Taken from Chapter 6, which describes the phenomenology behind the Consensus Workshop Method, in Getting to the Bottom of ToP, by Wayne and Jo Nelson, to be published in 2017.
Let us step aside for a moment to discuss an approach that has become integral to ToP methodology as a way of processing objective, reflective and interpretive information. We have used the term “gestalt” to identify the process of relating ideas that respond to a focus question in similar ways. Max Wertheimer, one of the founders of the Gestalt approach, says gestalt is:
“A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties can not be derived from a simple summation of its parts”.
“. . . the essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”
The focal point of Gestalt theory is the idea of relating specific elements to see a pattern of thought. The “whole” we see is something more structured and cohesive than a group of separate particles. Wertheimer, says,
“There are wholes, the behaviour of which is not determined by that of their individual elements, but where the part-processes are themselves determined by the whole.”
“When a group of people work together it rarely occurs, and then only under very special conditions, that they constitute a mere-sum of independent Egos. Instead the common enterprise often becomes their mutual concern and each works as a meaningfully functioning part of the whole.”

Michael Polanyi addresses this in his book, The Tacit Dimension. Polanyi identifies two terms of tacit knowing: proximal and distal. The proximal or the term nearest to us is the particulars of a situation. The distal term, furthest from us, is the whole. The relationship between the proximal and distal terms of tacit knowing has three aspects, functional, phenomenal, and semantic.
In the functional aspect of tacit knowing we move from the specifics to the whole. In the phenomenal aspect we are aware of the specifics as we look at the larger question. The ‘distal’ term is the larger topic and the big picture questions that elicit specific responses. The semantic aspect comes into play when certain relationships specifics are perceived and an overall image is formed. This is the intuitive nature of gestalt. We see the larger picture as we see patterns in the specifics. The phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” is often used when explaining gestalt. Indeed, this phrase is often used as one of the foundational assumptions underlying ToP methodology as it is used with groups.
Gestalt in this context is about seeing ‘patterns of meaning’ in a whole set of ideas given in relation to a specific question. The individual responses to the focus question will, hopefully, be comprehensive in addressing the question. The task is to discern the major themes of thought or distinct answers to the given question. There may be many connections and associations among the ideas. There may be causes and effects. There may be words that are similar or seem to have similar meanings. The key factor, if useful meaning is to be distilled from this process, is the question used as the guide, the focus question. It focuses the generation of ideas and it is the question that guides discernment of the thought patterns of the responses. The question becomes the fundamental reference point for a whole inquiry and all of its parts. The patterns are named as the group’s response to the focus question.
It must be understood that this is a process of synthesis rather than analysis. One of the easy temptations in performing this kind of process is the tendency to sort elements into categories that are already integrated into our understanding even if they are not identified consciously. It is, without question, much easier to do both from the perspective of the participant and the facilitator, but it does not create new knowledge. There are methodologies that do that kind of analysis and they play their own role in processing ideas. They are useful and necessary for operational situations in which an overall framework is already firmly in place.
Consistent with the nature of phenomenological inquiry, a true gestalt does not make any assumptions about the relationships among data. Those assumptions are intentionally and methodologically bracketed. There are no categories until they are identified and named. Gestalt and all phenomenological inquiry are oriented toward forming new understanding. If the process is merely categorizing elements using typologies of information, a true “gestalt” has not happened. A gestalt creates a new picture and a new understanding of a given reality.
A Three-Step Process
Performing a gestalt must be seen as a three-step process.
The first step is the question posed to a group. That question becomes the focus and reference point for the whole process. The group responds and the ideas are recorded graphically. In the ToP lexicon, this is the objective level of processing ideas.
It is then that the gestalt process begins more formally. The second step is identifying the themes or patterns within the responses in relationship to the question itself. It is, necessarily an iterative process which enables a group to formulate meaningful clusters of similar responses to a question. This begins with intuitive associations between responses at the reflective level, and gradually builds interpretation of what is emerging.
The third step is to articulate the nature of each identified thought pattern and the relationships among them. It reveals the group’s major answers to the question. When this is complete and all of the themes are named, the group has created a new image of their response to the question.
For many, this is an almost magical event. The gestalt moves the information from individuals’ ideas to the ideas of the group. In a very real way, the individuals give their ideas to the group and they become, to use an economic metaphor, the property of the whole. It is a gifting or a kind of surrender. From a long list of ideas that respond to the question in different ways, the group creates a meaningful understanding of its response to the question. They have discovered their commonality of thought and within it, the major elements.
[1] Max Wertheimer – Hayes Barton Press – An address before the Kant Society, Berlin, 7 December 1924

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