foot of big mountain

How To Get To The Heart Of What Matters Most [Book Review]

Standing at the foot of Mt. Everest. No water. No oxygen. No proper equipment to speak of…

“…no matter – I have get to the top. Fast.”

Teaching and travelling around Asia in the second half of the 1990s, this is exactly how I felt on my return to the heart of the tech boom. While away, a little thing called “the net” had emerged.

Back at home in sunny California, never had I felt more a stranger in a strange land…

Fast forward a few years to my new home of Munich, Germany. Europe had replaced Asia and teaching was now training. But, I was still fully immersed in a foreign culture. Only this time without any big mountains in sight…until around 2008.

A few years shy of 40, I found myself in a job that required me to “do” Leadership Development. Suddenly, I was surrounded by guys who’d been “doing” this stuff for 5+ years. Guys who could spout off countless leadership theories, methods and models in their sleep.

By the way, what exactly is Leadership Development? And how does one do it?

Once again, lots to learn. Lots of catching up to do. And so the pattern continued…

Fortunately, a few years later I came across across a few simple ideas that taught me this:

How I do things is more important that what I do.

Below is an upcoming review I wrote for the Organization Development Network Europe

For me, it’s a transformative book full of liberating and empowering ideas like this one.

Managing Complexity

To effectively manage a complex change, something radically different is required. After all, no tool or technique can help you deal with a situation that can’t be predicted.  A problem that can’t be planned for. 

And yet, many change methodologies claim to do just that.

In Relational Organisational Gestalt: An Emergent Approach To Organisational Development (ROG), Dr. Marie-Anne Chidiac presents a “way of beingrather than a set methodology or a “what to do”.

In the spirit of transparency, I need to make a confession.  Not only do I know the author, I’m a graduate of the ROG Training Programme offered by the company she co-founded, Relational Change.

However, you don’t need to be a graduate of ROG or familiar with Gestalt theory to enjoy and benefit from this book.  

It’s a great entry point for someone unfamiliar with Gestalt but who is looking for added support in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous VUCA world.

The simple and powerful ideas within ROG provide it.

Practice Over Theory

As we learn in the Introduction, Dr. Chidiac’s desire to write this book stems from her own experience working with organizations and exposure to the chosen change methodologies.

As experienced first-hand, there was a “mismatch that existed between the promises of change methodologies and what happened in practice”, i.e. the theories didn’t always deliver. 

ROG is the product of her journey on her way to becoming a Gestalt OD Change Practitioner.

She explains how Gestalt provided a way of supporting her by placing the “use of self” and “presence” at the heart of its practice: “I went from feeling tool-less to understanding that the most valuable tool was myself.”

For someone who has struggled with Imposter Syndrome throughout his career, Gestalt has made the same empowering impact on me.

And for me, that is what ROG is all about – a clear statement that how I operate is more important than what I operate with.

ROG offers an OD approach that is “practical, dynamic, and one that resources both the practitioner as well as the organization”.

Self As Instrument

With a practical focus throughout, Dr. Chidiac introduces a core idea or principle and goes on to help the reader understand its importance and application by providing relevant examples and case studies.

Connecting back to very roots of OD, we’re reminded that Kurt Lewin, who most consider the father of OD, was a German Gestalt psychologist. 

Lewin gave us the concepts of Field Theory, Group Dynamics and Action Research – deeply embedded in OD theory and practice to this day.

While many Gestalt ideas and concepts are introduced throughout the book, none are more relevant than the ones that deal with change.

After all, much of the complexity we face in our field stems from this constant and powerful force.

You’ll learn why “heightening awareness in the present moment leads to change” and why “change happens through dialogue”. Hence, the “relational” in ROG

Most importantly, you’ll see how the practitioner uses their “self as an instrument of change”.

Further to self, ROG presents it as something which is fluid and changing with every interaction – “constantly impacting and being impacted through our relationships and interactions with our environment and changing (both ourselves and others) in that process”. SOS

She anchors this empowering concept with the SOS Model of self, other and situation with ethical presence at the center.

As change is ongoing and cannot be controlled though fixed theories or plans, she argues, it needs to be seen as something that is co-created and emerging in the present moment.

As what emerges and co-created cannot be known or planned for in advance, the change practitioner’s approach can’t rely on a tool or technique. 

It should, however, rely on the presence of the practitioner – fluidly responding to the situation in the “here and now”.

Building on the ideas of Malcom Parlett and other great thinkers, Dr. Chidiac points out that the “more attuned we can be to what is going on within and around us, and the more clarity we achieve about this data, the more effective our interventions”.

Incidentally, if you thought you could be more effective in your interventions would you want to know how?

Dr. Chidiac believes that a key to better interventions comes down to the ability to access your whole Body-Mind-Energy System – your built-in “smart” device that allows you to experience feelings, physical sensations and other sensory information. 

The data received through this “embodied sensing” is highly valuable for all parties involved – practitioner and group, coach and coachee.

She stresses the importance of letting oneself be influenced by emotional and embodied responses – in addition to the intellectual ones. 

Therefore, the practitioner is not the expert but rather “someone that co-creates, through awareness raising, the conditions for emergent change”.

And in order to create these ideal conditions for emergent change, the ability to be present is of utmost importance.

Relaxed Concentration

Presented as “energetic availability and fluid responsiveness”, “presence” sits right alongside “use of self” in the ROG approach. 

Like discovering the paradoxical “relaxed concentration” in The Inner Game of Tennis many years ago, these four words changed the way I work.

Viewing it as a relational process which happens through interaction rather than just a skill to acquire, Dr. Chidiac synthesizes the dimensions of presence into five key attributes. 

What emerges is a conceptual framework called CARES – each letter representative of a desired way of being.

At its very essence, Gestalt is about embodiment – What am I feeling? How does that sit with me? What is my body telling me? 

Therefore, I’d like to highlight the fourth attribute of “embodied sensing” – the capacity to experience others and the world around us by paying attention to all sensory information. 

Sound familiar?

Tapping into this intelligent Body-Mind-Energy System is a way to fully experience what’s going on inside and outside of yourself. 

Connecting to the holistic SOS Model with presence at the intersecting center, it’s also a way to attune to others and the situation around you.

Co-Creating Next Steps

In addition to the examples and case studies, ROG offers experiential activities that you can try out yourself – another key piece of Gestalt theory: Before concluding anything, make your own experience

There’s even one that can help you increase your level of empathy toward someone – a useful activity for any of us!

Beyond the practical and experiential focus, Dr. Chidiac makes frequent reference to other current thought leaders and relevant topics.

When stressing the importance of listening to one’s intuition or “gut feeling”, she references Daniel Kahneman’s two modes of thought in Thinking, Fast and Slow (this guy won a Nobel prize!).

She doesn’t need to jump too far from Kahneman to get to the pre-Theory U concept of “presencing” made popular by Peter Senge and friends back in 2004.

One of my favorite real-life examples comes from the father of Gestalt OD, Ed Nevis. When a client would say or do something that might appear insignificant, he would say: “Isn’t that interesting”. 

With this harmless observation, he’d bring attention to the action or comment. I’ve tried this. It works.

You’ll experience more awareness-raising examples throughout the book – ones that illustrate the approach of a humble inquirer rather than an expert. 

Yes, OD giant Edgar Schein is referenced, as well.

Building on “presencing”, “Theory U” and other such approaches, ROG highlights the shift in the OD field that sees change emerging from shared presence and co-creation, not a few “heroes” at the top.

In ROG, Dr. Chidiac presents the rich interconnected history of OD & Gestalt. 

She also provides an ethical and effective way to face the uncertainty and complexity around you.

If you do decide to integrate these powerful ideas into your practice, keep in mind that you’ll be operating from a “genuine position of not knowing”. 

Trust me when I say, letting yourself be truly surprised by what might come next is not always easy.

But if you really want to help yourself and your clients navigate the VUCA landscape, I believe it’s the best approach.

Like Dr. Chidiac, I share the hope that ROG “supports OD practitioners in their continued quest for emergent and relational approaches as a way of ethically addressing the growing complexity and uncertainty of organizational life”. 

It definitely supports and guides me in my work.

Don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself.

  • Thank Tim for sharing! I really like the “embodied sensing” concept. Since you shared in our last INOC session I am applying in my coaching sessions. Looking forward to read the book.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Elena! BTW, how is it for you applying it in your coaching work?

  • While what you write makes sense to me, the HR function is being asked to become more data-oriented – which makes sense as well, if we want to be taken seriously when justifying how we spend our budget. But sometimes, the data is not available yet or is hard to get – how do we “measure” the success of an (expensive) executive coaching for instance?

    So when dealing with complex change at a personal level, I understand the use we can make of embodied sensing when we master it, but how can it be used in a corporate environment? Is it even possible, or is it more a technique for personal development..?

    • Hi Charlotte, thanks for your comment and questions.

      To your first question, ROI on coaching is almost impossible. You’ve got formal and you’ve got informal feedback. I think the best way to measure it is for the coach and coachee to create a measurement together before the coaching begins – of course, HR can be included in this but this should be done between the coach and coachee. One question I ask every coachee before we begin is “how will you know when you reach this goal?” And, “how will you measure the success of this?”. Happy to discuss with you more with you 1-to-1.

      To your second question, I believe embodied sensing is especially important in a corporate environment where people often treat each other like numbers or like machines…again, happy to discuss with you more on our coaching call:).

  • I don’t have any experience with gestalt but I found this an interesting read. As we approach a more data driven world with less feeling or gut and an increase in logic and reasoning, especially in business, how we handle change is going to be interesting.

    • Thanks, Greg. You raise an interesting point re change in a digital world. What helps you stop and listen to your gut when you have a big decision?

  • Thanks, Tim. This resonates with me. Companies are becoming more humanistic in their leadership approach, and the how is so relevant. The consideration about one’s ethical presence is becoming prominent for leaders and employees, along with bringing the whole self to work. The days of a professional vs. personal persona are reducing…thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Rebecca. Just curious – as a manager yourself in today’s corporate VUCA world, when is it important for you to lead with a more personal, human touch?