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The Evolution of Roots: An Interview with Seán Gaffney

Friday, September 7th, 2012

GISC Executive Director, Mary Anne Walk talks to Seán Gaffney about the upcoming Roots V Conference devoted to Gestalt OD, which he will chair along with fellow GISC faculty member Joseph Melnick on November 1-4, 2012.  In this interview, Seán shares stories about planning the early conferences with Edwin Nevis, how the conference series has evolved, what to expect at Roots V, who should plan to attend, and what makes “Roots” so exciting for Gestalt practitioners and theorists alike.


MW: Hi Seán. Thanks for sitting down to talk to me about the Roots V Conference that will be held just outside of Stockholm this fall. It’s November first through fourth, will focus on Organizational Development and is dedicated to Edwin Nevis. Is that correct?

SG: Yes.

MW: I want to ask you a few questions about this because the conference has a strong heritage. Before beginning can you just say a few words about your engagement with Gestalt theory and the movement through the last several years?

SG: I came to the Gestalt world in 1986 when I had my first Gestalt training. I completed a four year Gestalt therapist training program in Sweden and then the Cleveland International OSD program. So I trained both as a therapist and in OD. My background also includes being a lecturer in cross-cultural management at the Stockholm School of Economics. And then in 1995/1996 I met Edwin when I did the international OSD program, and then joined the faculty.  I shared with Edwin the fascination for social applications and organizational applications. We had many, many conversations, and there probably isn’t anything we haven’t spoken about.

MW: So you’re very steeped in the whole theoretical process of Gestalt as well as the application of it, which I think is very important for the different types of people who might attend the conference. It’s not just theoretical, but also the application of the theory as well. And Joe Melnick, the other co-chair has been around the Gestalt therapy and movement for a similar or maybe an even longer time. So he’ll be there as well to oversee the conference. Can you give me a little bit of the history of the Roots Conference, because this is Roots V?

SG: Well it all began in the many conversations Edwin and I had over the years about how you can’t have an international study center if it’s totally based and staffed by people of one   country. So, in one of our evening sessions on the porch in his house in Wellfleet, we came upon the idea of the European Roots of Gestalt therapy. Paris was the first one. We had a great focus on all of the European pioneers. We had some great sessions on Sachs and on Sandor Ferencz who was a psychoanalyst, but his thinking was very similar to ours. We explored the theory that Fritz and Laura [Perls] brought with them from Europe to South Africa and then to America.

That conference went very well and gave rise to a number of papers, which were published either in the Gestalt Review or in the British Gestalt Journal.

The second conference was held in Antwerp, Belgium. We decided to continue the idea of the European roots. There we had some really fascinating presentations on Buber and Lewin to really go deeper into our roots. We even explored the European impact on Paul Goodman. And again the conference generated a number of papers. We were really interested in this connection between the conference and journal articles, which is why Joe Melnick and Malcolm Parlett (the founding editors of Gestalt Review and the British Gestalt Journal) were usually around. That connection was important to us.

Then, for Roots III, we shifted to exploring Gestalt in relation to society. I spoke about the North of Ireland, Brian O’Neil came from Australia to talk about Gestalt in Australia and its impact on the social field, and Raymond Saner brought us into the social and artistic environment in which Fritz and Laura lived and its impact on their thinking. We began to look at not just the impact of Gestalt on society but also the impact of society of Gestalt. Again that gave rise to a number of articles. By number IV we were beginning to wonder what is our next big thing. And then we decided on Gestalt in education, and we had that conference in Hungary.

MW: One of the questions that I had for you, you’ve already answered; how are Gestalt theory and the Roots conference impacting society?  I now realize that when GISC started the education initiative immediately following the Roots IV conference, Belinda Harris, one of the presenters came here and did an internship to help that initiative to get off the ground, along with several other interested people. It has given rise to several programs that have been developed for teachers and administrators. Would you tell me about the conference format?

SG:  Both Edwin and I agreed that the most deadening thing we could create would be a series of  two-hour presentations where you had to choose your workshop, thus missing all of the others. So everybody got a bit of something, but nobody got the whole picture. So we decided that this would be a small conference where everyone was involved with everything and everyone else, all the time. We kept presentations short. We said to presenters, “aim at 30 minutes and if you start heading toward 45 we’ll stop you. We want to aim at a really focused input. The real work is when the participants break up into small groups and discuss your input and come back with questions and thoughts, and then we expand it. So, don’t try to say everything in your presentation. The presentation is the starting point.” We found that over the years the discussions that began in small groups would continue over lunch, over dinner and then breakfast, resulting in a wonderful exchange of ideas.

MW: A real intellectual exchange.

SG: A real intellectual exchange in which we really dig into our theory, play with it, turn it inside out, add and subtract from it; a real sense of developing a solid cognitive base for what we were doing.

MW: So tell me, what is the spread of people who have attended these conferences?

SG: The spread is from those who would regard themselves as primarily theorists, those who are interested in method, and those who are practitioners. Over the years we have seen the connection between the importance of theory to inform practice and the importance of practice to inform theory.

MW: How are the Roots Conferences set up?

SG: We always try to have a local institute involved as host so that we have people on the ground who really knows the location to help us and support us. We are lucky to have three institutes sponsoring and supporting this Conference. We have two that GISC has an alliance with; namely, the Gestalt Academy of Scandinavia, a training institute, and Perlan, an OD business consultancy. We will also be sponsored by Norlin & Partners, an OD consultancy with a long term relationship to GISC. Perlan and Norlin & Partners will be inviting their business associates, their customers, and their clients to come and join us to get a sense of what it is that Gestalt OD thinking has to offer them.

MW: I’ve sensed that for the last 20 years that I’ve been involved with Gestalt that the thinking evolves with what’s happening in the environment. I’m interested in knowing your opinion. The vision of GISC is transforming the way you live and work in the world. How do you think that the Roots V conference aligns with that vision and can help extend the teachings and theory around?

SG: Roots is a pretty unique conference. I know of few conferences with such a focus on applied theory that also provide a format where we can talk theory in a meaningful way and see the connection to method and from method to application. I think it is really, really important. This is fundamental to GISC’s value of having a sound cognitive base for the actions it does and programs it offers.

MW: Without interfering in the local culture, I think.

SG: Yes, this is important. Our goal from the start was to not compete with anyone local. We look for cooperation with someone local so that together we can meet a local population.

MW: That’s helpful. This conference will recognize Edwin Nevis as the father of Gestalt OD.  You’ve known him as a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a buddy, but what does it mean to you when you think about Edwin as the father of Gestalt OD? What does that mean to you in the practice of OD in the world?

SG: I think Edwin was the first person with a good grounding in Gestalt who saw the connection between organizational psychology and Gestalt therapy; He recognized that Gestalt therapy theory, organizational thinking, and organizational development were a match. He was the first to bring the theory of Gestalt therapy and the method of Gestalt therapy into the workplace and apply it; that it was absolutely valid to talk to a manager or a leader about awareness. It made perfect sense to Edwin. It wasn’t anything you needed to be embarrassed about, and that once the people that he and, at the time, Dick Wallen worked with began to understand the impact of increased awareness on how they worked, it was so obvious to them too. He saw this before anyone else. He had a solid – absolutely rock solid – understanding of OD, a rock solid understanding of Gestalt theory, and he put the two of them together, creating a synthesis, which is unbeatable.

MW: His book Organizational Consulting is so very digestible. Even someone not steeped in Gestalt theory can take that book and really get a lot out of it. In fact, it’s still being used at many schools today in the OD field. I know that you have several topics that have already been identified that you will address at this conference and I’m wondering if you could give our readers just a couple of highlights?

SG: The opening one on Gestalt OD roots will honor Edwin, because Edwin was a historian. He regarded himself as an amateur historian, and he was always aware of the importance of the history of an idea in understanding it. So, we will be looking at some of the original roots beginning at the New York Institute, the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, at National Training Labs (NTL) and at Esalen. Then we will look at how these spread into the various institutes which have long had Gestalt OD training: for example at the Gestalt Institute of Scandinavia that has had OD for over 25 years. We’ll also be looking at various applications such as coaching, large-scale organizational transformation, and leadership. For example, three of the presenters have published a book in Sweden on leadership and adult development. It’s a quite fascinating book. They’re going to be presenting their ideas. We also have some people who work in industry who completed the Masters’ Program in Gestalt OD in Sweden. We’ll be asking them “please tell us, how Gestalt has impacted you as a manager?”

MW: What else would you like to offer those that could benefit from attending the Roots V conference?

SG: I would say that if you come you will have the most exciting, varied and rich conversations about Gestalt OD that you’ve ever had for a long, long tome, because we never stop talking.

MW: That’s one good thing about Gestalt; it never ends, it just keeps going, the picture keeps expanding. Well Dr. Gaffney I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

SG: Thank you.

MW: Thank you.



They say that spring has arrived

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

By Sonia Nevis

They say that Spring has arrived.

We have had an odd winter – really no winter at all, only a string of spring days.

I was delighted to have such pleasant weather until I began to wonder whether it was at the cost of tornadoes, floods and other unusual weather upheavals around the world.

All these years I have taken for granted that the seasons would follow each other, that the sun and the moon would rise as they “always” do, that I would always know when to buy sandals since summer was coming, and when I need to check my snow boots since I would need them soon.

Suddenly I am faced again with the reality of not knowing what tomorrow will be.

Many years ago, I read an article that said that old age started at age 85. I felt so much freedom since my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother all died in their 20s.

What did I have to worry about, since I read the article in my 30s and my reaching 85 seemed impossible?

A recent study showed that “it’s no surprise that the older people get, the longer they think it takes for a person to reach old age”:

• On average, adults between the ages of 30 and 49 think old age begins at 69.

• People who are currently 50-64 believe old age starts at 72.

• Responders who are 65 and older say old age begins at 74.

A Pew study said that women considered old age to be when they were 70 and men considered old age to be 66.

For me, old age is still being 85.

I counted and found that I have 89 days before I get there.

When I was in my 50s, I vowed that when I was old I would always wear sneakers and eat as much chocolate as I wanted to. I’ve been true to both of these vows.

Now I will wait until I have lived my 89 days before I make new vows.

I’ll wait to think about it until the 90th day comes, although I already have a few thoughts.

I look forward to the future.

Warmly, Sonia

Welcome & Remembrance from Cape Cod, 2012

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

By David Tunney, Executive Director

In 2011, GISC co-founder Edwin C. Nevis, PhD, passed away on his 85th birthday. The memorial service held at the Center included an outpouring of condolences and support and occurred between the launch of Professional Associates and the first annual Community Gathering. A fine tribute indeed to Edwin’s life and legacy. Many fond remembrances of Edwin also appeared in the last issue of the 2011 Gestalt Review, GISC’s academic journal co-founded by Edwin. One reflection in particular seems appropriate here: “He was huge in the ways in which he touched and impacted so many lives through his friendships, consulting, teaching, writing, and especially his mentoring of so, so many people.”

A founding father of process consulting, Edwin taught at MIT’s Sloan School of Management for 17 years and served as director of the school’s program for senior executives. He also launched dozens of study groups, conferences, and programs at GISC. Edwin had a passion for lifelong learning and leading, and so does GISC. Though Edwin is gone, his legacy continues as strong as ever, evidenced by upcoming programs and successful initiatives. In 2012, we are pleased to offer Roots V: Gestalt Organizational Development in honor of Edwin. The conference will be held in Stockholm with co-sponsors Gestalt Academy of Scandinavia and Perlan Dialogue and Leadership.

The Education Initiative is one of many undertakings inspired and fostered by Edwin. GISC faculty are now working with school systems from Cape Cod to Maine, ranging from elementary grades to colleges; and in 2012 there will be two programs at GISC specifically designed for educators.

The Healthcare Initiative is going strong after the successful design and delivery of a customized leadership and mentoring program for physicians and their teams at an Alaskan native, relation-based, healthcare organization. We are also honored to have two healthcare industry experts as co-faculty in one of the leadership programs.
This 2012 program catalogue reflects the extraordinary efforts and capabilities of GISC Professional Associates, faculty, and guest faculty in transforming the way we live and work in the world. Whether for leaders, practitioners, or individuals, all program tracks have many new exciting offerings and faculty.

For Leaders, we offer a new series of Executive Forums starting in January with Setting Up New Worlds:  Organizing Our Futures. The outcome of the January program will help shape the agenda of the May and September Forums. In addition, we now offer a program that will integrate Gestalt-based leadership principles with proven methods for creating a continuous improvement culture. Another new program will help leaders improve virtual work team effectiveness. This year we also welcome two new co-faculty for the popular cornerstone program for senior executives, Leadership in the 21st Century. Three other highly successful programs will be offered including Leadership Transitions which will be conducted in New York City.

For Practitioners including consultants, coaches, change agents, psychotherapists, lawyers, healthcare providers, and other service professionals, the Cape Cod Model programs continue to be successful, well-attended anchors for GISC. Most of our programs are eligible for continuing education credits by the American Psychological Associate (APA) and/or the International Coach Federation (ICF).

In 2012, the renowned Cape Cod Training Program will be offered in Stockholm, Sweden, in association with the Gestalt Academy of Scandinavia, as well as in Wellfleet. For organization development professionals, we continue to offer a series of programs for fulfillment of the Advanced Practice OD Consulting Certificate. And for existing and prospective coaches seeking new skills and ICF certification, we now offer the Competency Development Program for Coaching Certification, with accreditation expected in 2012.

For Individuals, we will continue to offer the popular Next Phase program along with Women’s Wisdom and several other programs. In addition, we are excited to offer a new Summer Series 2012 of workshops for personal growth and exploration on diverse topics for mind, heart, and body. We will also be hosting our second annual Community Gathering in June, an event where newcomers and old-timers attend free workshops to explore the latest research and theory development, new program offerings, and GISC initiatives.

Nestled in the woods of Wellfleet, a short distance from the world-famous Cape Cod National Seashore, GISC offers a retreat-like training facility in an ideal location. Many participants return year after year not only for the programs but to reconnect with a world-wide community dedicated to lifelong learning, teaching, consulting, writing, coaching and mentoring.

And when you become a member of GISC, you will receive an annual subscription to the Gestalt Review. Please contact us if you have any questions. See you on Cape Cod!

Almost half a year has slipped away, now I’m waking up

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Almost half a year has slipped away, now I’m waking up.

Many of you knew Edwin my husband. He died, suddenly, within three days. He had no pain and died at home. He was surrounded by his children and his grandchildren and it was on his birthday.

If you didn’t know him in person you probably knew him from his books.

During these last months, immersed in the dramatic shift in my life, I did very little thinking about myself and very little about Ed.

What I did think about was our relationship. I always imagined that our relationship was unique but now I suspect that many of us share the same journey in whatever relationships we are in.

They are probably just different.

Ed and I met when he was 16 and I was 15. We met near a beach in New York City.  Our connection was that we both were in the same school in Brooklyn, New York.

He had friends and I had friends and we quickly became a group. At first music held us together but soon we all rented bikes and took long rides, we walked over the George Washington Bridge into the New Jersey hills. We went to anything interesting in the city that was free. Even went to Night Court to watch.

We never “dated” but there were three marriages from within the group.

Although the group is now shrinking, we still meet regularly and stay in close touch.

Ed and I were one of the weddings. Neither of us had good homes and both of us wanted to be out of our homes. It was 1947; we had no money and no idea other than to leave our homes. We were both still in school, both had part time jobs and we jumped into the unknown.

Once we rented our own place, we clearly saw how we were different. From that beginning we laid out our own paths.

Our major asset was that we didn’t put much energy into changing each other’s lives.

Our second major asset was that if I had an idea he would consider it and use it or not.  If he had an idea I would consider it and use it or not.

The amazing thing for me is that we rarely talked things out and Ed did not want to be asked questions.

It feels like magic that our relationship continued so long. I never considered leaving him (I liked my life). I did ask him a question once. I asked him if he had ever considered divorcing me. He said sure, but not seriously.

I’m talking about a 64 year old marriage. In the last few years I got into calling it a Lack of Imagination.

Now I’ve become aware of how rich our imagination was.

We gave each other breathing space and gave each other very little grief.

My major annoyance is that Ed died before me. He clearly wanted to live to be 100, and I was counting on him to achieve it. I assumed that it was a pact between us.

On my side, since my mother died when I was five, I have had no wish to live long and yet I am already 84.

Since I am now alone, I can see clearly how Ed and I were actually on the same track. We both connected with people and took it on as our life’s work.

We just came at it differently.

We never worked closely together until we built the Center at Cape Cod.  I was worried whether we could work that out and we did. Still amazes me.

Those of you who knew Ed know how much his work drove him. My sorrow is that he died feeling that he hadn’t done enough when in fact he had done so much.

I, on the other hand, am awed at how much I have accomplished in my lifetime and am secure in the belief that the work I have been doing will continue well past my life.

Ed did not have enough time to put his work into your hands. He was waiting until he was 100 to do it. I take it on me to tell you he would have liked to have done that himself.

I will hold your hands as long as I can and am already feeling how you hold mine.

Warmly, Sonia

Gestalt International Study Center
P.O. Box 515, South Wellfleet, MA 02663
Phone: +1 555 123 4567