The Empty Chair-Gestalt Theory at Work

The Theory Behind the "Empty Chair"

 The Role of The Counselor in Gestalt Counseling
  • The Gestalt counselor works by engaging in dialogue rather than by manipulating the patient toward some goal. 
  • The function of the Gestalt counselor is to raise awareness, which is defined as knowing what one is sensing, feeling, and thinking. Such awareness can be achieved only in the "now," the present moment. The counselor assists the client to become aware of "what" and "how" he or she behaves in the moment.
  • Gestalt therapy fosters change primarily by the patient's learning to understand himself or herself in the world through insight.

The Empty Chair Approach
The "Empty Chair" technique is typically used with interpersonal problems (i.e. a client angry at someone else, feels too submissive, lonely, etc.) It is a kind of to role playing, but in this case, the client plays both roles.  Employing two chairs, the counselor asks the client to change places as the conversation unfolds. "The actual acting and movement helps the client to get in touch with deeper sensimotor emotions" (Ivey & Ivey, 300).

The following is an example of how a school counselor might use Gestalt's "Empty Chair" technique to help a student in individual counseling deal with his reaction to his parents' divorce. Andrew, our fictitious student is angry at his father for leaving him and his mother. Realizing that Andrew is also experiencing a lot of guilt, the counselor decides to employ Gestalt counseling to help him increase self-awareness and realize that he has control over, choice of, and responsibility for those feelings. This intervention will adhere to the framework outlined by Martin S. Fiebert in Stages in a Gestalt Therapy Session: An Examination of Counselor Interventions

Advantages and Limitations
  • According to Mortola, "the Gestalt perspective offers a respectful approach to facilitating child development in the therapeutic context by acknowledging and enabling a child’s "self-regulatory" process of moving through periods of developmental disequilibrium and organismic growth and change" (Sharing Disequilibrium: A Link Between Gestalt Therapy Theory and Child Development Theory). This is seen as a positive because the role of the counselor is seen as that of a facilitator in the child's own process of self-awareness, rather than trying to manipulate him to some specific goal. The goal of this type of counseling is exploration rather than change, although change may naturally occur as awareness increases. As the child or adolescent becomes more aware of alternatives and options, he becomes better prepare to make choices and decisions and act responsibly. 
  • An experiment applying Gestalt methods to reduce test anxiety in students, Shraga Serok reports that Gestalt activities introduced in the experiment caused the effect of lowering the level of anxiety for workshop participants (The Application of Gestalt Methods for the Reduction of Test Anxiety in Students, 1991). 

Conclusions and Recommendations
  • People, according to Gestalt therapy, are responsible, that is, they are the primary agents in determining their own behavior. When people confuse responsibility with blaming and shoulds, they pressure and manipulate themselves; they are not integrated and spontaneous.
  • Gestalt therapy is an exploration rather than a direct modification of behavior. The goal is growth and autonomy through an increase in consciousness. Rather than maintaining distance and interpreting, the Gestalt counselor guides active awareness work. 

  • References

    Fiebert, M. S. (1990). Stages in Gestalt Therapy Session and An Examination of Counselors Interventions.
          Retrieved on July 2, 2002, from California State University:

    Ivey, A. E. & Mary B. (1999). Intentional Interviewing and Counseling.Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole
         Publishins Company.

    Myrick, R. D. (2003). Developmental Guidance and Counseling.Mineneapolis, MN: Educational Media

    Mortola, P. (2001) Sharing Disequilibrium: A Link Between Gestalt Therapy Theory and Child Development
         Theory: Gestalt Review. Behavior on Line, 5, 45-56.
         Retrieved July 2 2002, from

    Serok, S. (Summer 91). The Application of Gestalt . Assessment& Evaluation in Higher Education, Volume 2,
         157 (Abstract).

    Yontef, G. & Simkin, J. (1993).  An Introduction to Gestalt Therapy. Behavior on Line. Retrieved July 2
         2002, from