This type of therapy was originally created by Laura and Fritz Perls, but has also undergone extensive revision over the years. Many people mistakenly believe that Gestalt Therapy consists mostly of clever techniques, such as the empty chair dialogue, and that the therapy is quite confrontive. But Gestalt is based upon a sophisticated theory that is very much in tune with modern scientific and existentialist philosophical concepts. And although Fritz Perls, with whom I trained, could be very confrontive at times, Gestalt Therapy has evolved in the direction of a greater emphasis on empathy and creating a safe environment in which clients can explore the important issues in their lives.
Also highlighted in Gestalt Therapy is the importance of honest, direct dialogue between people; and helping them become aware of how they avoid contact with others and with important aspects of themselves, such as emotions, bodily sensations and visual and auditory sensations.
While modern Gestalt Therapy has some resemblance to Intersubjectivity, a psychodynamic therapy created by Robert Stolorow, it differs in the emphasis on present awareness, particularly therapist-client contact, rather than delving into the past, and on the use of the "safe experiment." The safe experiment is something the therapist may suggest the client do in order to achieve greater awareness of some important self-defeating trait and to practice behaviors that will change the trait.
For example, in a therapy group the therapist may suggest to a client who is fearful of being direct with others that he or she go around the room and try telling each of the other group members something that he or she would like to say to them but fears saying, and to become aware of how this expression is inhibited. I have often found when I've suggested this to a client that, before reaching the end of the group, things are communicated that had been held back for a long time.
The result is frequently joyful excitement, increased intimacy and a realization on the client's part that he or she can be more direct in his or her everyday life.
Gestalt therapists also utilize many useful techniques in conducting the therapy. The most famous is the empty chair method, where the client imagines someone he or she is having trouble with or not understanding in an empty chair, and then talking to that person.
Gestalt therapists also place great emphasis on contact and emotion: how people inhibit awareness of important thoughts and feelings, and how they avoid honest, authentic contact with others. The avoidance can be of feelings, of certain thoughts, of crippling ways the client inhibits him or her self from being creative and authentic.
This type of therapy usually entails weekly sessions and can be done individually, with couples or in group therapy. The client talks about what is important and the therapist may comment interpretatively, as in psychodynamic therapy, suggest an experiment to help the client become more aware of something that he or she may be avoiding, or help the client focus on how he or she is avoiding contact with the therapist, spouse or significant other, or other group members.
Still another form of Gestalt Therapy is an integration of it with Buddhism theory and meditation techniques, created by Eva Gold, PsyD and her husband, Steve Zahm, PhD. They have had a very successful training program in the Portland Oregon area for many years and in the past few years have integrated it with Buddhism. Buddhism is actually very congruent with Gestalt Therapy theory in that it is a thorough process-theory, treating the Self as a continually changing process rather than a static thing in the psyche. They recently published an excellent book on this topic, Buddhist Psychology & Gestalt Therapy Integrated: Psychotherapy for the 21st Century.