By Rich Simon I recently had the privilege of interviewing Erv Polster, who many therapists of my generation know as pioneer of Gestalt therapy. Those not of my generation, whether they’re familiar with his work or not, are steeped in his influence—body work, mindfulness, and immediacy in therapy were introduced and exemplified by Polster and his cohorts.
The interview—part of the Creativity in the Consulting Room Networker Webcast series—is interspersed with clips of Erv at work, conducting therapy with a woman who volunteered from an audience of over 2,000 people. Though it was recorded in 2009, seeing the demonstration felt like a throwback to my graduate school days, when watching skilled therapists actually doing therapy made up a significant part of our training. In his deeply personal and nuanced way, Erv becomes his client’s partner in creating a memorably transformative experience.
While watching his video demonstration, I was reminded of part of the draw of the Olympics. The athletes are so skilled that their remarkable feats seem effortless and beyond the realm of anything I—or any other normal person—could hope to accomplish. There’s something of that quality to watching Erv seamlessly fall into step with a client, concretize her abstractions, and pick up on what in her emotionally difficult post-divorce life is genuine and worth celebrating. And yet, the sheer humanity of his presence as he leverages his personality, authority, creativity, and humor in service of the client is proof that for all his uniqueness, he’s still one of us.
Seeing a therapist this skilled in action can leave us wondering if there’s some special therapeutic gift that’s bestowed on a rare few. But in Erv’s words, what he’s doing isn’t so mysterious. During our interview, he shared this thought about what we’re trying to accomplish as therapists, and how it is we get there: “We [therapists] concentrate on creating something new. We’re bent on doing that. It just doesn’t happen naturally. We have techniques for doing it. In that sense, psychotherapy qualifies as a very conscious device for making something new happen.”
It’s fascinating to get Erv’s take on his own work—getting to know the conscious decisions that guide the very immediate style of therapy that he does. Seeing a clip of his demonstration and immediately getting to hear the thought process behind what looks (and may very well be) completely natural to him removes some of the mystery about what it takes to be a master of our craft. Even if we never approach his level of skill, getting to know how and why he works the way he does is a reminder that even the most “natural” therapists can be understood and imitated.
Click here to sign up for our Creativity in the Consulting Room Networker Webcast series and watch this interview and others like it—featuring demonstrations and conversations about the work of greats like Virginia Satir, Peggy Papp, Milton Erickson, and more. You’ll come away with a deeper understanding not only of the patterns and techniques, but also the ways of being that give rise to therapeutic mastery.