Humantistic Counselling Techniques 1000 words


There is a popular phrase nowadays – holistic health. This covers an individual’s general well being in terms of physical, mental, spiritual (moral/ethical) health and it is considered to be an individual’s responsibility to maintain and improve it. The initial goal in Gestalt counselling is to promote awareness thereby leading to improved ability to create vivid meaningful experiences and increased quality of life. This ultimately leads to improved and satisfying life decisions. Gestalt therapy has its origins in the humanistic tradition where a great level of emphasis is placed on an individual’s uniqueness and creative potential. The founder of Gestalt counselling was  Fritz Perls (1893-1970).


Fritz Perls was born in Berlin and completed psychoanalytic training under the influence of prominent psychologists such as Freud and Jung. He was also influenced by his association with Dr Kurt Goldstein, whom he had met in the 1920s. Goldstein was a neuropsychiatrist who worked in Frankfurt with brain damaged soldiers pioneering a ‘holistic’ approach to caring for people. His work was also influenced by his wife Laura who was also a Gestalt psychologist.  J.L. Moreno was the founder of psychodrama which was essentially a forerunner to Gestalt therapy. Perls was very interested in drama and the theatre so he was greatly impressed by Moreno’s work.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Koffka, Kohler and Werheimer had formed the Gestalt School of Berlin where they were investigating the mental processes which mean that a person perceives an entity as part of a whole. They were interested in the fact that we hear a piece of music in terms of the whole rather than as individual notes. In essence the Gestaltists were approaching behaviour in the opposite direction to the behaviourists who were trying to break actions down into small items. The early Gestaltists were interested in how lots of external stimuli can be differentiated by an individual. Perls, however, was concerned with how a person deals with more complex internal experiences and how the person deals with his own personal needs in the environment of external stimuli. The term ‘figure ground’ was used to describe these two influences.


In psychoanalytic theory Freud proposed that each individual passes through five psychosexual stages and the personality is developed in terms of how these are experienced. He also put forward the idea of the three parts of personality – id, ego, superego. Perls agreed that an individual has conflicting parts of the personality. He called these the Topdog and the Underdog. The Topdog is the good part of personality whereby it has the capacity of a moralistic nature and will be quite dictatorial. The Underdog, on the other hand, is insecure and will try wherever possible to procrastinate. An essential element of Gestalt theory is to integrate the Underdog and the Topdog to allow an individual to achieve harmony in his life.


Perls referred to the way in which an individual will avoid an awareness of himself. He described this process as five layers of neurosis – the phony, the phobic, the impasse, the implosive and the explosive. The phony layer is where one goes through the motions on a daily basis purely for the sake of it. The phobic layer is when one resists addressing anything oneself which is likely to cause unease. The impasse is where one is stuck in a rut and one will try to avoid the issue rather than deal with it. There is a lack of personal responsibility. The implosive layer is when one feels a sense of deadness and the explosive is when one starts to react to what is causing the dead feeling.


To summarise so far, I would describe the Gestalt theory to be focused on behaviour in the present and considers the client’s total experience in terms of physical, sensory, emotional and intellectual factors. All of these areas are important in the counselling process and it is essential that the client is encouraged to assimilate all of these aspects when going through the treatment.


Following on from this, I will now consider how the counsellor can achieve this in terms of practicalities. An astute Gestalt counsellor will be tuned into many factors during a session. The individual’s body language can tell a lot about the person. Inner psychological processes can be determined by dress, mannerisms, movements, facial and body expressions. It is an essential skill for the counsellor to be able to interpret this information. He will also encourage the client to talk in terms of using personal pronouns e.g. I, me. By using these personal pronouns the individual is making his feeling his own and admitting that they are his.  Slow, clear speech should also be encouraged to allow the client to think about what he is saying. Speech can sometimes be used to hide what the individual is actually thinking or feeling.


As I mentioned earlier, Perls was a great admirer of the theatre and drama. He subsequently developed ‘the empty chair’ technique with his patients. Like the psychoanalytical school, dream analysis was seen by Perls as being an important means of exploring what the individual is thinking or concerned about. Psychoanalytic theory saw the items in the dream as symbolic of items. Perls, however, encouraged the person to talk through the dream then to take on the mantel of a significant item. This would allow the person to put the dream into the present and allow himself to become part of what is a present, active experience. During the empty chair technique Perls would encourage the person to project their thoughts on to the person in the second empty chair. This technique can be very effective but I acknowledge that it should only be carried out by a very experienced and trained counsellor. Perls also had a ‘hot seat’ technique used in group therapy. A person chooses to sit in the hot seat and be the focus of attention to the group in an attempt for him to address his thoughts.


In summary, I believe that the work of Fritz Perls has contributed hugely to modern day Gestaltist therapy and counselling. Like most types of counselling it must be paramount that the needs of the individual are addressed first and what might be a beneficial approach for one person might not be appropriate for another.  Adequate training is always essential and the mental state of the individual should always be taken into account.





HOUGH, M (1998) Counselling Skills and Theory (2nd edition), Hodder Education, London


CARDWELL, CLARK & MELDRUM (2000) Psychology for A level (2nd edition), Collins, London