Empty chair technique worksheet

Empty Chair Technique Aims to Help with Grief

Though occasionally emotionally intense, the empty chair technique is a therapeutic tool that may help some cope with grief.

Talk therapy is a cornerstone of many mental health practices. The “empty chair technique” is a specific method used as part of talk therapy.

When the empty chair technique is used in therapy, people imagine a specific person — or an aspect of themselves — is in the room, “sitting” in an empty chair.

This technique allows people to investigate personal roots of emotional distress that may have been formed in the past. It is also used to examine one’s self-perception and behavior that may lead to certain beliefs, negative self-talk, or other emotional challenges.

Popularized by Gestalt therapists, the Gestalt school generally focuses on experiencing emotions in the present to understand how past and present environments affect emotional well-being.

Engaging in an empty chair session can often be emotionally intense. Still, it can help people achieve closure, a more positive frame of mind, and heal from grief.

The empty chair technique, also called the “two-chair technique” or simply “chairwork,” is a therapeutic method used in talk therapy. Its objective is to start a “conversation” with parts of oneself or individuals from a person’s past or present.

During an empty chair session, a person may speak to an individual or an aspect of themselves they imagine sitting in the empty chair. Sometimes, the person will then switch places, taking on the role of that aspect or person.

The idea behind the empty chair technique is to resolve conflict, specifically by increasing awareness in the present moment.

The empty chair technique was popularized by Gestalt therapists, but it was first developed and demonstrated by Jacob Levy Moreno, a student of Sigmund Freud’s, in 1921.

Moreno objected to the reflective nature of psychotherapy and opted to develop a technique focused more on active engagement. In the following years, he used the empty chair technique in group contexts termed “psychodrama.”

Gestalt therapists

Founded by Fritz Perls, the Gestalt school built on Perls’ theories that emotional challenges are to be handled in the “here and now.” These pioneering psychologists believed that in some cases, one had to re-experience traumas to heal from them.

Gestalt therapists were the first to use the empty chair technique in a one-on-one context.

The core components of the empty chair technique are:

  • exploring emotion
  • movement between chairs
  • dialogue with another, either in imagining another person or an aspect of oneself

In some cases, the method can involve several chairs. A person with negative thoughts about themselves may place those automatic negative thought patterns into an empty chair as they arise, giving the person a new perspective.

Although experiencing emotions in the present moment is central to Gestalt therapy, practitioners of this technique emphasize that the individual is always understood in a context including their past and present environments and experiences.

Gestalt therapy emphasizes re-experiencing events and interactions that may be at the root of emotional distress. The best candidates for this kind of therapy are people who may be open to a potentially intense therapeutic experience.

The empty chair technique may have broad application, but it’s not suitable for everyone.

Two experts on the empty chair technique, Scott Kellogg and Amanda Torres, stated in a 2021 publication that the method might be most helpful for people with:

  • depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • interpersonal mistreatment
  • grief
  • personality disorders
  • socially induced trauma
  • inner conflict
  • self-hatred

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of the empty chair technique in specific use cases. A 2020 study of 12 people with depression who participated in the empty chair method as part of compassion-focused therapy found that it helped to change how the participants related to themselves.

A 2014 study of Bosnian women who had lost husbands in war found that Gestalt empty chair therapy and group therapy effectively improved symptoms of certain mental health conditions.

The steps of the empty chair technique depend on the individual therapist and the person participating in therapy.

Before you start Gestalt therapy or engage in an empty chair session, you may want to ask the therapist how they typically conduct a session.

Some basic steps may form the basis of most empty chair sessions in therapy.

Step 1: Identifying the ‘object’

Through discussion with the therapist or counselor, you might identify whom or what you’d like to speak with in an empty chair dialogue.

For example, your therapist may recommend a conversation with a metaphorical “emotional wall” that appears at certain times. Or, they may suggest talking to someone who has passed on near or around the anniversary of their death.

Step 2: Conducting the dialogue

With the therapist’s help, you could talk to the aspect of yourself or the person you imagine being in the empty chair.

If the object is an aspect, you might play that role and answer your questions. For example, in the case of the “emotional wall,” your therapist might ask why you appear and what would happen if you did not.

Step 3: Switching places

Often, you will switch places and play the opposite role with the person or aspect you’re talking to.

The way this manifests depends on your goals in therapy. Some people may want to:

  • work through unresolved feelings
  • find closure after a traumatic event
  • cope with grief

Step 4: Assessment and discussion

After an empty chair session, your therapist may want to debrief with you. You may be encouraged to discuss the conversation and how you felt.

The empty chair technique may help you resolve emotional issues that have roots in your past or involve a person currently in your life.

Some possible positive effects of the method include:

  • finding closure on a past difficult relationship
  • reducing harmful thoughts toward yourself
  • experiencing greater insight into your own feelings

Like all forms of therapy, the empty chair technique may not work for everyone.

You may not receive the emotional benefits you seek. It’s possible your therapy could help you achieve peace, but in the process, cause you to experience a negative domino effect on your family relationships.

You may have to adjust how you function in life, which may be a new source of stress or unexpected challenges.

Before you begin Gestalt therapy or engage in an empty chair session, it may be beneficial to talk with your therapist about possible outcomes for you.

The empty chair technique is sometimes considered a more intense therapeutic experience. Yet, this method can be a powerful tool in therapy for helping people process past trauma, cope with grief, and find closure from emotionally troubling experiences.

Seeking support for mental and emotional health is often the first step to improving your well-being.

Talking with a therapist or a counselor trained and experienced in the empty chair technique is often the best starting place if you think you might benefit from it.

You may want to research mental health professionals first. Interviewing potential therapists and asking questions about their methodology and training can be helpful before beginning a counseling relationship.

If you’re ready to reach out for help and potentially give the empty chair technique a try, you can visit the American Psychological Association’s psychologist locator.

Gestalt Therapy: The Empty Chair Technique

Our blogs are written by a dedicated team of authors who are equally passionate about sharing their insights, perspectives and personal experiences. With a focus ...Read More

Gestalt: an organized whole that is perceived as more than...

Gestalt: an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.

Gestalt therapy focuses on you as a whole, interconnected with your environment, relationships and experiences. Emphasis is placed on the here and now, rather than what was, might be, or should be. The goal of gestalt therapy is to help you become aware of what you are doing and how you are doing it. Then, it helps you see how you can change, while also learning to accept and value yourself.

What’s With the Chair?

A key method used in Gestalt therapy is the Empty Chair Technique. This simple approach is designed to allow you to work through interpersonal or internal conflict. It helps you see the situation from a different perspective and gain insight into your feelings and behaviors.

Here’s what it looks like:

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today

You sit facing an empty chair. In the chair, you picture a person with whom you are experiencing conflict. Or, you may picture a part of yourself. Then, you speak to the empty chair. You explain your feelings, thoughts, and understanding of the situation.

Now things really get interesting. After you’ve shared your side of things, you move to the other chair. Then, you respond to what you just said, from that person’s perspective, taking on their role. You may move back and forth between the chairs several times to continue the dialogue.

Meanwhile, the therapist explores this communication with questions and insights as the situation unfolds.

How Can an Empty Chair Help Me?

Using this technique helps bring you into the “here and now” of your present experiences. As you verbalize what’s going on, the abstract becomes more concrete. As you take on the other person’s role, you gain insight into your own perspective as well as theirs.

If the chair represents part of you or an internal conflict, you experience different aspects of yourself and gain insight into your struggle. This discovery aspect is the ultimate goal of gestalt therapy and the empty chair technique.

Established by Fritz Perls, Gestalt therapy has been widely used by therapists since its inception in the 1940s. It’s hard to say how many empty chairs have provided compelling communication over the years. From high-backs, to rollers, to spindled wooden stools, clients the world over have spilled their guts to every type of seat imaginable. The technique has proven to be a powerful tool for understanding and insight.


Image Source: iStock

Read In Order Of Posting

How an empty chair will help get rid of anger and resentment

September 6, 2022 A life

The main thing is to be as honest and serious as possible.

You can listen to the short version of the article. If it's more convenient for you, turn on the podcast.

What is the "Empty Chair"

This is a gestalt therapy exercise during which a person talks to an imaginary interlocutor sitting opposite him in an empty chair. The task of the speaker is to express everything that is in his soul, all the thoughts and feelings that the counterpart evokes. They also often try to model a dialogue, that is, to be responsible for the interlocutor. The role of the latter can be not only living or dead people, but also something symbolic, such as a goal or an inner critic. nine0003

The exercise was invented by the founder of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, in the 1940s. Most often it is done together with a psychotherapist.

Why use the Empty Chair technique

There are several options.

To understand your feelings

Starting a dialogue about a problem that worries you, you may not even suspect how you really feel about the interlocutor. But during the exercise, you will identify your true emotions. Anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, or any other feelings may appear in your words, intonations and gestures. When you notice this, you can deal with the problem. nine0003

To freely express feelings and get rid of them

Sometimes it is difficult to show real emotions in a one-on-one conversation. The interlocutor may interrupt you, abruptly change the subject, or close emotionally. Another problem is that you can be judged if you openly complain, get angry or cry.

There is no need to worry about this during the exercise. You can say whatever you want to an empty chair. This will help get rid of negative emotions, overcome pain. nine0003

Stuart Kaplowitz

Family therapist.

When we use the empty chair technique, we can get as angry as we want. Don't worry about what and how you say it. Give yourself free rein. Once things settle down, you may feel like you've picked out some important statements for yourself that you can then tell the person in person. But at the moment it doesn't matter. Just let yourself speak.

To get rid of guilt

A small study showed that exercise reduces a person's feelings of guilt towards himself or others. The thing is that in front of an empty chair it is easier for a person to understand the reasons for what happened, to admit his mistakes. nine0003

To resolve internal or interpersonal conflicts

Modeling a dialogue helps with this, when you make a claim to the interlocutor in an empty chair, and then move to his place and answer aloud to yourself. This allows you to better understand the opponent and, perhaps, even accept his point of view.

To cope with psychological trauma

During the exercise, you will be able to say anything, for example, to an imaginary parent who was once rude to you, or a bully who threatened you. You can finally answer the way you would like at that moment. And at the same time you will be completely safe. nine0003

To understand relationships

It is quite difficult to objectively evaluate relationships. Sometimes it is difficult to be completely honest with a partner, and this can lead to misunderstandings. Through sincere conversation with an empty chair, you will be able to identify the problems that you need to solve.

Moreover, during the exercise, you will probably notice something that was not so striking before. For example, the fact that the relationship is unhealthy or, on the contrary, they make you happy, but you still want to change something. nine0003

To prepare for a difficult conversation

Suppose you are about to have a serious conversation with a person with whom you are on bad terms. Because of the upcoming meeting or call, you are probably worried about what to say and how, or afraid that you will miss something. The Empty Chair practice will help you talk things out ahead of time and thus reduce your anxiety and stress levels.

To improve communication skills

When emotions take over, it is impossible to build a constructive dialogue. The Empty Chair technique helps to get rid of unnecessary worries and excitement. Also, with its help, you can learn how to correctly formulate your thoughts. nine0003

Can I do the Empty Chair exercise at home

Yes, but with a therapist it will be more effective. Firstly, because he will be able to look at the problem from the outside and with the help of leading questions he will not let you get away from the topic. Secondly, if at some point your emotions reach a peak and you cannot calm down on your own, a specialist will help you do this. Thirdly, an unprepared person is unlikely to cope with psychological trauma on his own.

However, you can still try to get rid of emotions. American family therapist Stuart Kaplowitz recommends that his patients do this exercise as needed to vent negativity about someone or something. What you say won't make things worse. nine0003

How to do the exercise yourself

Make sure that you are in a comfortable environment, there are no distractions and there is complete silence around you.

Take an empty chair, place it in front of you and sit opposite you. At the initial stages, a chair is required, but in the future you can do without it.

Stuart Kaplowitz

Family therapist.

For example, you are driving in a car and suddenly remember that some person once disappointed you. Say it out loud. This can be done both at home and on a walk in the park. I often hear from clients how easy it has become for them to be freed from negative emotions. nine0003

Imagine a person or something symbolic (such as laziness or an inner critic) sitting on an empty chair. It is better to make his portrait as detailed as possible. If there are difficulties, do not worry and just start talking. In the process, you may get the impression that you really see the interlocutor in front of you.

Unleash your emotions and express what you feel without being shy. If you want to scream, scream.

If you want to build a dialogue with an imaginary interlocutor, just take his place and start answering yourself. nine0003

An important condition: take what is happening seriously and say what is on your mind without joking. Only then will the exercise be truly effective.

When you realize that you have nothing more to say to someone or something that is in an empty chair, just say goodbye to the image and imagine how he gets up and leaves.

Read also 🧐

  • Why we crave relationship drama and how to deal with it
  • 4 tips from humanistic psychologists to help you realize yourself
  • How to analyze your feelings so as not to repeat past mistakes and understand the present

Theory and practice of Gestalt therapy.

Empty chair technique.

One of the most popular techniques in the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy is the "empty chair" exercise. It is widely known and very popular among practitioners. This powerful experiment involves sitting in a chair with an empty chair in front of it. You represent someone or something in this place that is important to you and/or causes difficulty in your life. This may be related to past events, your present life or future situations, people you are yet to meet (for example, a prospective partner or a future son or daughter). nine0003

Object can be anything

Such as

  • an aspect of your personality (for example, something you don't like about yourself),
  • a physical manifestation (say, a constant headache) or appearance (perhaps too protruding ears) ,
  • your home, work, negative event,
  • behavioral stereotype (like, unmotivated aggression, the desire to control),
  • your goal or desire, for example, to become rich and beautiful.

The Gestalt approach is still used by therapists around the world today.

Even if you are not struggling with one of the problems listed above, but feel that you need psychotherapy, you can always contact a Gestalt therapist to determine if this method is right for you. Strong self-awareness and the ability to live more fully in the present are two key elements for happy, fulfilling functioning. And it is on this that the basic principles of Gestaltism are built.

When you sit in a chair and vividly imagine a person or object sitting directly in front of you, you are encouraged to talk to him in your own way. This conversation will inevitably evoke a range of emotions and reactions. In a conversation, questions may be asked expressing thoughts or feelings that you have been hiding but may have always wanted to say, and so on.

At some point during the empty chair technique, the psychologist will ask you to switch roles. In other words, you assume the role of the person or object that you imagined opposite, and while in this role, sit and look at yourself in another chair. You are now having a conversation - with yourself - from the point of view of the person or object in the empty chair. nine0003

The meaning of the technique - everything that you imagine in the opposite chair is something that is inevitably of great importance to you.

And typically represents an unresolved conflict or pain point - an unfinished gestalt that needs to be resolved. It also tends to reveal emotions or personality traits that you have denied, ignored, or tried to disown. By completing the exercise, you will have a better understanding of yourself and a new perspective on the person, situation, or thing you encounter while working. nine0003

One of the most rewarding results is the realization of what is vital to your personal growth. Any conflict you experience is made up of your own perspective, expectations, memories (whether accurate or not), feelings, and judgments about a situation or thing. All these considerations are within you - and you have the power and responsibility to resolve this inner conflict.

Learn more