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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.

 

 

   
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