A Gestalt Therapy Approach to Eliciting Career Stories

By Toman, Sarah | Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

A Gestalt Therapy Approach to Eliciting Career Stories


Toman, Sarah, Career Planning and Adult Development Journal


During the past decade, or so, the use of client stories has become a new figure in the process of career counseling. As I noted in an earlier CPADJ article (Toman, 2003, p. 40), the incorporation of stories into the practice of career counseling has been recommended by such career theorists as Ochberg (1988), Savickas (1993; 1995), Cochran (1997), Brott (2001), and even prompted the initiation of an NCDA commission. The increased interest in the use of stories and narratives is also evident from the prevalence of articles about life stories in the journals of developmental psychology, social psychology, personality psychology,psycholinquistics, psychoanalysis, and applied psychology (Hermans, 1992). Several counseling theories provide viable rationales for eliciting client stories. However one approach, Gestalt therapy, has been neglected in the career development domain. This article offers first steps in highlighting the usefulness of Gestalt conceptualizations and storied interventions.

Introduction to Gestalt Therapy

The term Gestalt Therapy was first used in 1947 by Peris in his book Ego, Hunger and Aggression. Frederick Peris (b. 1893) and his wife, Laura Posner Peris (b. 1905), were both psychotherapists who contributed to the co-founding of a form of psychotherapy influenced by many major movements of the early twentieth century, including but not exclusive to: theatre, dance, movement and psychodrama; Freud and orthodox psychoanalysis; Reich and body therapy; Gestalt psychology; Goldstein's organismic theory; Wertheimer's field orientation and Kurt Lewin's field theory; existentialism, phenomenology and Buber; holism; interpersonal psychoanalysis (e.g. Horney, Sullivan); and Eastern religion (Clarkson and Mackewn, 1994, p.1).

Gestalt Therapy relies on present experience (the here and now), the figurai and background aspects of present experience, field or contextual influences, and the process of change (rather than the content of change). Polster and Polster (1973) identified some of the "most pervasive" Gestalt therapy elements as: "1) power is in the present; 2) experience counts most; 3) the therapist is his own instrument; and 4) therapy is too good to be limited to the sick" (p. 7). Translated to career development theory this could mean that career stories: 1) can undercover powerful meanings for clients and help them describe their current experience or current phase of their vocational development; 2) often reflect those careers and activities in which the client has experience or familiarity; 3) can not be determined through blood tests or diagnostic tests; we rely on ourselves as counselors to listen for and to stories; and 4) are prevalent as motivators and inspirations and not necessarily indicative of client pathology.

There are many Gestalt therapy principles which can be helpful for both clients and clinicians during the career counseling process. Specific to the usefulness of career stories, four specific principles are described here: 1) Figure and Ground, 2) the use of dialogue, 3) the Cycle of Experience, and 4) a Gestalt theory of Change. It is not possible in the limited space of one journal article to present the diversity and breadth of current Gestalt therapy theory. For more information about Gestalt theory and practice, I refer you to Peris, Hefferline, and Goodman (1951/1994), Latner (1992), Polster and Polster, (1973), and Woldt and Toman (2005).

Figure and Ground

Most career counselors are probably familiar with the image of a vase/ face and an old/young woman from Gestalt psychology, visually depicting the concept of figure and ground. As the vase becomes figurai, the face falls into the background. When clients seek assistance from career counselors, their work dilemmas often become most figurai as other life aspects or concerns fall into the background. Figures can also be understood as the themes in career stories.

Counseling sessions frequently begin with the collection of a career history or initial story, highlighting the clientis figurai focus on their career concerns. …

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