Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Improvisation Games & Exercises For Developing Emotional Intelligence

Since September Lifestage has been offering a monthly training workshop exploring the use of improvisation to develop Emotional Intelligence. These workshops have been geared toward the work done by clinicians, educators and trainers who guide the process of personal change or professional development, but as it turns out we have enjoyed some interesting diversity among the participants -  managers, business owners with both employees and customers, community activists, and performers. 
    Below is a collection of the exercises we have used in the workshops, accompanied by some studies that supports their use. 


Why Improvisation?
Improvisation is a powerful way to become aware of mental habits and patterns. Reflecting on our inner experiences after engaging in an improvisation exercise provides an opportunity to decide whether our mental habits are effective and useful or self-limiting and obsolete. The tensions of the creative process and this kind of interpersonal interaction are a fa…

WARM-UP EXERCISES FOR GROUP WORK - For Therapeutic, Educational or Training Groups

Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP, Director of Training at Lifestage, Inc and Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP, Trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Follow on twitter @JuTrWolff


   “To begin assembly one must have the right attitude,” goes a Japanese instruction for assembling a particular object, as quoted in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. The "right attitude" is one that best serves the action we are preparing to engage in, just as an athlete warms up his/her muscles before using them in the stress of a work-out or game. Psychological and emotional "muscles" that are properly warmed up will perform more effectively and make it less likely that we will experience strain or allow fear to produce a shut-out when things get rolling.
    The right warm-up makes everything learned in a training situation or classroom more accessible and immediately useful to the trainee/student. New skills and knowledge - in education, personal growth or a professional train…

The Emotional Intelligence of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela famously forgave the people who imprisoned him, an extraordinary thing especially since they were willing actors in an abusive system, one that imposed decades of indescribable suffering and violence on millions of his people. He forgave Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for doing business with the apartheid regimeand would probably forgive members of the U.S. Congress and political pundits who labeled him a Communist and terrorist even upon the announcement of his death. 
     There were American diplomats who ignored the ignored the brutality and violence of the apartheid government and supported his imprisonment. Most of us would find that hard to take. Most of us struggle to accept being misjudged or unfairly labeled even when the consequences are simply emotional tensions. And in our sound bite culture, there is a rush to idolize a person with such a remarkable emotional capacity. We might miss the ways he was exactly like the rest of us and in doing that miss als…