In Therapy

A user's guide to psychotherapy

Cool Intervention #9: The Empty Chair

10CTI: Therapy with furniture

The Ten Coolest Therapy Interventions series continues with a technique widely recognized among gestalt therapists, their clients and furniture aficionados everywhere. Gestalt therapy expert Dan Bloom shares his thoughts on this powerful procedure.

The term gestalt refers to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt therapy, formulated by Fritz Perls (1893-1970) is based on the idea of a whole being as connected with their environment, loved ones and memories. Therapy works toward creating full awareness of the here and now, both within the client and between client and therapist. The empty chair is one of many interactive techniques used to help engage the client's feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

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The ol' empty chair has had quite a tongue-lashing over the years. Clients have given a piece of their mind to innumerable spouses, bosses, best friends and dead relatives thanks to this simple tool. But the chair is none the worse for wear, and millions of people have a greater understanding of feelings and communication as a result. This definitely qualifies it as a Top Ten finalist. 

I'm honored to host Dan Bloom, JD, LCSW, a New York gestalt psychotherapist and president of the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy, an international community. He writes, provides supervision and trains therapists in New York and internationally. He kindly shares his thoughts on the empty chair:

1. When would a clinician use the empty chair technique?

The empty chair technique is characteristic of some styles of gestalt therapy. It is often effective at facilitating clients' integration of different aspects or "disowned parts" of their personality in order to further psychotherapeutic insight. It is one of a variety of interventions that help people move from talking about something towards the fullness of immediate, present experience - sensation, affect, cognition, movement. The less people are "in touch," or "verbalizing," or abstractly thinking, the more likely therapists are to use this as an expressive technique. It is not used for clients whose emotionality is already dramatic and who may be already subject to emotional "flooding."

2. What does it look like?

As first popularized by Fritz Perls, one of the founders of gestalt therapy, an empty chair faced the client. The client imagined someone (or himself, herself, or parts of him or herself) in it, and spoke, gestured, or otherwise communicated to the "empty chair," which was now not so empty. The client then sat in the chair, continuing the conversation, this time reversing roles. Variations of the "empty chair" developed over the decades in order to fit the clinical needs of the situation - and as gestalt therapy evolved. The client might participate in this technique without the "prop" of an actual empty chair. Importantly, the technique today always includes attention to the relational dynamic between the client and the psychotherapist.

3. How does it help the client?

This technique often brings clients into present or immediate experiences. Abstractions or verbalizations become enlivened moments. Clients may be able to experience different aspects of their own conflicts in a new manner through empty-chair dialogue. Gestalt therapy is more than a collection of techniques, despite the notoriety of the empty chair. This technique is one of the many interventions within gestalt therapy, all with the common purpose of facilitating discovery and psychotherapeutic insight.

4. In your opinion, what makes the empty chair a cool intervention?

Any intervention that challenges the passivity of the clinician and turns psychotherapy into a creative collaboration is a cool technique. Further, if the empty chair is a new approach to the clients, it offers a new perspective on the therapy process.

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, musician and professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.

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