By Roger Schaller.
The empty chair as a diagnostic tool in individual therapy.
Representing an interaction partner
The empty chair technique is a central method in one-person role play, where it can be helpful to use an empty chair to represent a feeling, and then engage in a dialogue with this feeling chair. Empty chairs are used to make the intangible – like emotions, hypotheses, evaluations, needs, goals – visible and manageable, for instance, by representing internal elements, ambivalences, feelings, or needs. With an empty chair it is also possible to imagine absent interaction partners and in the role play, like illustrated in the following example from the coaching of a manager:
Mr. Carstens has recently been promoted and does not feel comfortable in his role as manager when interacting with his former teammates. Especially with Mr. Müller he feels an unspoken conflictual tension. I place a chair on the stage of the room and comment:
“Imagine Mr. Müller is sitting there. Please briefly describe this person … And what does Mr. Müller trigger in you? … Take your time … look at the chair … Imagine him sitting there …”
Mr. Carstens says he feels uncomfortable with this employee, especially by his constant kindness and smile. I ask Mr. Carstens to keep looking at the empty chair and imagining that Mr. Müller is sitting there: “Take your time … observe the chair and also consider your own perception of this person … What is going on inside you? … How are you physically? … What do you feel? … And what thoughts are going through your mind? … Do you have similar thoughts and feelings about other people?”
During this exploration, it turns out that the client experiences similar feelings when interacting with Mr. Müller as he does when interacting with his brother. Although his brother was 2 years younger, he was always more insolent and more successful than he was. I place a second empty chair on the stage and comment: “This is your brother’s chair. Would you like to say something to him here and now … something you have never told him before about your sibling relationship … about him … about yourself?” (I place a third chair on the stage.) “You can tell him, if you want, now, here, in this imaginary world …. You can sit on this chair and tell him something.”
In the final step of this role-playing intervention, we enter now into an intermediate between exploration and role-training. The client is invited now to speak to his co-worker, focusing his attention on the distinction between co-worker and brother. Just as there are two different chairs on stage for two different people, the client is expected to separate the two people in his feelings, thoughts, and actions. In this following step, the client will now once again describe the co-worker on the chair, similarly to what was done in the first phase of the role-play. In doing so, the client is able to perceive the employee as an independent person “without the shadow of his brother”.
Representing feelings physically
The empty chair technique can also be used to represent feelings, emotions or thoughts. In this variant, the clients can explore the different aspects of a feeling. The use of empty chairs to represent feelings physically is described in more detail using the case example below:
Here is an example from a therapy with a female client suffering from an adjustment disorder after a serious car accident. One symptom of her disorder is that she often experiences intense anxiety whenever a family member is late.
As an emotion, anxiety belongs to World 2. Anxiety also has, however, a number of physical manifestations (e.g. sweating, shaking) and thus also belongs to World 1 like the toothache previously described. A therapeutic intervention with role play could hence consist of “materializing” the anxiety, or in other words, giving the anxiety a physical form. The client is thereby better able to recognize her anxiety and appropriately distance herself from it, and hence learn to see her anxiety within a greater context. Ideally, she is able to recognize the function of her anxiety, and thus avoid being completely overwhelmed by her fear.
I begin the role play at the World 3 level of knowledge: “You said that you are terribly afraid whenever your husband or daughter aren’t home on time. How do you feel then? What’s go- ing through your head?” In a second step, I position an empty chair next to the client. “And now let’s imagine that this feeling of fear is right here on this chair. How do you feel with the fear right there? You can come closer or move further away. Find a distance that you can tolerate—not too far away because the fear is part of you, but also not so close that it’s too uncomfortable.” Now that we have symbolically materialized the client’s fear with the chair (a World 1 simulation), we are now engaging with the World 2 psychological level, in which the client tries to appropriately distance herself from her emotions.
We can continue the role play by having the client take on the role of her anxiety. “If you’d like, you can sit on this chair and be this feeling of fear for a moment. Speak from the fear’s perspective. Try to really transform yourself into this feeling and say who you are, for instance, ‘I am fear, I am powerful, I can…’”. This represents an attempt to give the client’s very real fear—an intangible emotion of the mental World 2 and a nightmarish fantasy of cognitive World 3 –a visible and hence more manageable form (World 1). Materializing the client’s fear improves her access to her emotions and creates a context in which she can more fully grasp the problem and try out different solutions. Various roleplaying instruments and techniques (e.g. staging, pretending, role taking, verbalization; details provided later on in this book) can be used to simulate a material World 1 in which emotions and fantasies are personified and have a voice, enabling the client to better recognize and manage her feelings (World 2), ideas and fantasies (World 3).
In a further step, it might be helpful to educate the client about anxiety and its purpose, as well as about emotion regulation strategies. Just sticking to theory would be, however, insufficient. Another role play could be used to better understand the client’s problem and improve her ability to manage fear-invoking situations: “Imagine that a child is sitting here on this chair. He is afraid because his parents are late, and he thinks that they might have had an accident. And now imagine that you happen to pass by and you see this child. What thoughts and feelings does this child trigger for you? What do you want to do? Just give it a try!”
Emotions are often vague and hazy, and we do not always know exactly how we feel. Physically portraying a feeling can be helpful for finding out what we feel and what we want. The empty chair technique is used often in psychodrama, Gestalt therapy and emotion-focused therapy. As clinician and founder of emotion-focused therapy Leslie Green- berg (2015) explains, the purpose of this cathartic exercise is not to get clients to vent emotions (i.e. let off steam), but rather to help clients recognize and appreciate their feelings and to see their experiences in a new light. He writes:
…a distinction needs to be made between experiencing feelings and expressing feelings. To become conscious of feelings, people need to give themselves permission to feel their emotions: to be in them, explore them, intensify them, ride them, shift from them, or hold onto them until the emotions yield their significance or intelligence. The freedom to feel first requires the freedom to feel without the obligation of immediate expression. People often seem to be trapped between two extremes: suppressing feelings and harming themselves or expressing feelings and hurting others. (p. 197).
The empty chair as a diagnostic tool
Empty chair work makes it possible to turn a dyadic (therapist-client) into a triadic therapeutic situation (therapist-client-problem). Clients are invited to place their problem on an empty chair. The problem might be a difficult interaction partner (e.g. boss, partner, neighbour), a symptom (e.g. sadness, compulsive thoughts, headaches), a fantasy, an image from a dream, or a need. The therapist and client are now able to enter a dialogue about and also with the problem on the empty chair. Having the client exchange roles with the problem on the empty chair can be helpful for assessing the characteristics of the problem in greater detail. All of the basic techniques of role play described earlier can be applied within the context of empty chair work. One could say that the empty chair is not just a technique but also a stage well-adapted for examining a variety of the client’s projections. The empty chair helps materialize elements from the client’s mental and social Worlds 2 and 3, making it easier for the client to process and manage them.
An example of the empty chair as a diagnostic tool in individual therapy with a man in a marital crisis: The client has re- ported how difficult the relationship with his partner has become and how badly he is suffering. Based on this case example, below I provide the instruction for different ways the empty chair could be used as a diagnostic tool.
Variation 1: Adapting communication in front of an imaginary person
Therapist:(places a chair next to the client) Imagine that your partner is sitting on this chair. Imagine she were here right now, talking with us. What wouldn’t you say, or what would you say differently?
Variation 2: Identifying own feelings
Therapist: (places a chair next to the client) Imagine that your partner is sitting on this chair. Take a moment and just imagine she is here, you are looking at her, without saying anything. Look at your partner and try to observe what you physically feel when you look at her. What kind of feeling do you have in your body? If you feel uncomfortable, or you start feeling restless, just let the feelings come. And if it’s pleasant, just let that come too. Just observe what is happening inside you, without judging anything or holding anything back. Jut observe what happens as you imagine your partner being here.
Variation 3: Talking to an imaginary person
Therapist:(places a chair next to the client) Imagine that your partner is sitting on this chair. Now we are going to act as if she were here. Please tell her, here in this do-as-if situation, what you appreciate about her and what you don’t like. Tell her what you want from her, what you aren’t getting from her. And also what you think is really great.
Variation 4: Vocalizing fears and apprehensions
Therapist:(places a chair next to the client) Imagine that your partner is sitting on this chair. Look at your partner. Take your time. Imagine that today your partner is direct and brutally honest. She can say things that she usually wouldn’t say and maybe wouldn’t even think. What might that be? Is there anything you are afraid of? Can you say what makes you feel afraid?
Variation 5: Distance
Therapist: (places a chair next to the client) Imagine that your partner is sitting on this chair. I put the chair close to you. That means, she is very close to you, it’s a tight bond. Can you take the chair and place it so that we can see how close to or how far from your partner you feel right now?
Client:(stands up and places the chair further away) About like this.
Therapist: Take a seat again and look at the chair from this distance. Is it ok where it is? Client:(Nods.)
Therapist: Good. How are you doing right now? What do you feel when you look at the distance between you?
Variation 6: Describing own symptoms
Therapist:(places a chair next to the client) You said that you feel bad. Let’s imagine that this bad feeling is sitting right here on this chair. Could you describe the feeling to me? What does it look like, this thing on the chair? What colour is it? What’s it doing?
Variation 7: Playing own symptoms
Therapist:(places a chair next to the client) You said that you feel bad. Let’s imagine that this bad feeling is sitting right here on this chair. Now I am going to invite you to take on the role of this feeling. Sit down on this chair…you are now this feeling…Who are you, as a feeling? What is special about you, what makes you you? When do you appear? When do you bother this person over here? What do you do to him? How do you do it? How do you act as a symptom? How do you feel as a symptom?
Greenberg, L. S. (2015). Emotion-focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through their Feelings (Second edition). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
Schaller, R. (2016). Stellen Sie sich vor, Sie sind … Das Ein-Personen-Rollenspiel in Beratung, Coaching und Therapie (2. Aufl.). Bern: Hogrefe
Schaller, R. (2019). Imagine you are….Role Play in Individual Therapy,
Counselling and Coaching. www.lulu.com.
Information about the author:
Roger Schaller: Psychotherapeut für Kinder, Jugendliche und Erwachsene und als Verkehrspsychologe. Leitung des Institutes für Psychodrama und Aktionsmethoden www.ipda.ch
This article is first published in: Schaller, R. (2019). Imagine you are….Role Play in Individual Therapy, Counselling and Coaching. www.lulu.com. ISBN 978-0-359-67529-6