Interview with Eva Röttgers: An atypical interculturalist with a Gestalt orientation 

28 June 2019 | Community in Action

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The Gestalt Approach deals with the way people perceive and react to outside stimuli. Derived from the German word “Gestalt” (shape, form), it attempts to show how we pro cess information as a holistic, meaningful phenomenon in an apparently chaotic world. The central premise of the Gestalt Approach is that the mind will always generate a global whole through its self-organizing tendencies and habits.

Applying Gestalt principles to the larger picture helps us see human patterns and conflicting needs — how “polarised forces” play out. An example would be a Korean, conditioned with a strong need to work collectively, has to deal with an American who views the world individualistically. In order to reconcile potential misunderstandings, both parties must adopt their counterpart’s perspective. Gestalt thinking offers an interesting approach to comprehending intercultural differences not only as individuals, but also as groups, organizations, nations.

Eva Röttgers is an interculturalist with a strong Gestalt oriented background. The focus of her work is managing change and organizational development in a multicultural context. Working as a coach and OD-consultant, she helps improve communication between different levels of hierarchy with differing nationalities.

A member of SIETAR-Deutschland since 1995, she’s been active in developing and organizing small and large group learning processes. She co-founded the Institute for Gestalt-Organizational Development (IGOR) in Frankfurt over 25 years ago and has taught in Germany, Sweden, Norway, France, Russia, Israel and Mexico. Her focus on Gestalt made me curious as to how she operates and, despite her busy schedule, she made time for our interview.

Tell us about your early experiences that led you to be an interculturalist.

I was born and raised in Stuttgart and thought as a child, I had a “normal” German upbringing. Later I realized it wasn’t.  My family moved almost every four years which, as you can imagine, was not easy. And living in the dominant Protestant Swabian environment being a Catholic family implied in the Fifties some “cultural” challenges. Additionally, when reflecting later on the conditions of my childhood upbringing, I realized that my mother, a refugee from Silesia, which is now part of Poland, made a big imprint in my life and my personality. Due to the after-war turmoil my parents had to move to Stuttgart, but my mother never felt at home there.

Later I became interested in her bicultural background and the special situation of the 12 million refugees in West Ger many in those years. In that period, it was very seldom reflected on and explained explicitly to children, for sure not in my family. All these experiences, I think, were the roots of my interest in intercultural encounters.

Eva actively took part in the 68 movement, a cultural clash between the older and younger generation

And then there was the ’68 movement, which was a cultural clash between the older and the younger generations. Al though this movement was also happening in other countries, in Germany it had a special flavour. Suddenly, a lot of the suppressed guilt and shame about German history was in the open and the younger generation was challenging their par ents and teachers about their involvement in these cruelties.  Their credibility and moral authority vanished. I was still at high school at the time and there were constant political con flicts. In those days, we were acting out our feelings; it was not at all an attitude of exploring them in a respectful manner.

At the age of 19, I had to decide about my professional future.  It was clear for me that I did not want to choose a traditional profession like being a doctor or teacher. To find out what could be a more inspiring work with a political impact, I became involved in a pilot project, working with street gangs in Stuttgart. And it turned out that this was what I wanted to do.

To get an adequate professional qualification, I went to Berlin to study Pädagogik-Erziehungswissenschaft, the science of education, what was a new subject for universities. The curriculum was pedagogy, psychology and sociology with the specialty of studying Karl Marx’s Das Kapital extensively. It was for many a quite popular topic in social science – for me as well. For my generation, it was a fruitful way to be against our parents and explore new territories. What’s so interesting today is that, because of the excesses of capitalism, Karl Marx’s ideas are making a comeback.

What did you get out of your studies?

The beginning of the ’70s in Berlin was a very progressive era where we did field and action research work along with our studies. In my case, it was traveling to Denmark for studying innovative approaches and transferring the knowledge to the German social scene. We did a large group project in Berlin by putting all stakeholders together, a hands-on intervention that had real social consequences. Today you would call it a “learning journey” to fuel innovative thinking, what is now widely used in the world of companies. In my case, what prepared me for my later profession was less the content of my studies, but the innovative format and the systemic approach we were taught, which were far ahead of its time.

After my studies, I started as a free-lance trainer. I was 28.  Two years later, I took a leadership position at a community centre in Berlin to gain experience. I did that for four years and, in parallel, did a Gestalt therapy training.

Why did you do Gestalt therapy training?

One of the main principles of Gestalt thinking is to be in the “here and now”.

In the early ’80s, there were bigheated discussions about the “right” approach: change yourself or the system? People in the left-wing movement in Berlin had long talks on whether to go into therapy and work on oneself or to go into politics? My approach was more the political one, but having some personal challenges, I decided to do a Gestalt workshop – what was the “thing to do” in those days.

It was very exciting and adventurous: throwing pillows, screaming, lots of life going on. The leader came up to me afterward and said I’d make a good therapist. I said no, I didn’t want to become a therapist. But as my personal challenges continued, I joined the training program 6 months later with the “excuse” that my primary motive was to learn how to help others more effectively. But for the first one and half years, the focus of the training was self-awareness and self-development. It was within the framework of becoming a therapist.

Part of the 4-year-training was starting to treat individuals and groups under supervision. It wasn’t my initial motivation, but my Gestalt trainer convinced me to do it anyway.  Looking back, I’m happy that I followed his advice. Now I am qualified to work on different levels of a system: individuals,  groups and organizations.

As my primary intention was to work in an organizational context, I was lucky that one experienced leadership trainer was willing to accept me as a co-trainer. This was another experience of a culture shift in my life, going from the public, social sector to the “profit” world. I was considered exotic in both worlds. You need to remember this was 1985 and there were very few women in the field. And I lost colleagues and friends, who said “How can you go into the profit world?”

What was it like as a consultant in those days?

What was new in the mid-’80s was the insight that running a company was more than talking about numbers and facts.  Some corporations wanted to train their managers to be bet ter leaders. They realized that managing people was important to the company’s success with a focus on soft factors like motivation, communication, emotions and conflicts. It was, in a way, a Gestalt-oriented approach…and that was the training expertise I could offer.

So, you don’t do intercultural training in the real sense.

The main focus of my work is facilitating change processes with people of different cultural backgrounds. So, culture is part of the picture… I see to it that all the people concerned are aware of the whole picture, are “in the boat”. Often managers want to implement a certain solution, but they are not so careful in communicating the context and the desired outcomes, what leads to all kind of unintended side effects.

You mean, they haven’t articulated their objectives clearly.

Right. The challenge for many managers is to communicate more than just the solution; you need to state the objectives, the roadmap, the concerns and context, which will lead to the change requirement. All these important “details” are often not explicitly mentioned. To say simply, “Tomorrow, we will change and you’ll have a different title”, managers find to their surprise that subordinates are not convinced and motivated.

Having worked many years in the field of change management I find that many companies have learnt skilful and creative ways for kicking off transformation processes, but we still find some industries and organizations, which operate in a lean-communication manner. Today, the bigger challenge for most companies is generating sustainable changes in disruptive environments, so that a new developmental level for the whole system has been created.

But don’t you deal also with intercultural misunder standings?

Sure. As I often work with German, Dutch, French, Ameri can multinational companies and most business doesn’t only happen in Germany. Cultural issues are important parts of being aware of the “whole picture”. For example, one challenge might be delivery dates. Germans are con cerned about always being in time. When the involved par ties can have a dialogue about the different interpretation of delivery dates and come up with a shared agreement that they all can live with, Germans then can relax.

Another example would be that Germans engineers might have a challenge with “quick and dirty” methods. Here we need, what we call in Gestalt terms “polarity management” — you have 2 contracting objectives: quality standards and delivery times. My role would be to facilitate a group process that the involved parties find a solution beyond the either-or-dominance of one or the other.

What I’ve learned over the years is that cultural awareness is important at the beginning of a cooperation. When a good foundation of cooperation in a multicultural project is created, the team members will find what works in the actual execution of a task. And – as it is a holistic approach – what might need to be included is the awareness of the other stakeholders (customers, other functions, laws, etc.) and how their cultural imprints might influence the outcome of the whole endeavour.  If, going back to the example I just mentioned, the project is not delivered on time, how would customers in the different cultures react — do they scapegoat or not?

I’ve noticed that today many companies ask for mind fulness training. Do you have an explanation?

Mindfulness in the business world started with Google, where they realized that the accelerated information overflow — with data generation as their business model — was for many individuals too much to digest. The question was raised what we need to learn in order to face this demand and Google invited all kind of experts to explore this learning field. One answer was meditation and mindful ness training, what created a huge resonance in the company.

As in the Gestalt Approach, awareness of what is happening in the internal and external environment of a system is a core concept. I agree that the approach of mind fulness has made a big contribution to the well-being of individuals and organizations. If meditation and mindful ness training is done skilfully with discipline, people learn a sort of “neutral awareness” without preferences for a certain outcome. This is helpful for embrace conflicting polarities, like speeding up and calming down. Gestalt would go a step further: support conscious choices after having identified needs.

There is, however, one risk I see. If the mindfulness approach is treated only as a method for self-optimization, by which the company tells the trainer: “We want to be saved from the negative consequences of today’s crazy world, so give us the recipe, some tools, so everything will be fine”, adjusting individuals to the environment won’t be sustainable. Mindfulness is also about awareness of the external environment, which means transformation does not stop at the individual level.

It seems you’re trying to teach the proverb, “In der Ruhe liegt die Kraft” (In calmness lies strength).  Once you calm down, you can make better decisions.

Yes and no. Yes, as the brain is working much better when you are relaxed. No, because I think that the prov erb is a little too simple. I’d frame it like this: We live in a complex, disruptive world and you need the capacity to work with both poles, to be fast and calm. Most people get stuck on either side, usually in hectic action, often leading to unexpected, negative outcomes. I’ve been working with a high-level manager over many years. He thinks, speaks and decides at an amazing speed and he also takes time to listen carefully and qui etly for a longer period. And the way he responds you know that he understood very well and pushes the issue to the next level. He can do both, not either-or.

In your trainings, you work with a colorful image of the brain  (see page 9). What incited you to have this picture made?

The idea and concept developed over the years while I was  doing a leadership program. I saw how difficult it was for  people to change their behavior. The participants had in sights on how they wanted to behave differently but, in the  end, they didn’t change. Learning and insight made little,  often no difference. And this is the main problem: many individuals are stuck in automatic responses.

I continually asked myself why was it so difficult for all of us to change. For years, I did many readings, trainings, coachings, experiments for and with myself, searching for a “map” that could help to navigate through the jungle of your own inner environment. Step by step the different components emerged out of the different inputs.

At one workshop, I was working with an artist, Lucia, who made a visual protocol of what was happening. I explained to her, my model and she translated it into a picture. I saw the effects it  had on people — the image really enhanced the message. When participants see the visualization, they immediately become more reflective, attempting to understand their emotions and behaviors. They say, “Oh, now I’m at this lev el. How would it be if I go up to the next level?” In a way, it’s reflecting on your inner processes in a visual manner.

Afterward, the participants seem to be more open to exploration, moving away from reacting to an immediate impulse, and are able to come up with different interpretations about what is happening and a wider horizon of future scenarios.  They say, “What would be an alternative option to move forward? I could go this way or that way.” I see them moving from “I have an impulse” and acting on it immediately to “Let’s look at the options and make a more conscious choice”.

Very interesting. Now, now do you see the future of SIETAR?

For me, SIETAR is a forum of highly interesting people. They’re open, they want to learn, it’s easy to make contact.  It’s a very lively, international community. It’s inspiring to be part of it and I always get new ideas by being in contact with SIETARIANS. This is the positive side.

There are limitations, however. It’s already an accomplish ment that interculturalists have put an organization into place. But the inherent weakness of SIETAR, in my view, is like most voluntary organizations, you need very devoted people to make the organization work. And an international organization located in different countries is a special chal lenge. People come and put a lot of work in and then they’re exhausted and leave. And more often than not, the next group doesn’t know what was done before. The new people start from scratch with too little opportunity to build from what was accomplished in the past…. And then the progress is very slow and members leave disappointed etc.

Another risk I see in the focus of many in the search for inspi rations on the individual level. SIETAR-members’ motivation is mainly to have an exchange with colleagues, gain inspira tion, tools, tips for videos etc.

What we need is to focus more being a learning community.  I believe Milton Bennett expressed it well: co-creating ideas and activities on a collective level. That would, in my opinion, support us to flourish as an international association of Interculturalists.

Interviewed by Patrick Schmidt

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