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Marvin G. Knittel

This was published in the April, 2010 issue of Counseling Today, 52 (10), 50-51.

 [Sanda Gibson published a Reader Viewpoint  article about the Gestalt empty chair intervention technique for grief counseling in the September 2009 issue of Counseling Today. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, and Jacob L Moreno, the founder of psychodrama, explain the empty chair technique differently. Perls believed the client should imagine an absent person in an empty chair, while Moreno believed the client should reverse roles and become the absent person. Therein lies the fundamental difference between Gestalt therapy and psychodrama and the use of the empty chair technique. This article gives an example of how to establish the presence of the absent person in the empty chair by using role reversal. The following is the story of Paul, recently widowed.]

Paul sits mindlessly staring at the television. It has been nine months since his beloved Carmen died. He spends most of his days in that chair except for when he goes shopping, attends church or is with his friends. Funny thing about friends. Right after Carmen died, they called and included him in different activities. Now, after almost a year, they don't come around very often. Paul knows part of that is his fault. He would rather be alone most of the time. He tells his friends, "I just don't enjoy things without Carmen." Paul has never been a person who talks openly about his feelings or problems. Yet Paul has said to very close friends, "I still talk to her. Do you think that is wrong?" His friends tell him they don't think so but also advise him that it would be a good idea to talk to someone who helps people who have lost a loved one.

I met Paul almost 10 months after his wife had died. We spent our first session trying to determine (as Kenneth Doka writes) how Paul defined attachment. That is, how he gave meaning to the loss of Carmen. I also wanted to get some idea of how Paul grieved. Did he grieve with an obvious degree of emotion and affect, or did he grieve more cognitively by talking about his lost relationship? As I listened to Paul, it became obvious that he probably dealt with his loss cognitively. He seldom used "feeling" words and usually described activities with Carmen.

Knowing he missed talking things over with Carmen, I decided to use the empty chair technique so he could "talk" with her and thereby find a way to live more comfortably with his grief. Many writers mention using the Gestalt empty chair technique. I prefer to follow the empty chair technique shaped by Moreno from his psychodrama method.

According to Moreno, the empty chair method requires that the absent person be brought to the session by role reversal rather than by asking the client to speak "as if the person is actually in the chair" (as Gibson accurately described the Gestalt empty chair approach). Moreno believed that pretense diluted the power of the process. Therefore, with the psychodrama method, a counselor asks the client to sit in the empty chair and "be” the absent person. As the counselor then "interviews" the absent person, two things occur. First, the counselor gathers valuable information about the absent person. Second, the absent person becomes existentially present. That is, the empty chair is no longer empty; the absent person occupies it, and the client quite easily sees the absent person present in the moment. In my opinion, Moreno's role reversal approach is more compelling and brings the experience more completely into the moment than the Gestalt approach. Let me demonstrate.

In the second session with Paul, I say, "Paul, put that empty chair across from you. Now move over and sit in the empty chair. I want to meet Carmen, and the best way to do that is to talk to her. I want you to be Carmen. I want you to sit in that chair the way Carmen sits in a chair. I want you to capture the way Carmen answers questions. I want you to be Carmen in every way you can. You know Carmen better than anyone, so I know you can do that."

Notice that I try to be clear about what I want him to do. Notice also that I do not give him a choice. He is with me to get help, and I need to manage the session so that happens. Paul sits in the empty chair. I begin with the least threatening questions first. "Carmen, thank you for being here. How old were you when you died?"
     Paul (as Carmen) says, "I was 62 and Paul was 64."
I ask, "How did you die?''
     Paul answers (as Carmen), "I died from lung cancer."
I continue: "What did you love most about Paul?"
      Paul (as Carmen) says, "He was good to me. We did almost everything together, and we always made decisions together."
      I  respond, "Carmen, Paul is here. He has missed you very, very much. I think he needs to talk to you."
[Let me make a comment about what I have done so far in the session. I have established the "presence of Carmen. I have discovered that Paul saw himself and Carmen as inseparable. Therefore, his grief is connected to the loss of an active participant in his life. Of course, connected to that is the sadness with which he continues to live. Now, as we progress, Carmen's presence is no pretense. She is clearly “in” our session.]

I continue the session and say, "Please reverse roles and be Paul." Paul moves back to his seat and looks at the "empty" chair that now holds Carmen. I say, "Paul, many thoughts have crossed your mind during the lonely days since Carmen died. She is here. What do you want her to know? Tell her."
     Paul looks intently at the chair and in a quiet voice says, "I have really missed talking things over with you. You always did so many little things like stopping and starting the newspaper when we were gone and buying the kind of food that was healthy for me. I relied on you to do so many of those little things. I tell you, Carmen, I feel really lost without you. But you know what, Carmen? What I probably miss most is just hearing you in the house! It is just so darn quiet, I don't know what to do."

The dialogue continues along these lines until I think Paul has come full circle. I then know we need to move toward an encounter with Carmen focused on how Paul is going to move forward. I have found one of the best ways to do this is by creating a "wisdom figure." In this case, I endow Carmen with the wisdom.
     I say, "Paul, Carmen has been gone almost a year, so let's assume she has been endowed with wisdom beyond what we mortals possess. Think of Carmen as having that gift, and talk to her about where you go from here."
      Paul looks at Carmen and says, "I'm not going to stop mourning and being sad, but I know I can't continue staring at the TV set. I just am not sure what I should do."

Paul reverses roles with Carmen, and I say to her, "Carmen, you have been able to watch Paul, and you have wisdom to help him. He has made it clear he is not ready to stop mourning your loss, but he thinks it is time to do more than watch TV. Tell him what to do."

What I have done in giving Carmen the gift of wisdom is to empower Paul to get beyond himself. Be aware that this may not happen until the third or fourth session. I have truncated this session to give readers an idea of psychodrama role reversal and to illustrate that the power lies within the client.

I leave Paul in the role of Carmen. He says (as Carmen), "Paul, you know you have not been alone. I have been there in spirit. It is time you begin to do some things that get you moving out of the house. Your friends from the planthave asked you to come to their card games, and I know the church is always looking for ushers. You know how to get started doing things. You always did woodworking around the house. I know that Casa De Los Ninos always needs someone to do small jobs for the center. The thing is, Paul, I don't want you to forget me, but neither do I want you to shrivel up and die."

I say, "Reverse roles."
   Paul returns to his own chair, and I move the empty chair away. I then ask, "What did you learn?"
    He answers, "I learned that I don't need to stop grieving, but I can start living on my own."
After we visit a little while about that, I ask, "Paul, do you want to come back to see me?"
    Paul says, "Yes. If you don't mind, I might want to talk to Carmen again."

I have been struck by the frequency with which Gestalt empty chair is mentioned in publications about grief work in comparison with psychodrama empty chair. Part of that is because Perls was skilled at creating an appealing public image, while Moreno was less publicly known. The other part is that psychodrama has been cloistered behind an extensive set of training standards, and it is essentially a group therapy method steeped in sociometry.
     I hope this article whets your appetite for the psychodrama process of role reversal and the psychodrama empty chair technique. Check out psychodrama training centers near you.

Marvin G. Knittel is professor emeritus of counseling and school psychology at the University
of Nebraska-Kearney and a life member of the American Counseling Association. He is currently retired in Tucson, Arizona. Contact him at mdknittel@gmail.com.

Return to Top       Comments and suggestions for revision are welcome. Email me at adam@blatner.com