealed what is not working or is blocking the completion of the cycle, options tend to become clear.
No matter the topics that clients present in coaching, the ultimate goal is to help heighten their awareness about what they want, the blocks that prevent them from having it and how to interrupt old patterns to achieve it. The COE can be a vehicle for helping clients achieve that in coaching and beyond.
Cleveland Consulting Group: http://www.clevelandconsultinggroup.com/articles/gestalt-cycle-of-experience.php
Gestalt Institute of Cleveland: https://www.gestaltcleveland.org/
GestaltOSD Center: https://www.gestaltosd.org/
 GestaltOSD Center, Cycle of Experience