The Empty Chair Technique: How It Can Help Your Clients

Empty Chair TechniqueResolving “unfinished business” is often an essential part of counseling. If left unresolved, it can contribute to depression, anxiety, and mental ill-health while damaging existing and future relationships (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

The empty chair technique is a practice derived from gestalt therapy and designed to confront and resolve a client’s current conflicts. It enhances self-awareness by encouraging them to explore previously avoided experiences (Trijayanti et al., 2019; Smith & Quirk, 2017).

This article explores the empty chair technique, who it is suitable for, and tips and techniques to make it successful.

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The Empty Chair Technique: What It Is in a Big Nutshell

Before we introduce the empty chair technique, also commonly known as the two-chair technique, let’s first look at gestalt therapy to understand the purpose of this therapeutic method.

What is gestalt therapy?

“Gestalt therapy theory is a tapestry made up of many theoretical threads, all of which emphasize the humanistic values of respect for the client’s experience and a non pathologizing, accepting approach to psychotherapy” (Cole & Reese, 2017, p. 99).

The pillars of gestalt theory include (Mann, 2010):

  • Field theory
    Exploring the client’s experience within their current environment or circumstances
  • Phenomenology
    Searching for understanding what is directly observed or experienced rather than interpreted
  • A dialogue that goes beyond what is said
    Meaningfully interacting in the space between two people (therapist and client)

Gestalt therapy is typically described as integrative, meaning that it combines several elements to offer a holistic view of the individual, with the self forming part of the voyage of discovery rather than a static entity (Mann, 2010).

Such therapy is, therefore, an exploration of “how a person reaches out to their world, how they respond to their situation, and how past and present situations impact upon their (and our) process of reaching out in the here and now” (Mann, 2010, p. 5).

Introducing the empty chair technique

Unresolved negative feelings toward others contribute to mental ill-health, including depression and anxiety, and damage existing and future relationships (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

In response, the empty chair technique was born out of gestalt therapy’s view of therapy being a journey focusing on the need to address unfinished business.

It was created to help clients resolve conflict in their present moment by increasing awareness and helping them uncover additional aspects of their experience they may have been avoiding (Smith & Quirk, 2017).

During the intervention, the client engages in an imaginary conversation with a significant person from their lives (past or present) in an attempt to “access restricted feelings allowing them to run their course and be restructured in the safety of the therapy environment” (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 347).

Therefore, the two-chair technique brings issues from other times into the here and now and has many uses for the client, including (Mann, 2010):

  • Exploring disowned qualities
    Confronting aspects (disowned parts) of themselves they might deny or avoid
  • Dialoguing with internal conflicts
    Facilitating a dialogue between conflicting parts of their self, aiding self-understanding and resolution
  • Examining life choices
    Exploring their significant life decisions, providing a space to verbalize and confront associated implications and feelings
  • Reclaiming projections
    Helping them identify and reclaim projections (aspects of themselves they might attribute to others) to promote self-awareness and personal growth
How to use transformational chairwork therapy

Check out this video to learn how this fascinating gestalt therapy technique can help clients let go of someone from their past.

Who Is the Technique Best Suited For?

The empty chair technique is a powerful counseling tool. The technique suits individuals and groups wishing to address unresolved issues arising from multiple sources and in various contexts (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

It has the potential to address these unresolved issues across various situations, including (Nelson-Jones, 2014):

Reducing guilt in adolescents

Adolescence is a challenging time requiring personal adjustment to move from childhood to adulthood. The two-chair technique has proven effective at significantly reducing the guilt that arises in young people’s lives when things go wrong (Trijayanti et al., 2019).

Anxiety of bullying victims

Bullying is known to negatively impact the psychological wellbeing of its victims. The empty chair technique is an effective intervention for overcoming their anxiety, helping them “empathize and be able to defuse past conflicts” (Jannah & Wangid, 2023, p. 50).

Couple and family therapy

The gestalt therapy technique has successfully treated couple and family relationship issues, with clients reporting increased closeness from being better able to express what they are feeling and identify mistakes (even extra-marital affairs) as something separate from their relationship (Smith & Quirk, 2017).

Psychological wellbeing among transgender people

Researchers in India report that “[the] transgender [community] is a morosely neglected community in India who faces discrimination.” The use of the empty chair technique has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing in transgender people by addressing feelings of social disconnect following experiences of social isolation and bullying (Gupta & Gaur, 2022, p. 164).

Treatment of phobias

Both the empty chair technique and desensitization can help clients manage and overcome their phobias (Johnson & Smith, 1997).

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How to Do the Empty Chair Technique

The setup 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).

  1. Prepare the environment. Set out two chairs facing each other in the therapy room, one for the client, and one constituting the “empty chair.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. Clarify the objective. Discuss what clients hope to achieve or explore through this exercise.
  5. Start the conversation. Encourage them to begin the dialogue, speaking directly to the imagined person or part of themselves in the empty chair.
  6. Switch roles. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Use exaggeration and repetition. Suggest that your client exaggerate certain emotions or repeat key phrases to intensify the experience and heighten awareness.
  9. Guide the process. As the therapist, pay attention to nonverbal cues and emotional shifts.
  10. Promote self-reflection. Encourage clients to reflect on their learning about themselves, their relationships, and their behavior patterns.
  11. Wrap up the dialogue. When ready, gradually guide them to bring the conversation to a close.
  12. Debrief and process. Afterward, discuss their experience.

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).

  1. Establish trust and safety. A solid therapeutic alliance is vital. The client must feel safe and ready to experience such intense emotions.
  2. 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.
  3. Choose the right moment. Only use the technique when the client appears ready to confront deeper issues, rather than a tool for early assessment.
  4. Guide rather than lead. Guide the client’s exploration without directing the conversation or putting words in their mouth.
  5. Monitor how the client responds. If the experience is too overwhelming, slow down or pause the intervention.
  6. Carefully use role reversal. Only switch chairs and perspectives when the client seems ready to foster empathy and a deeper understanding of the other person or the conflicted part of themselves.
  7. Focus on the present. Emphasize the client’s current feelings and perceptions even when revisiting the past.
  8. Make it specific to the client. Every client is unique, so be flexible and adapt the technique to suit individual needs and comfort levels.
  9. Be aware of nonverbal cues. Pay close attention to their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to gain additional insights into their emotional state and reactions.
  10. Ensure closure. Conclude the empty chair exercise with a sense of closure so the client leaves the session feeling stable and grounded, particularly after exploring intense emotions.

Questions to ask during chair work

Here are 12 questions that can be helpful for counselors or therapists to ask their clients (Smith & Quirk, 2017; Mann, 2010).

  1. Can you begin by telling the person in the chair what you want to say to them?
  2. How are you feeling right now as you look at the empty chair?
  3. What do you wish they understood about how their actions affected you?
  4. How would you respond to what you’ve just said if you were in their place?
  5. What do you need from the person in the empty chair for closure or healing?
  6. How does it feel to express these thoughts and emotions out loud?
  7. What are you feeling in your body right now as you have this conversation?
  8. What are you learning about yourself through this dialogue?
  9. If you could change one thing about how you interact with this person, what would it be?
  10. How might they explain their actions or feelings if they were here?
  11. Can you find any understanding or empathy for their perspective or situation?
  12. 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

Empty Chair TechniqueAt 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):

  1. An actual individual, perhaps a parent, sibling, partner, or boss (alive or dead)
  2. Something symbolic, a personal goal or an inner critic
  3. 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 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, 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.

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.

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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 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, check out this signature collection of 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 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 Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, 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 adolescents, couples and families, and those experiencing anxiety, depression, and phobias.

For the technique 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.

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  • Cole, P., & Reese, D. (2017). An introduction to contemporary gestalt therapy for group therapists. Group, 41(2), 95–117.
  • Gupta, S., & Gaur, A. (2022). The effectiveness of empty chair technique on psychological wellbeing among transgenders. Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(2), 164–168.
  • Jannah, Z., & Wangid, M. N. (2023). Empty chair technique to overcome anxiety of bullying victims. In D. S. Purnama, M. B. Omar, M. Shaikh, Y. Nurmalasari, N. Sutanti, & I. Rachmawati (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Seminar on Delivering Transpersonal Guidance and Counselling Services in School (pp. 47–53). Atlantis Press.
  • Johnson, W. R., & Smith, E. W. (1997). Gestalt empty-chair dialogue versus systematic desensitization in the treatment of a phobia. Gestalt Review, 1(2), 150–162.
  • Mann, D. (2010). Gestalt therapy: 100 key points and techniques. Routledge.
  • Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills. Sage.
  • Pugh, M. (2017, June 8). Pull up a chair. The British Psychological Society. https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/pull-chair
  • Pugh, M. (2018). Cognitive behavioural chairwork. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 11(1), 100–116.
  • Smith, A. D., & Quirk, K. (2017). Empty chair technique in couple and family therapy. In J. L. Lebow, A L. Chambers, & D. C. Breunlin (Eds.), Encyclopedia of couple and family therapy (pp. 902–904). Springer.
  • Trijayanti, Y. W., Nurihsan, J., & Hafina, A. (2019). Gestalt counseling with empty chair technique to reduce guilt among adolescents at risk. Islamic Guidance and Counseling Journal, 2(1), 1–10.

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