What Is The Empty Chair Technique And Why Do Therapists Use It?

By Sarah Fader

Updated December 07, 2018

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Therapists use many techniques during counseling sessions to help their clients deal with mental and emotional issues. One of the most popular among counselors is the empty chair technique. If you're in therapy for very long, chances are your counselor will guide you through this simple, easy-to-understand method.

What Is The Empty Chair Technique?

The empty chair technique is a talk therapy exercise in which you express your thoughts and feelings as if you were talking to a specific person. You direct your words and gestures at an empty chair as if that chair contained a person you need to express yourself to.

Setup

When it becomes clear that you need to express something to someone who is unavailable to you, either because they are deceased, far away, or emotionally unavailable, your counselor may begin the empty chair technique. They simply set up a chair, so you're facing it and ask you to pretend that the person you need to talk to is sitting there. They invite you to say whatever you want to say to that person.

Your Part

All you need to do is say whatever comes to mind to say. Some people find it difficult to get started. If you have trouble imagining that the person is there, don't worry. Just go ahead and start saying what you want to say. As you speak your mind, you'll likely begin to feel the way you would if you were saying those things directly to that person.

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Interventions

Your counselor may ask you questions or suggest topics to talk about at times. This keeps you engaged in the experience and on track to deal with the issue you're struggling to overcome. If you become extremely anxious, angry, or upset, the counselor may intervene to help you deal with those unpleasant emotions.

Outcomes

After you've said all you want to say, you may feel a sense of relief and completion. You may even feel prepared to talk to the person directly if that becomes possible. By the time you finish with this exercise, you and your counselor may be aware of new aspects of the conflict, which you might then deal with in other ways as well.

Uses Of The Empty Chair Technique

The empty chair technique can be used in nearly every counseling situation. Some scenarios, though, lend themselves particularly well to this technique. Whenever you're in counseling for an issue that involves another person, the technique might be extremely helpful.

Individual Counseling For Couples

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If you're having trouble in your relationship, the best solution is for both of you to be in counseling together. Along with that, you each may have separate counselors to deal with your issues and give you individual support. If your relationship partner doesn't want to go into couples counseling, you can go into individual counseling to deal with relationships on your own. Either way, the empty chair technique is a powerful way to connect with your feelings about your partner.

Grief Counseling

Your loved one can't go with you to counseling if they are deceased. They probably won't want to go with you if the two of you have split up. In either case, you're dealing with grief issues that you need to work out with your partner in one way or another. Since they're unavailable for this discussion, your counselor may suggest the empty chair technique. Through it, you can work through your feelings of loss, including both anger and sadness.

Dealing With Past Trauma

Traumas from your past can cause you emotional difficulties now. The people who were involved in the original trauma may be long dead or out of your life completely. There may be things you can never resolve until you express your rage, hurt, and sorrow. With the empty chair technique, you can imagine the parent who has abused you, the criminal who attacked you, or the bully who threatened you right there. You can finally say what you needed to say at the time but were too overwhelmed to express.

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Planning Future Encounters

Suppose you know you are going to have a chance to talk to a person you have a conflict with shortly. The thought of bringing up your issues with the relationship may seem overwhelming. You might feel anxious at the thought of it and worry that you won't say what you need to say when you have the chance. The empty chair technique allows you to practice what you'll say to them ahead of time. When you're finally with that person, you'll likely feel more relaxed and in control, even if you don't say things exactly as you'd practiced them.

Why Therapists Use The Empty Chair Technique

Now that you know how the empty chair technique works, you might be wondering why it works. What's so helpful about talking to an empty chair? Your therapist may choose this technique for any of several reasons.

Helping You Identify Your Feelings

When you first start out talking to the chair, you may not even know how you feel about the relationship. You might know you feel uncomfortable, but you might not know the exact feelings that are distressing you. As you speak, you can get in touch with those feelings and name them. Anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, or any other feeling can make itself known through your words, your inflections, and your gestures. You may notice these feelings immediately, or your therapist may point them out to you. Only when you know what the feelings are can you address them and work through them.

Allowing You To Express Yourself Freely

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You might not be able to express yourself freely with another person. That person might interrupt you, stonewall you, avoid your questions, or be emotionally unavailable to you. If the person you need to talk to is deceased, others might judge you if you say anything negative about them. Yet, the things you need to say won't go away simply because you're not allowed to say them. You can say whatever you like in whatever way you like when you're talking to an empty chair. This free expression can relieve your burden of silence dramatically, allowing you to move through and past the pain.

Helping You Gain Insight Into Your Relationships

When you're involved with someone, you might find it hard to see the relationship objectively. Since you aren't getting a chance to say what's really on your mind, your perception of their behavior and your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors may seem abstract. Expressing yourself in this free and open way may reveal problems you need to work on yourself.

You may realize things about your relationship that you never did before. You might come to understand that you're relatively happy in the relationship but want to make some changes to improve it more. Or, you might see for the first time that the relationship is so unhealthy that you aren't willing to continue in it. With these new insights, you can decide what to do next.

Helping You Learn Better Communication Skills

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As your emotions and thoughts begin to flow through your words and gestures, you might get so wrapped up in the experience that you feel you have no control over how you say the things you need to say. As you practice, your therapist can help you develop your communication skills so that you can more readily and accurately express what you're feeling and thinking.

Your counselor might ask you questions to guide you to the wording of your issue that your partner can understand better. They might help you coordinate your facial expressions with the emotions you're talking about. Certainly, it's okay to say things any way you like when you're talking to the empty chair. Once you're with the other person, though, these new communications skills can be very helpful for resolving issues between you.

Is The Empty Chair Technique Right For Me?

You don't need to answer for yourself whether the empty chair technique is the best option for your therapy. Your counselor is trained to know when it can help. During any counseling session, they might see a need for you to express your thoughts and feelings more freely. They might notice that you are struggling with a relationship issue that your partner refuses to address with you. Anytime you need to use the technique during a session; your counselor can bring it up and begin.

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The empty chair technique is just one of the many ways a counselor can help you deal with relationships, trauma, grief, or other mental health issues. You can talk to a licensed counselor online at BetterHelp.com, whenever and wherever works best for you. Hundreds of counselors are available for therapy, and you can begin the process by choosing one right now.

The empty chair technique is just one way your counselor can help you feel freer, less anxious, and more confident in expressing how you feel about your past and current relationships. Once that happens, you can work on past and current events and become more focused on living the life you want to live.


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