Professor Paul Barber

PhD, MSc, BA, UKCP Registered Psychotherapist



Towards super health: humanistic psychology and self-actualisation

‘Health’ in this essay is not a medical condition free from illness but, rather, is deemed a natural state of being, where we are free from dis-at-ease. It is viewed as a striving towards self-actualisation, supported by humanistic notions of living life holistically (appreciative of all of us and everything around us), democratically (in dialogue and service with and to others), autonomously (with personal responsibility and self-support to the fore), so that life becomes experiential inquiry (action learning), informed by a commitment to personal growth.

With this in mind, we can have meaningful experiences in illness that illuminate us, grow through pain and experience healthy deaths! Note, Joseph Zinker (a renowned gestaltist) studied under Abraham Maslow and did his dissertation upon the self-actualisation of a dying person.

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Fear: the most potent of fantasies

Fear is a helpful reminder of the territory we inhabit. Being unable to settle into a pattern, for instance my own academic style, writing this piece I’m fearful of not being able to do myself justice, letting myself down, and all those other little dramas that preoccupy my little ego-inflated self. And this interests me, for although I’ve experienced profound fear in my body, physiologically, and felt it emotionally when my identity was threatened, a part of me, beyond my ego I would suggest, even at these times was fearless and untouched.

So what is fear? I know what physiologists and psychotherapists usually say, something along the lines of an over-agitation of the organism, a reptilian response of the primitive sympathetic nervous system, an experiential state of risk where an individual feels catapulted beyond their social and psychic support systems. And this might well be true, but these signs are not so much causes as symptoms of fear.

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Gestalt as a spiritual discipline

We believe we are an ‘I’ but, many of the mystery schools suggest we are a ‘we’ – parts of a communal soul peaking from out a spiritual-field rather than an individualised self. They suggest we are one with God and that our essence rests in an ‘eternal now’ beyond time and space. From this perspective we are seen as spiritual or soul consciousness having an Earth-bound physical-emotional-imagined-spiritual experience!

This is in stark contrast to much psychoanalytic literature where the ‘self’ is often used synonymously with ‘ego’, which equates with the ‘I’ that connects to individual identity and social reality; although Bruno Bettelheim (Bettelheim 1983) has argued that Freud’s concept of ‘Id’ was widely misinterpreted, and is nearer to that of the soul than the primitive unconscious later suggested. But this said, most therapeutic approaches do little more than see the ‘self’ as a social construct.

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The nature of Gestalt coaching and therapy: a personal analysis

This article describes a reflective inquiry into the respective natures of coaching and therapy through examination of my practice as a coach and therapist. To help capture and compare the influences at play a heuristic inquiry is used to illuminate what I experienced as different in both domains. Intervention styles are contrasted in each area and field analysis is performed to summarise findings.

Over the past twenty years I’ve spent a good deal of time applying Gestalt to personal development and professional education, facilitation training, organisational consultancy and team-building – areas more commonly associated with coaching. These days as many coaches and organisational consultants employ me as a shadow-consultant and supervisor as do therapists. But I had never seriously considered:  ‘How coaching and therapy differ?’ or ‘How might each demand a differing facilitative presence?’ With these questions in mind I set out about exploring my performance coaching and therapy.

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Group as teacher: the Gestalt informed peer-learning community as a transpersonal vehicle for organisational healing

After reviewing Gestalt’s parity with Zen and Taoism, this paper illuminates the evolution of the Gestalt informed peer-learning community emergence from out of the tradition of Therapeutic Community Practice (Main 1946), before exploring the potential of the same to engender development and healing. Running parallel to this review of organisational renewal is a case study of change in a university setting and the fostering of a peer-learning community in an established charismatic organisation.

Within the body of the text four qualitative research methods are integrated, an analysis of organisational culture is performed through the application of a diagnostic tool derived from the Gestalt’s contact-withdrawal cycle (Critchley & Casey 1989), community dynamics are assessed via field analysis (Lewin 1952; Parlett 1993), action research (Lewin 1947) is used to collaboratively inquire into the success the Gestalt informed peer-learning community through the voices of its participants, and a case study approach is employed to illuminate the day-to-day drama of facilitating cultural change within a resistive commercial setting.

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The present isn't what it used to be: a phenomenological encounter with Joseph Zinker

Joseph Zinker trained with Fritz Perls and worked alongside Abraham Maslow. Besides being a leading exponent of Gestalt, he is a bridge to its earliest roots. I was first awakened to Gestalt through Zinker's seminal work 'Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy' (Zinker 1978), wherein I found an approach to Gestalt which - though clinically aware and gracefully therapeutic - was a celebration of life and an expression of being; an integration of the art as well as the science of psychotherapy.

In this light, in 2001, when casually asked if I would like to interview Joseph Zinker for the British Gestalt Journal, I leapt at the chance. I therefore unashamedly own my bias in this interview as one of enthusiasm, an intention to learn and enjoy, and to greedily squeeze as much from the experience as possible. In the event, I got much more than I bargained for.

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Keeping psychotherapy trainees in their place: how training institutions can stifle love and breed compliance

This paper pays homage to a paper by Otto F. Kernberg entitled 'Thirty Ways to Destroy the Creativity of Psychoanalytic Candidates' (1996) which echoes much of what I have met as a consultant and practitioner-researcher. In this article I first review major critiques of psychotherapy we have received over the years, introduce principles I associate with healthy psychotherapy, list the ways shadow-driven behaviors can flower in training institutions that forsake healthy principles, before considering what the shadow of psychotherapy and its training may be ‘selling’ its clients and trainees at a subliminal and shadow level.

As a supervisor and community facilitator in my time to several training institutions, some humanistic others psychodynamic, I have ceased to be amazed by how many organizations simultaneously undermine the principles they espouse. Fermenting conditions that promote the exact opposite of their stated intentions, such bodies informally end up acting against everything they formally hold dear. 

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The British Gestalt Society conference: a reflective inquiry and ramble

I write this account in a ‘continuum of awareness’ mode, respectful of sensory and emotional impressions. I may use linear reasoning later when I’ve surfaced data to shape or have a message to give, but for now I will use free association to inquire into my experience of the BGS conference (20th - 22nd July 2007). I hope through this process to distil my impressions and illuminate a clearer gestalt.

An image comes to mind of a fisherman casting his hook into very deep waters – awareness is my bait, my mind the water, and the fish I’m after is illumination. When I want to understand something I write about it. So I don’t know where I am going with this paper – let alone where I’ll end up – but I’m up for the experiment.

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Gestalt in coaching and consulting: a dialogue with holism and the soul

This paper examines the need for a holistic approach to coaching and consultancy, and suggests that a Gestalt-informed vision is essential if organisations are to prosper and to become fit environs for the human spirit. The model described here has already been practically applied to group facilitation, research, organisational consultancy and coaching (Barber 1996; 1999: 2001) within masters and doctorate programmes within the University of Surrey. The model presented is not meant to replace or compete with other approaches to coaching and consulting but to build upon and complement other influences.

Work has the potential to be a mundane pursuit for survival, a social addiction (Harrison 1995), a drama of our own making, a self-actualising or spiritually up-lifting experience. At different times it is all of these things. In this essay I will raise to awareness the various realities we flow between in the workplace, so that you might deepen your understanding and broaden the way you intervene within coaching and consultancy.

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Gestalt: the origins

‘Gestalt’ is a German word meaning pattern or constellation. As an approach it encapsulates a wide ranging holistic vision focused upon direct perception of what a person is sensing, feeling and projecting out upon the world ‘now’. In this way it focuses upon the wisdom inherent in direct experience.

Historically, Gestalt is associated with Frederick (Fritz) Perls, a renowned psychoanalyst who grew disenchanted with its interpretive and passive nature and sought to incorporate aspects of theatre and drama, humanism and oriental philosophy to psychotherapy. In the growing humanistic spirit of his time he sought to create a new vision of the human being, one determined by social responsibility and compassion for others. Creativity, art and healthy living were all seen by Perls as evolving out of immediate inner experiencing, emotional expression and a valuing of feeling. 

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Philosophical review of the nature of love: implications for therapists and therapy and the roots of knowledge

As psychotherapy is often seen as concerning itself with ‘care’ and the cultivation of a loving regard for the self and others through positive professional re-parenting, love is subject to philosophical inquiry in this paper. To help us appreciate how the philosophers cited here developed their philosophy, I have attempted to provide a thumbnail sketch of their location in their time, culture and their family of origin. While reading about each philosopher’s life and work, consider what is the origin of their knowledge and how does this resonate with your own? At the close of each themed section I include critical reflections and questions to help you illuminate your own philosophy and practice.

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Are we the true Freudians? Humanistic psychology and Gestalt therapy’s honouring of Freud’s legacy

The history of psychotherapy describes a history of forgetting and remembering, a process where problems and ideas once venerated fall out of sight only to resurface at a different time and place to be heralded again as novel and new. What was well known to Sigmund Freud is now only half remembered by the neo-Freudians, largely unknown to their successors, and — if this paper is to be believed — has ended up being re-interpreted and integrated with humanistic psychology! Although humanistic psychologists and therapists have a tradition of railing against Freud, it is my contention that we share much in common with him, and indeed, that in some respects we honour his core philosophy much more than the so-called neo-Freudians. 

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Organisational health and burnout

Health is often spoken of in relation to individuals but rarely in terms of organisations, yet these also often suffer from disease.  This article explores the role of organisational health in consultancy and its impact upon and within the facilitative agenda.

Before I intervene in a client-system I consider not only client readiness but also organisational health, to gauge whether there is enough free energy to support the ‘change’ a client envisages.  Health in this context is an ability to let go of the tried and tested, to deepen contact and risk a meeting with ‘difference’ – a prompt for freedom to learn.  

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Building a healthy foundation for organisational transformation: a reflective inquiry

Before I intervene in a client-system, be this a team or organisation, I consider not only my client’s ‘psychological readiness’ but whether the organisational field is healthy enough to support ‘the change’ they envisage. Health, in this context, represents an ability to open dialogue, to deepen contact and to risk a meeting with ‘difference’.

Indeed, I also look to what I am bringing in terms of 'health' as a facilitator, for I believe to be effective I must embody and demonstrate relational and psychological ‘health’ if I am to stimulate the same in a client system. In this sense, as facilitators, we have a duty – I am suggesting, to maintain in ourselves optimum levels of health.

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Emergent coaching: a Gestalt approach to mindful leadership

Work has the potential to be a mundane pursuit for survival, a social addiction, a drama of our own making, a self-actualising or spiritually up-lifting experience. At different times it is all of these things. In this essay I will raise to awareness the various realities we flow between in the workplace, so that we might deepen our understanding and broaden the way we intervene within coaching and consultancy. I will also describe the facilitative Gestalt model of leadership my coaching style is designed to create.

Gestalt seeks to include and to interrelate rather than to reduce things down to size. A consultant or coach working in a whole field Gestalt way attends to an individual and organisation’s energetic field, their whole ecology. But to work in this way without a map to guide us is a difficult task. This paper provides a map to enable you to begin to consult and coach holistically.

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A Gestalt approach to life as spiritual training: the message of John Scherer

This text is greatly influenced by a personal meeting with the author of ‘Life Lessons at Work – 5 Questions that Change Everything’, Dr John Scherer, at a coaching conference we presented at in Warsaw, Poland. My synopsis and adaption of his work is portrayed in the text below.

As suggested in this opening quote, "Everyone gets the experience; some get the lesson" (TS Eliot), John Scherer works to the premise that life is the lesson and everything you do is potentially a spiritual practice. Basically, work and daily life are taken to be our service, prayer and means for personal and spiritual development. Gestalt’s encouragement for us to awake to the moment, live here and now and attend to our environment -  our primary relationship, is extended in John’s perspective into the workplace, which is seen as an opportunity for spiritual practice.

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Glimpses from a distant workshop

For several years I have been teaching Gestalt in Romania. Initially, I taught a Gestalt in Organisations course for Gestalt psychotherapists, and later became regular staff on an integrative psychotherapy training programme.

The last day of a 3-day workshop, my co-facilitator, the founder and director of the programme I am teaching upon, arrives 20-minutes late for the third day running, after contracting with the group a 9:30am start. At this I feel conflicted; to stay silent or voice irritation? I judge her behaviour as self-centred rather than group-centred.

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Transpersonal reflections on humanism and the nature of being human

As human beings we can sometimes appear as if animals in a concrete jungle fighting for survival; cogs in a great social machine endeavouring to run smoothly; enactors of emotional dramas which chain us to our pasts; creatures driven by ego-ridden inner desires to succeed; searchers after a higher sense of meaning and purpose. We have the potential within us to co-create all of these realities and to bring their particular influences to life.

Our physical, social, emotional, imagined and spiritual aspirations - and the multiple realities they emanate from - constantly conspire to shape our behaviour and destiny. Humanists and Gestaltists believe it is far better to raise these influences to awareness than to blindly act them out; they appreciate that human growth entails discomfort, moving beyond our comfort zone and living with vulnerability as a constant friend. Simply, we believe that our discomforts make us human and that constant change and learning is our natural state.

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The organisation as its own consultant: raising awareness and fostering change

This article examines Gestalt informed consulting where raising awareness is the primary method and outcome. A co-operative inquiry into the unique offering of an internationally respected management training organisation frames this study. From this paper something of the nature of a Gestalt approach to organisational consultation emerges. This paper offers an alternative to managerial cause-and-effect and systems theory thinking, replacing these with a model of the organisation as an energetic living field and consultation as facilitating authentic dialogue.

Most consultancy maintains the status quo by suggesting that all will be well if physical, social or psychological blocks to performance are removed. Gestalt doesn’t solve problems and doesn’t seek to correct behaviour, but raises awareness to sensory, social, imaginative impression to illuminate what is happening to maintain current events. In its efforts to use participation and experimentation to expand responsiveness, Gestalt locates itself as a post-modern approach to consulting – but what does this imply?

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Levels of learning: an example of a two hour Gestalt group in action

In the following case-study, drawn from a session I facilitated with 30 folk in a drop-in conference setting, I attempt to show from a facilitator’s perspective what caught my attention and how I facilitated a newly formed group, similar in membership to the Saturday Group I offer monthly. I hope it will give you some idea of what you may meet in a Gestalt group run on personal development and/or therapeutic lines, where the agenda unfolds and participants flow in the direction of their current interests.

In the session described I was contracted to illuminate different levels of group influence, and drew from a model for this informed by 1) physical and sensory; 2) social and cultural; 3) emotional and biographical; 4) imaginative and projective; 5) intuitive and transpersonal influences.

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Reality confrontation in facilitation

Through the eyes of a facilitator from the UK and twenty-one Chinese participants, this study tells the story of what it was like to initiate and to be on the receiving end of a workshop entitled 'Facilitating Change', designed as an educational intervention to assess the feasibility of offering an experiential learning programme to a Hong Kong audience.

The narrative of this account is drawn from a diary record compiled at the time, interspersed with subsequent impressions and analysis under the heading of 'Reflections'. Within this study emphasis is given to in-depth description of field conditions, the consultant's psychological reactions within an alien culture, and the social dynamics recipients enacted when faced by 'change'.

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Reflections between baby feeds

This is by nature a catch-up. A catching up upon a momentous year.

It's been an eventful year indeed. Twelve months ago I thought myself in the swan-song of my life, a retired academic with a thriving private practice which included facilitating training events overseas, notably in Romania, but without an intimate other, struggling to care for Anna, a companion of old who has had Alzheimer’s for some years. I was destined, to all intents and purposes, for a lonely old age comforted by my work.

Today, I sit here in Surrey, a 24-hour live-in companion caring for Anna, Sinzi my wife of nearly one year by my side - the most intelligent woman I know, with a new-born child of a few weeks! Whatever happened?

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Alpha leadership: a Gestalt aware leadership style

Some years ago three authors, Anna Deering, Robert Dilts and Julian Russell, wrote of a concept of leadership I felt was very Gestalt, entitled ‘Alpha Leadership’. Sadly this did not make the impact I was hoping it would in the business community. Leadership, we should note, is a constant and re-occurring theme of the business community – but they only listen to that which confirms their own biases!

So much energy is spent on preparing leaders, and although an over-kill of courses promising preparation to leadership exist, leaders in all walks of life, business and politics, communities and professions, are nevertheless still seen to be failing and subject to constant attack. Leaders are not solely at fault, for impossible expectations are thrust upon them. Every archetype in the book and parental projection along with un-owned and dis-owned aspects of ourselves are foist upon them. 

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On love

I lie here dazed and gazing into space. But feeling it is here I belong like never before. A memory surfaces. Sinzi has for long proposed we collaborate to write a book on love! What a naff idea was my first reaction. But really, deep within, I didn’t feel qualified nor ready, for what I termed ‘love’ in previous incarnations was a very different creature. I was busy proving myself worthy of myself and ‘earning love’, and her loving acceptance of me, my edgy complexity and baggage felt alien. I teased her to make the first step to putting pen to paper in service of love - between baby feeds! Bugger me she actually took the bait and rose to the challenge!

Reading her spontaneous offering I glimpse her position as a poet, plus her spiritual nature. Spontaneous, because unlike me she doesn’t meditate upon or polish her writing word-smith-like to release a crafted form, she blurts it out and lets it stand, unmolested! 

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