The Empty Chair Technique

Ed Busto
Counselor Education
University of Florida
SDS6411 & SDS6413
Spring, 1998


There are many different techniques and strategies that can be used in

counseling children. These techniques can range from the mundane to the

experimental and all points in between. When working with school

children, it is important to use a counseling approach that will keep

them attentive and interested. This should help the counselor achieve

the goals of a session. While there are no guarantees that any one

counseling intervention will be effective, the chances for success

increase when the child is genuinely involved.

The counseling approach I will discuss in this paper is the empty-chair

technique. The empty chair approach is a form of self-dialogue (Sharf,

1996) in which the client speaks to an empty chair as if someone were

sitting in it. The empty chair could represent a person (mother,

friend, teacher) or another aspect of the clients, self. The client is

then asked to switch chairs and change roles, responding as if he were

the other individual. The counselor may then call attention to what has

been said or how it was said. In this way the counselor helps the

client get in touch with feelings that they may not have been aware of.

The feelings and experiences of the person who is not present may also

be made clear to the client. This technique is commonly used in Gestalt

therapy, the main goal of which is awareness (Korb, Gorrell, & Van De

Riet). Awareness of self, others, and the environment can be achieved

to bring about growth and integration of the indivual.

The empty-chair technique can be used by school counselors in helping

students become more aware of their feelings and how their actions

affect others. One way I think this approach can be used in the school

is with disruptive students. Some students are constantly having

problems or confrontations with their teachers. The problems can be

minor (i.e. excessive talking during class) or of a more serious nature

(talking back or refusing to follow commands). Such a student may be

referred to a counselor who can then use the empty-chair strategy.

The first step is no different than with any other approach. The

counselor must build enough rapport with the student for the student to

feel comfortable with such an exercise (Smith, 1976). Once the

counselor has given the student ample time to discuss their side of the

issue, they can then suggest the activity. It is important that the

counselor receive the students, consent (Korb, et al.) since the

exercise obviously requires their active participation. The student is

asked to sit across from an empty chair and pretend as if his/her

teacher is there. The counselor tells the student he is free to say

anything he would like to the teacher with regards to their conflict,

preferably focusing on his feelings (Fagan & Shepherd, 1971). The

student is then asked to switch chairs and respond as if he were the

teacher. Again, the student is asked to focus on what the teacher might

say with regards to their feelings. The student then switches chairs

responding as himself again, and so on.

For counselors, the goal of the empty chair approach in this situation

is two-fold. One goal is to attempt to make the student aware of their

teachers feelings, hopefully realizing that the teacher is just trying

to do their job and that they make it very difficult for the teacher.

Another goal is to hopefully have the student gain some insight into why

they act up in class. If the student can be made aware as to why they

misbehave, the counselor can then offer alternatives toward filling

their needs. For example, if the student discovers that he acts up

because he wants attention, the counselor can suggest other, more

productive avenues (i.e. studying or extracurricular activities) toward

gaining attention .

The empty-chair can also be used with students who are bullies, with the

empty chair representing the students that they bully. The goals would

be similar, attempting to make the student more sympathetic towards

other students while also making them more aware of why they pick on

others. There could easily be other scenarios where this approach is

used; preferably with students who display insensitivity or disrespect

toward others in the school. I would recommended that the empty-chair

approach in the schools be used in individual counseling, although the

literature suggests it can also be used in group counseling (Kempler,

1974). Complete disclosure and focus are more likely to occur in an

individual session.

There are some factors to consider when using the empty-chair

technique. Many Gestalt therapists suggest extensive training and

supervision before counselors use such an intervention (Smith, 1976).

Although this is not required, Sharf (1996, p.272) warns that "beginning

therapists need to be ready for strong emotional responses and know how

to keep the therapeutic process moving while keeping the therapeutic

role to a minimum." When an impasse is reached, the counselor should

move in small rather than large steps (Sharf, 1996).

Before using the empty-chair technique, I would recommend counselors

consider all factors that play into a students behavior. Some factors,

such as learning disabilities, broken homes, or abusive parents can be

the reason behind a students, disruptive or abusive behavior. The empty

chair would probably provide little help or relief for these students.

Also, this approach should not be used with students with low levels of

reasoning. Therefore, I would suggest this approach not be used with

the younger elementary children. It would probably be most effective

with third grade students and up.

 

References

 

Fagan, J., & Shepherd, I.L. (1971). Gestalt Therapy Now: Theory,

Techniques, Applications. Harper Colophon Books. New York.

Kempler, W. (1974). Principles of Gestalt Family Therapy. The Kempler

Institute. Costa Mesa, CA.

Korb, M.P., Gorrell, J., & Van De Riet, V. (1989). Gestalt Therapy:

Practice and Theory. Pergamon Press. NY.

Sharf, R.S. (1996). Theories of Psychotherapy and Counseling.

Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. CA.

Smith, E.W.L. (1976). The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy.

Brunner/Mazel, Publishers. NY.