Gestalt Therapy – The Empty Chair

Fritz Perls is interesting to watch while he workshops his therapeutic approach and it is highly recommended to watch his “Empty Chair” technique (various videos available on YouTube). In this technique, the client and therapist are seated and there is also an empty chair, generally facing the client. This allows the client to look at the empty chair while s/he talks, with the therapist observing the client and the empty chair.

Gestalt Therapy Empty Chair
Gestalt Therapy Empty Chair

The empty chair becomes a focus for the client, as s/he is directed to speak to the chair, as if speaking to another person (or a personified problem). If the subject of the discussion is the client’s fears or insecurities, those fears or insecurities can “take form” in the empty chair and be addressed by the client. If the issue is the client’s relationship with a parent, that parent can be “placed” in the empty chair and the client addresses their parent directly. Sometimes, this involves the client talking to the empty chair and sometimes it has the client jumping from chair to chair to take on the persona (and provide responses for) the other party to the conversation.

How is this helpful?

  • This technique can allow the client to verbalise issues, helping to clarify problems and suggest solutions.
  • The client can also begin to understand the perspective of the person in the other chair, by trying to take his or her perspective.
  • The client can “externalise” problems (this is a powerful technique also applied in other modalities, such as Narrative Therapy). Once problems are externalised, the client can began to examine them from a distance and realise that the problem is not him or her (that is, the client is more than just the problem).
  • The client can be helped to move from verbalising feelings to expressing them (both in the chair as themselves and in the empty chair as the “other”).

When might the Empty Chair technique be used?

  • When the client insists on making the therapy session about others (the problem is not his or hers, but rests with someone else).
  • When the client cannot distance him/herself from problems.
  • When the client seems to lack empathy for others.
  • When the client lacks affect.

We all practice things we are going to say to others. Perhaps we are practicing how we might respond in a stressful situation. Perhaps we are visualising how we are going to respond in an interpersonal encounter. The Empty Chair makes this technique more overt and allows us to remove ourselves from the problem, to look at new ways to address it. Talking to an empty chair might help empower us to improve our relationships, so we don’t find ourselves sitting across from empty chairs outside of therapy.

Here’s to good mental health!

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