What Is The Empty Chair Technique

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Psychotherapy is a broad field with many different approaches. Therapists use many techniques to help their clients cope with and work through mental and emotional concerns.

One simple approach is the empty chair technique, often used in schema therapy and transformational chairwork. This technique can be engaging and transformational, allowing clients to respond to unresolved feelings from a new perspective. This context-focused approach helps clients to become aware of the influences and dynamics that shape their behavior and emotions. 

If you're struggling with grief, trauma, relationship troubles, or loss, the empty chair dialogue may help you work through what happened and gain a new perspective on the situation.

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Therapy can be healing and teach you coping techniques

What is the empty chair technique?

The empty chair technique is a talk therapy exercise commonly used in Gestalt therapy. It is designed to allow you to express your thoughts and feelings as if you were talking to a specific person but in a safe, neutral environment.

The idea is that even though a person is not present, you direct your words and gestures to an empty chair and imagine that person sitting in it while you talk. The therapist may guide you through the exercise with prompts or insights. 

In some cases, Gestalt therapists may use another model of this therapy where a counselor or individual in a group setting pretends to be the person you're speaking to. This treatment method may require imagination and willingness to roleplay in front of others. 


When you want to express something to someone unavailable to you, your counselor may suggest the empty chair technique. The person you want to talk to may be deceased, far away, or emotionally unavailable. Still, expressing yourself as if they were there using self-dialogue guided by your therapist could feel valuable. 

Your therapist may set up a chair across from you and ask you to pretend that the person you need to talk to is sitting in it. Then they'll invite you to say whatever you want to say to that person. Depending on your preference, they might help you along the way or stay silent. 

Your part

During the exercise, try to say whatever comes to mind, even if it feels embarrassing. If you have trouble imagining a person sitting in the chair, try not to imagine them. Just start saying what you would say if they were there. As you speak your mind and explain what you're feeling and why, you may start to feel you're talking directly to that person.

If you don't feel comfortable partaking in this activity with a counselor, you might first try it on your own at home. Find a quiet room and set up a chair to get started. 


During the session, your counselor may ask questions or suggest topics to discuss with the empty chair. This prompting may keep you engaged in the experience and on track to deal with the issue you're struggling to overcome. 

If you start to feel anxious, angry, or upset, the counselor may intervene to help you work through those unpleasant emotions. In this case, having a counselor present may make the exercise most beneficial in a therapeutic setting. 


After you've said all you want to say, you may feel a sense of relief, release, or completion. You might feel prepared to talk to the person directly if possible. By the time you finish the exercise, you and your counselor may also learn something new about your concerns with this person or situation.

Uses of the empty chair technique

The empty chair technique is a powerful tool and can be used in many counseling situations. Some scenarios, though, could lend themselves particularly well to this technique. For example, whenever you're in counseling for an issue that involves conflict with another person, this technique may help you figure out what you feel.

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Individual counseling for couples

If you're having trouble in your relationship, you and your partner may consider seeking mental health services. Additionally, each of you may have separate counselors who help you deal with your issues and give you support individually. 

If you or your partner doesn't want to go into couples counseling, you might participate in individual counseling to deal with any relationship problems. You and your partner can try the empty chair method to practice conversations with your therapists before you come out to talk to each other. 

Grief counseling

Grief counseling may help you work through the death or loss of a loved one. Since they might not be in your life anymore, the empty chair technique could help you feel that you can converse with them. 

Imagining saying what you might not have had the chance to say could help you process your grief and express emotions that you would otherwise be unable to communicate to this individual. At times, you may feel anger and resentment as a part of mourning, and emphasizing these feelings might allow you to release them during the grieving process.

Handling a breakup

Some people may require the support of mental health services after a breakup. You might struggle to move on without working through relationship issues. If you are grappling with an urge to contact your ex, using this method may be beneficial. Through the empty chair technique, you can healthily work through your feelings while maintaining distance from your former partner.

Dealing with past trauma

Traumas from your past may cause emotional difficulties in the present. The people involved in the original trauma may have passed away or are unsafe to communicate with. However, resolving your feelings about the trauma might be challenging without expressing your anger, hurt, or sorrow.

With the empty chair technique, you can safely express your emotions to the parent who abused you, the person who broke into your home, or the bully who threatened you. You can say anything you wanted at the time that wasn't safe to express. The empty chair technique offers a therapeutic environment to discuss your feelings.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Planning future encounters

Suppose you have a meaningful conversation coming up. You might feel anxious or have a conflict with someone. If you feel unsure of what to say, you might worry that you won't feel able to express yourself clearly when you talk with the person.  

The empty chair technique can allow you to practice what you'll say ahead of time. Your therapist might help you structure the conversation healthily or pinpoint areas that need improvement. You could feel more relaxed and in control when you have the conversation afterward, even if it comes out a bit differently than you planned.

Why therapists might use the empty chair technique

Your therapist may choose this treatment technique for several reasons, including the following. 

Helping you identify your feelings

When you start talking to the chair, you may not recognize how you feel or the extent of your emotions. You might know that you feel uncomfortable or hurt, or maybe you can't pinpoint your exact feelings.

As you speak, you may get in touch with these feelings and label them. Anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, or other feelings may appear in your words, inflections, and gestures. You may notice these feelings yourself, or your therapist could point them out. 

You may also be able to find the source of these complicated feelings. Once you know what you're feeling, you can address it and work through it. Consider it a temporary visit with challenging emotions so that you can gain a better understanding of them and release them.

Allowing you to express yourself freely

You might not feel like you can express yourself freely with another person. That person might interrupt you, stonewall you, avoid your questions, be emotionally unavailable, or engage in other harmful behaviors. 

If you need to talk to someone deceased, others might judge you if you say anything negative about them. However, the feelings you need to express may not disappear due to the opinions of others. 

You can say whatever you want to say when you're talking to an empty chair. This free expression can relieve your burden dramatically, allowing you to move through and past the pain.

Therapy can be healing and teach you coping techniques

Helping you gain insight into your relationships

You might find it challenging to see the relationship objectively when you're in a relationship. You may feel afraid to be honest in your relationships, which could cause confusion. Expressing yourself in this liberating way may reveal problems you need to address.

You may also realize things about your relationship that you couldn't see before. You might come to understand that you're relatively happy in the relationship, but you want to make minor changes. 

Additionally, you might realize you want to leave your partner because the relationship is unhealthy. With these new insights, better-informed decisions could be possible. 

Helping you learn communication skills

In conversation with others, you might find yourself letting emotions dictate your tone of voice, actions, or words. You might get so wrapped up in the experience that you feel you lose control over your words. 

The empty chair technique can help you work on the way you communicate. As you practice, your therapist may help you develop your communication skills to more readily and accurately express what you're feeling and thinking.

For example, while practicing, your counselor might ask questions to help you word your issue clearly so that the other individual can understand you better. They may also help you coordinate your facial expressions with your emotions. 

These new skills could be valuable when aiming for healthy communication outside your therapist's office. Additionally, studies show that healthy communication is a significant factor in marital satisfaction. If you are in a long-term relationship, these skills could benefit you. 

Is the empty chair technique right for me?

If you feel the empty chair technique sounds interesting, consider bringing it up to your therapist. They may already have an idea of whether the method would benefit you.

During your counseling sessions, they might see a need for you to express your thoughts and feelings more freely, or they might notice that you're struggling with a relationship issue. In these cases, they may suggest the empty chair technique to continue progress in your sessions 

This treatment technique is one of the many ways a counselor can help you deal with relationships, trauma, grief, or other mental health issues. 

Finding a counselor to work with

If you do not currently have a therapist, you might reach out to counselors in your area to find one knowledgeable about the empty chair method. If you're looking to practice therapy in a safe environment, such as at home, you might also try the method online. Online therapy allows you to meet with a counselor over video chat, phone call, or online messaging as long as you have an internet connection. 

In a review of dozens of studies, internet-based therapy has been found to be as effective as in-person therapy for treating various mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and relationship troubles. Additionally, this review concluded that online therapy has the added benefits of being more cost-effective, safer in times of sickness, and more convenient. 

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Therapy can involve a wide variety of approaches, such as the empty chair technique, which can help you explore unresolved feelings and experiences. This technique can help you feel more confident and less anxious in your interactions. With the help of your counselor, you can use this technique to clarify your emotions and find new ways to handle challenging situations. Take the first step whenever you're ready.

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