The Gestalt Approach, Techniques, Theory into Practice and Application

The Gestalt Approach Therapy

The Gestalt approach was developed by Fritz Perls and promotes the importance of wholeness and completeness in day-to-day living. Perls (1969) purported that people strive to accomplish all that they can in their lifetime. Gestalt theory emphasizes the present and supports the equation now = experience = awareness = reality. Only the now exists since the past is no more, and the future has not yet revealed itself. The phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” emphasizes the importance of wholeness or completeness. 

Through Gestalt therapy, the client learns to identify and analyze the smaller issues in relation to the larger problem or situation. The client works with the present to resolve past issues and seeks her or his self-actualization that emerges through personal interaction with their environment. Problems can arise in five different ways: (1) loss of contact with the environment; (2) loss of touch with self by becoming too involved with the environment; (3) failure to put aside unfinished business; (4) finding oneself moving in several different directions; and (5) caught in conflict between doing what one thinks she or he should do versus what one wants to do.


The Gestalt approach uses a repertoire of exercises and experiments. When exercises are used, the counselor guides the student through experiences that include enactment of fantasies, role-play, and psychodrama. 

Exercises such as:

  • “Empty Chair,” “Confrontation,” “I Take Responsibility,” and “May I Feed You a Sentence” are intended to help the student acquire and apply newly honed skills. Other examples of different Gestalt approaches include the following: 
  • Dream Work: The student fantasizes what it would be like in different parts of the dream to better understand the multiple ways of interacting with the environment. 
  • Empty Chair: The student talks to an empty chair to better understand rational and irrational ways of communicating. 
  • Confrontation: The student is challenged by the counselor for her or his actions or words. For example, the student is constantly smiling while masking anger or frustration. 
  • Making the Rounds: This technique, often used in group counseling, involves expressing an emotion or feeling to each person in the group. The student becomes more aware of internal emotions and feelings through verbal expression. 
  • I Take Responsibility: The student makes a statement about an issue or perception and completes the sentence with “... and I take responsibility for it.” 
  • May I Feed You a Sentence: The counselor supplies the student with a sentence to help her or him clarify thoughts and responses. Although Gestalt techniques include free association, the counselor does not interpret or analyze. Rather the purpose is to help the student get in touch with her or his emotions through self-exploration.

Theory into Practice 

Gestalt therapy is complex and sophisticated and requires a high level of cognitive and behavioral development in students. Because life does not unfold in a controlled environment, young students may not be able to apply what they have learned in a counseling situation to a real life challenge. Techniques such as “I Take Responsibility” can help a student sort through blaming and enabling by becoming aware that the solution lies within her or him and does not lie with parents, peers, or teachers. 

The Gestalt approach helps to address situations that are current in a student’s life. There is an emphasis on immediacy to make choices in the present that will affect the future, and there is no room for procrastination or putting off until tomorrow or indefinitely. However, this is a difficult concept for most young people and many adults to grasp.

Practical Application

During a parent-student conference, you are well aware that your seventh- grade student is sending out mixed messages. Jennifer verbally states her desire to succeed but is not doing anything concrete to get assignments in on time either during class or homework. Her mom talks about her procrastination, laziness, and even indifference to her schoolwork. When the three  of  you reviewed Jennifer’s school records, there was nothing apparent that indicated a learning problem. Up until this year, Jennifer was a solid B+ to A student.


Stone, C., & Dahir, C. A. (2015). The transformed school counselor. Cengage Learning.

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