How to Do the Empty Chair Technique
The set-up of the empty chair technique is relatively straightforward.
The following is a simple description of the approach in a therapeutic setting (Smith & Quirk, 2017; Mann, 2010).
- Prepare the environment: set out two chairs facing each other in the therapy room, one for the client while the other represents the ’empty chair.’
- Explain the process: clearly explain the purpose and process of the technique so clients understand they will be engaging in a dialogue with an imagined person or a part of themselves.
- Choose the focus: help them identify who or what the empty chair represents. It could be another person, an aspect of themselves, or a symbolic representation (like a disowned quality or life choice).
- Clarify the objective: discuss what clients hope to achieve or explore through this exercise.
- Start the conversation: encourage them to begin the dialogue, speaking directly to the imagined person or part of themselves in the empty chair.
- Role switching: (when appropriate) ask them to switch chairs and respond from the other person’s perspective (or part of themselves) in the ‘empty chair.’ It can offer a moment of profound insight and empathy.
- Encourage emotional expression: encourage and guide clients toward expressing their feelings, needs, and thoughts openly, speaking to the empty chair in the first person while staying present and focused.
- Use of exaggeration and repetition: suggest they exaggerate certain emotions or repeat key phrases to intensify the experience and heighten awareness.
- Guide the process: as the therapist, pay attention to non-verbal cues and emotional shifts.
- Promote self-reflection: encourage clients to reflect on their learning about themselves, their relationships, and their behavior patterns.
- Wrap up the dialogue: when ready, gradually guide them to bring the conversation to a close.
- Debrief and process: afterward, discuss their experiences.
What insights did they gain?
How do they feel about the person or part of themselves they interacted with?
The success of the Empty Chair Technique relies heavily on the therapeutic relationship and the client’s readiness and willingness to engage in the process (Nelson-Jones, 2014).
It is vital that the client learn how the insights gained relate to their life and therapy goals and serve as a valuable foundation for future therapeutic work (Mann, 2010).
10 Tips for using the empty chair in therapy
The Empty Chair Technique can be a transformative tool in therapy when used effectively. The following tips can help maximize its potential (Smith & Quirk, 2017; Mann, 2010).
- Establish trust and safety: a solid therapeutic alliance is vital. The client must feel safe and ready to experience such intense emotions.
- Clarify the purpose: the client must understand the reason behind the technique—how it can help them explore unresolved issues, internal conflicts, and aspects of their relationships.
- Choose the right moment: only use the technique when they appear ready to confront deeper issues, rather than a tool for early assessment.
- Guide rather than lead: guide the client’s exploration without directing the conversation or putting words in their mouth.
- Monitor how the client responds: if the experience is too overwhelming, slow down or pause the intervention.
- Carefully use role reversal: only switch chairs and perspectives when ready to foster empathy and a deeper understanding of the other person or the conflicted part of themselves.
- Focus on the present: emphasize the client’s current feelings and perceptions even when revisiting the past.
- Make it specific to the client: every client is unique, so be flexible and adapt the technique to suit individual needs and comfort levels.
- Be aware of non-verbal cues: Pay close attention to their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to gain additional insights into their emotional state and reactions.
- Ensure closure: conclude the empty chair exercise with a sense of closure so the client leaves the session feeling stable and grounded, particularly when exploring intense emotions.
Questions to ask during chair work
Here are twelve questions that can be helpful as a counselor or therapist (Smith & Quirk, 2017; Mann, 2010).
- Can you begin by telling the person in the chair what you want to say to them?
- How are you feeling right now as you look at the empty chair?
- What do you wish they understood about how their actions affected you?
- How would you respond to what you’ve just said if you were in their place?
- What do you need from the person in the empty chair for closure or healing?
- How does it feel to express these thoughts and emotions out loud?
- What are you feeling in your body right now as you have this conversation?
- What are you learning about yourself through this dialogue?
- If you could change one thing about how you interact with this person, what would it be?
- How might they explain their actions or feelings if they were here?
- Can you find any understanding or empathy for their perspective or situation?
- What would you like to say to conclude your conversation with the person in the empty chair?
These therapy questions help clients explore and resolve internal conflicts, understand their emotions, and gain new perspectives.
3 Variations of the Empty Chair
At least three variations of the empty chair are described in the literature. “The individual is encouraged to engage in a dialogue with an imagined other placed in an empty seat,” with that ‘other’ being either (Pugh, 2017, para. 4):
- An actual individual, perhaps a parent, sibling, partner, or boss (alive or dead).
- Something symbolic, a personal goal or an inner critic.
- Parts of the self, such as the client’s emotional or rational side.
It is important to note that the empty chair technique should be considered a therapeutic process that often requires repetition to achieve full effect (Pugh, 2018).
8 Advantages & Disadvantages of The Empty Chair Technique
The research suggests that the empty chair technique can be valuable in various contexts with a variety of clients; however, as with any therapy intervention, there are advantages and disadvantages (Pugh, 2017, 2018):
4 Advantages or benefits
- The intervention can elicit intense and strong emotions that can offer therapeutic benefits for clients who are ready for them.
- The technique can be valuable in coaching and counseling clients, helping them resolve a diverse range of unfinished business.
- Conversing with different parts of themselves helps clients tackle self-criticism and rumination.
- The two chairs allow clients to have conversations they wish they had but never got the chance to do.
4 Disadvantages or limitations
- There is limited data to support several of the claims associated with successfully using the technique.
- The intervention requires space (for two or more chairs) and is best suited to a face-to-face setting.
- The emotional intensity makes it inappropriate for specific clients or disorders (for example, those who are emotionally unstable or avoidant).
- Creating standard approaches to the techniques is difficult, leading some researchers to describe it as more art than science.
Other Therapy Resources from PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources available for therapists providing support to individuals, couples, and groups in managing their feelings and handling difficult thoughts.
Our free resources include:
- Codependent Relationships: Beliefs, Attributes, and Outcomes
This helpful checklist supports clients in exploring short and long-term outcomes of codependent behaviors.
- Shifting Codependency Patterns
Contrasting codependent thought and behavior patterns with healthier ones can be a practical way to take action to recover from codependency.
- Active Listening Reflection Worksheet
Effective listening is vital in all our relationships. This spreadsheet provides a helpful checklist to reflect on specific situations.
More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:
- Stay or Leave? The Empty Chair Technique
Chair work is a valuable tool for clients considering their life domains. In this exercise, the client reflects on whether or not they should leave their job:
- Step one – describe the dilemma regarding whether or not you leave your job.
- Step two – next, picture the ‘you that stays in your job’ versus the ‘you that leaves’
- Step three – ask in turn each version of you to take a seat and answer a series of questions, including:
How do you feel?
How much energy and vitality do you have?
What are your main reasons for wanting to stay?
How do you feel about the future?
- Step four – now consider which voice was louder and more convincing. Did you discover anything about this dilemma? If so, what?
- Looking at Difficult People from a Strength Perspective
We interpret the actions of others based on our individual and unique value systems.
By recognizing another’s strengths, we can positively reframe their behavior more honestly and accurately:
- Step one – think of someone you find difficult and specific times when their behavior was challenging.
- Step two – describe the specific situation, your emotions during it, and how they might have influenced your reaction. Think of any personal beliefs impacting your response and assumptions you have about the person.
- Step three – challenge yourself to see the difficult behaviors in a new light, transforming negative traits into positive ones. For example, view stubbornness as determination.
- Step four – consider the positive attributes you’ve identified. Think about what strengths the person might be overusing or underusing. How could knowing their strength change your perspective and potentially alter future interactions?
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Many clients we meet in counseling arrive with ‘unresolved business’ (Nelson-Jones, 2014). As mental health practitioners, our role is to help them face up to and address the negative feelings and thoughts that result, both to themselves and others.
While the empty chair technique was born out of Gestalt therapy, it can be used with any therapeutic approach, including CBT, to explore the client’s current experience, search for understanding, and find peace with their ‘self’ (Pugh, 2018).
Through dialogue with a significant other (including aspects of themselves), they gain the potential to address hidden, ignored, and avoided aspects of themselves in the present and allow feelings to run their course.
Research suggests a wide variety of therapeutic applications, including (but not limited to) adolescents, couples and families, and those suffering from anxiety, depression, and phobias.
To be effective, the client must feel safe in the therapeutic alliance to explore unresolved issues, elements of their relationships, and internal conflict.
For those clients ready to experience the profound emotional intensity of the empty chair technique, this can be a valuable tool for helping them move forward from issues that have never adequately been resolved and have been holding them back.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.