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The Empty Chair: It's Not Actually Empty

By Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP
     Sometimes an empty chair is just an empty chair. And sometimes it is a prop that takes center-stage in the national political spotlight. When Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair representing President Obama onstage at the Republican National Convention last week, he gave important press to one of the cornerstones of effective conflict resolution, from personal relationships to work teams to political parties to entire nations. In the New York Times Opinion piece "What The Chair Could Have Told Clint" Jonathan Moreno - a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania - shares some insights into the possibilities missed in Clint's interaction with the imaginary Obama.
"When Mr. Eastwood set up a chair next to the podium and used it in an imaginary dialogue with the president, I recognized it as a technique from psychodrama — the psychotherapy my father, the psychiatrist J. L. Moreno, started developing nearly 100 years ago," he writes. "Therapists often use the 'empty chair; as a way of orienting a patient to a particular relationship. “Here’s your mom,” they might say. “What would you say to her if she were here, right now?” The empty chair can be a very powerful warm-up to a problematic situation, a way of concretizing dormant, suppressed or abstract emotions in an important or troubling relationship. Used properly, it can lead to insight."

The value of Empty Chair work is in the opportunity to assume the role of the person we imagine in that seat. It is in the role-reversal - another brilliant technique devised by J.L Moreno - that a deeper truth can emerge. "Mr. Eastwood wasted an important educational and therapeutic moment from which our deadlocked political system could benefit," writes Moreno, "putting himself in the role of the other person of whom he is critical and coming to understand that person’s point of view 'from inside.'"

As a psychodramatist trainer and practitioner, I was pleased to see Jonathan Moreno's immediate response in the Opinion pages. It is so rare to see a technique on television that experiential psychotherapists use every day, and Moreno's response tells the rest of the story about how it actually works. In our efforts to help people work out the tough conflicts that tear people up internally and eat away at relationships, the Empty Chair and Role-Reversal are creative, power tools that change peoples' lives. Thanks Clint, for bringing the Empty Chair technique to national attention. It looks like that was a wonderful way to get a few things off your mind. But let's not forget that while disagreement is important in a democracy, it is equally important to try to see things from others' perspective, to challenge our own assumptions and projections. Because the other people with whom we may disagree are not, actually, invisible.

Nick Wolff, LCSW, BCD is a Trainer, Educator, and Practitioner of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. His weekly training group in Psychodrama and action methods resumes on Wednesday Sept. 26 7-9 p.m. To join this group call Nick at 631-366-4265. This training is approved for Continuing Education by the NY State Office of Alcohol & Substance Abuse Services.


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