Transformational Chairwork

Transformational Chairwork: Five Ways of Using Therapeutic Dialogues

Scott Kellogg, PhD
New York University

Introduction and history

Chairwork is a psychotherapeutic technique that typically involves the use of two chairs that face one another. The patient sits in one chair and has a dialogue with an imagined family member or other person sitting in the opposite chair; alternatively, the patient moves back and forth between the two chairs and speaks from different aspects of him- or herself. This deceptively simple, yet extremely powerful, intervention has sparked the imagination of therapists and theorists from a wide range of perspectives.

While it has its origins in Jacob Moreno’s Psychodrama, it was made famous through the work of Frederick “Fritz” Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. Although not part of his original model, chairwork became a centerpiece of his Gestalt work while he was at the Esalen Institute during the last years of his life in the 1960′s. By the end, it had become essentially synonymous with Perls and with Gestalt therapy.

The chairwork technique was increasingly minimized as Gestalt therapy developed after his death; however, it was simultaneously embraced and re-envisioned by a number of integrative therapists and theorists from other perspectives (Kellogg, 2004). It has also received empirical support as an effective therapeutic intervention (Paivio & Greenberg, 1995).

The five approaches

There are five core ways to use chairwork: (1) External dialogues; (2) Internal dialogues; (3 Dreamwork; (4) Corrective dialogues; and (5) Role-playing. External dialogues: External dialogues frequently encompass what is known as “unfinished business”. This refers to situations in which a patient’s growth and vitality is blocked by an ongoing connection to events or relationships that occurred in the past. These are often situations of trauma or loss. In re-working traumatic or abusive situations, patients will imagine the abusive person sitting in the chair opposite them. They can then express their anger at how they were treated, their grief about what it cost them, and their determination to no longer let it affect their life in the way that it has (Goulding & Goulding, 1997). These dialogues can also be used to nurture and express love to the child-, adolescent-, or adult-self who received the mistreatment. Not surprisingly, imagery work is frequently interwoven into chairwork dialogues, and the two experiential techniques are best seen as complementary and overlapping.

A classic use of “unfinished business” involves working to release the patient’s connections with people who are deceased or, in some other way, are no longer present in their life. Starting with the dominant emotional tone, patients will be asked to express both their appreciation and resentment for the person. They can also be encouraged to express their grief about the situation. After several sessions of this, they will then be invited to say goodbye and release the person. The patient may or may not be willing to do this; if they decide to hold onto the past, they are now doing it in a conscious and voluntary manner (Tobin, 1976).

Internal dialogues: Here the focus is on conflicts within the individual. As these different parts of the self are identified or developed, they can be named and addressed (Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003). It is very common in this work to encounter a punitive or critical “voice” at the center of the psychopathology. Commonly called the “Inner Critic”, patients can use chairwork to mitigate its power by shuttling back and forth between the two chairs – embodying the Critic in one chair and responding to it in the other.

One way of fighting the Critic involves having patients argue against its typically extreme and distorted logic; a second encourages them to speak about the emotional pain and suffering that they have experienced from its criticisms (Greenberg, Rice, & Elliott, 1993). Therapists can also step in and dialogue with the Critic directly. They can defend the patient, challenge the logic of the attacks, and generally point out the uselessness of the Critic.

Dreamwork: Perls strongly believed in the importance of working with dreams. Drawing on psychoanalytic, Jungian, and humanistic concepts, Perls argued that emotional disturbance stemmed from patients’ accepting certain aspects of their experience while projecting and dissociating others. Healing would come through the re-integration of the disowned parts, and the dream became an ideal vehicle for this process (Perls, 1969)

For Perls, every detail in the dream is an aspect of the person. He would ask patients to embody these images by speaking from the perspective of each of them. To further his goal of integration, he would select images that were, in some way, polarities to each other. For example, in one chair they would speak from the vantage point of the sky, while in the other, they would speak from the perspective of the earth. Other polarities could included sea and shore, male and female, and a bare floor and a rug (Baumgardner, 1975; Perls, 1969). In one particularly beautiful example, Perls first had a woman speak from the image of a beached whale – which embodied her feelings of depression and self-loathing. He then asked her to speak from the perspective of the sea. One observer remembered her being transformed as she accessed the power of an image that was filled with life, beauty, and mystery (Miller, 1992). In this way, Perls juxtaposed a life image against a death image and helped this woman experience the fact that both were true for her.

Corrective dialogues: Here the patients’ distorted cognitions or maladaptive schemas are clarified and verbalized in one chair. A counter-argument is carefully developed in a collaborative manner by the therapist and the patient (Young et al., 2003). The patient then goes back and forth between the two chairs – presenting the distorted thinking and then working to correct it. The dramatic and emotional quality of this work helps to counter the issue of patients saying that they understand the new cognitions intellectually, but do not really feel them to be true (Goldfried, 1988).

Role play: Chairwork can also be very helpful for assertiveness training and other problems in communication. The problematic boss or spouse can be put in one chair, and the patient can practice asking for what they want in an affirming manner. With addictive disorders, patients can identify those individuals who may seek to tempt them to resume their addictive behaviors; they can then practice drink-and-drug refusal to prepare themselves.

Conclusion

Chairwork is an exciting and creative approach to change and healing. When used judiciously and with clinical sensitivity, it has the power to transform and liberate patients in deep and profound ways.

References

  • Baumgardner, P. (1975). Gifts from Lake Cowichan. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
  • Goldfried, M. R. (1988). Application of rational restructuring to anxiety disorders. The Counseling Psychologist, 16, 50-68.
  • Goulding, M. M., & Goulding, R. (1997). Changing lives through redecision therapy. New York: Grove Press.
  • Greenberg, L. S., Rice, L. N., & Elliott, R. (1993). Facilitating emotional change: The moment-by-moment process. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Kellogg, S. H. (2004). Dialogical encounters: Contemporary perspectives on “chairwork” in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 41, 310-320.
  • Miller, M. V. (1992). Introduction. In F. S. Perls, Gestalt therapy verbatim (pp. 1-20). Highland, NY: Gestalt Journal Press.
  • Paivo, S. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (1995). Resolving “unfinished business”: Efficacy of experiential therapy using empty-chair dialogue. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 63, 419-425.
  • Perls, F. S. (1969). Gestalt therapy verbatim. Lafayette, CA: Real People Press
  • Tobin, S. A. (1976). Saying goodbye in Gestalt therapy. In C. Hatcher & P. Himelstein (Eds.), The handbook of Gestalt therapy (pp. 371-383). New York: Aronson.
  • Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. New York: Guilford Press.

Scott Kellogg, PhD, is a psychotherapist at the Cognitive Therapy Center of New York, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the NYU Department of Psychology, and a Past-President of the NYSPA Division on Addictions. He can be reached at scott.kellogg@nyu.edu