You can resolve conflict by placing yourself in the shoes of others

The empty-chair technique is used to clarify the issues involved in an interpersonal conflict

Dr Garima Srivastava

As a therapist I often meet clients with whom the directive approach doesn’t work as much as non-directive approach does. In directive counseling the psychologist makes direct suggections and client is free to take a course of action that they'd like based on this. In the non-directive approach, instead of the psychologist telling the client to do something, the client explores possible solutions themselves with aid from the psychologist.  

There are many techniques that allow for the clients to view themselves from a distance while also allowing them to understand others as well as how others see them. The empty-chair technique (sometimes called the double-chair technique) is one such method used to clarify the issues involved in an interpersonal conflict. It helps the client view the conflict from a different angle and gain insight into why they are feeling and behaving in a certain way. 

The technique works by pulling up an empty chair and placing it opposite the client. The chair becomes the person or situation with which the client is in conflict. The client is asked to speak to the chair, explaining their perceptions and feelings. The client is then asked to sit on the chair (assuming the role of the other person in this situation) and respond to what was just said. The client may move back and forth several times throughout this dialogue. It helps if the psychlogist or counsellor facilitates the process by using other interviewing techniques to explore the exchange as it unfolds. 

As an example of this application, I can think of a middle aged homemaker client of mine with mild depressive tendencies. She had unrealistically high expectations from herself to maintain orderliness and cleanliness in the house to the point that she drew all her self worth out of being able to do this 'well'. Even though she does not enjoy housework, she would spend hours each day cleaning all the rooms of her house, including the childrens’ rooms (which were no longer in use) and the garage. On trying to establish the factors that made her devoted to cleaning and housework, it was found that from early on her life she heard her mother emphasize the importance of housework and said if she wants to gain respect in the eyes of her future husband and children, she must be excellent with all the housework. 

Apart from using other psychotherapeutic techniques and methods over a period of time to help her overcome her reported feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem, ‘the empty chair technique’ was also put to use. The client was asked to sit on the empty chair and assume the role of her mother, and tell herself about the importance of doing housework. In the role of her mother, the client explains that cleanliness is next to godliness, and that a good wife is devoted to her home. Then, on having her switch chairs, and becoming herself, she was asked to respond to what her 'mother' had to say. Her responses showed a lot of hostility and anger and she went on to say “No, I don’t want to do it. I am tired of working all the time. I am tired of doing things for other people.”

During the course of this dialogue, the client began to realize that setting these expectations may be creating a lot of distress in her life. She also acknowledged that as an adult, she now has choices that she did not have as a child. Moreover, she also realized that she had never told her mother about how she had felt in all these years and had silently held feelings of resentment against her. 

The example above shows how the empty chair technique helped the client get in touch with other views or other aspects of self. Due to the wide applicability of the technique, we could employ the empty chair technique even in our everyday life situations to deal with our intrapersonal issues, feelings of sadness or anger, or interpersonal problems or conflicts in our relationships. This is considered to be a powerful technique; not just in counselling processes, but also as a self-help technique that can aid us in distancing ourselves from our situation and looking at our problems from a different perspective. 

Recommended reading:  Facilitating Emotional Change: The Moment-by-Moment Process by Leslie Greenberg, Laura Rice, and Robert Elliott.

Dr Garima Srivastava is a Delhi-based clinical psychologist with a PhD from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.