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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Braun, MSc

Dancing through international transitions with Gestalt coaching

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

Have you ever danced? Have you ever experienced this exchange of energies leading to the creation of a unique non-verbal conversation? Being developed through experimenting? Being vivid only while staying in the here and now and with the dancing partner? Approaching each other in a non-judgmental way? Being open-ended without having a fixed agenda except of going with the flow and responding to the partner’s and your own impulse, like in improvisation theatre, developing the story on its way? How many analogs with Gestalt come to my mind while thinking about dancing – and dance analogs while thinking about Gestalt.

Do you remember the scene from the film Scent Of A Woman, when Al Pacino playing a blind was virtuously dancing with an unknown young lady, who on top was inexperienced in dancing? He didn’t see her, he didn’t know the dance place, he did everything just by sensing and being completely in the here and now. This blind dance partner is the best role model for each good coach.

In coaching like in a dance you undergo a fixed term relationship with a person you haven’t known before. In a short time, you need to develop a deep feeling for and understanding of the personality of your coaching partner. Gestalt, using a holistic approach of working with the client, is a great help in developing such a relationship, being relationship based, non-judgmental, experimental, and sensing the self of your client and your own self.

What if the client comes from another cultural environment or is going to go for a long period of time to live and work in another country, alone or with the family? I think that Gestalt-orientated coaching is especially helpful for those clients.

To understand why, it’s important to understand the nature and challenges of international assignments and assignees or expatriates.

When a company does something, it is mostly because of one simple reason – to earn money. So it is with sending employees to international assignments. Besides expecting ‘return on investment’, another objective behind is often ensuring a greater parental control and gaining from the unique experience of the expatriate. But an expatriate costs a lot of money to the company. According to the Harvard Business Review, on average, expatriates cost two to three times what they would in an equivalent position back home. Surprisingly, a lot of international assignments are not being prepared in a proper way putting much attention on administrative checklist, but too few on cultural readiness and support of family members in integrating into the new environment. Not seldom international assignment fails and needs to be interrupted mostly due to the social, health and family reasons: an expatriate him- or herself or his/her spouse is unable to integrate and deals with a culture stress.

In the 1960-ies, a US anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identified four stages of culture stress: honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adjustment stages. More than a half of expatriates don’t reach the recovery and adjustment stages and stuck in a continuous culture stress, mostly due to the lack of an appropriate preparation and selection for the assignment. Many symptoms of culture stress are similar to the symptoms of post-traumatic disorder. The problems expatriates face in this situation are mental and/or physical health issues, hidden mental problems expatriate takes with him/her hoping that the new environment automatically heals them; depression, alcohol and drugs as a way to escape of stress, sexual disorder, hormonal misbalance, overweight, which can also be a result of the hormonal changes due to the increased cortisol distribution caused by stress; divorce, worries about the future after the assignment, which stays often undefined even for the high potentials of an organization.

So the high potential is sent abroad to give his/her best and to show more than extraordinary performance, and suddenly he cannot perform even at his usual level. Because of these distractions, he never could. Stress is an indirect co-causing factor for cardiovascular diseases and mental disorders; because it is indirect, it is often underestimated. It is crucial to break the dead circle and to find back to happiness as soon as possible, otherwise it can cause irreversible damage to the health and life.

An international assignment is like a project: it should be prepared, conducted and followed-up smoothly and intelligent in order to have successful results – and a payback. A future expatriate should be assessed and selected thoroughly based not on a corporate political decision, time pressure or lack of resources, but on skills, experience and personality. The best expatriate personality mix includes robust personality, mental and physical health, tolerance for ambiguity, behavioral flexibility, strong interpersonal and communication skills, a minimum of language skills of the host country, family situation, high cultural empathy and no ethnocentrism (the belief of one’s culture superiority) and on the top – nonjudgmental disposition.

Nonjudgmental disposition is a key to expatriate’s success and happiness. Coming into another cultural environment is like looking at Gestalt pictures: what you see is not implicitly what it is. Bringing a fixed paradigm of (cultural) expectations how, what and who should be, creates a time bomb for expatriate. Several mergers got stuck in the condition of a cold war after the completion of all needed formalities and process transformation, because organizations were unable, unwilling or unaware of cultural adaptation needed to win trust and respect so important for high performing corporate culture. For example, they served culturally unsuitable dishes and drinks to the welcome lunches or their expectations in terms of punctuality and negotiation manner were diametrically opposed. Paraphrasing Fritz Perls, they expected others to live up to their expectations.

Gestalt-orientated coaching is very helpful in expatriate’s preparation and support in his biocultural interactions and adaptation, because it develops a sustainable non-judgmental way of thinking, relationship skills and invites to experimentation. Coaching can help to prevent a lot of these risks, to prepare a person and his/her spouse for the assignment, to be their ‘thinking partner’ and to mitigate arising risks along the assignment as well as to follow-up on the assignment upon return. Expatriates gain from coaching improving the quality of their lives and boosting performance, and companies gain from the success of international assignment and return on invested costs.

The outcomes of Gestalt-orientated, holistic coaching on and for international assignments include developing cross-cultural awareness, sensitivity and skills, deep and sustainable self-awareness as well as awareness and skills for creating a fulfilled and healthy life in a new environment.

What Gestalt-orientated coaching does for expatriates, who are at home everywhere and nowhere, is making them comfortable dancing through the here and now, sensing the momentum, living it – and so their full potential – to the full extent. Their happiness and success is worth trying. Would you like to experiment?..

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