top of page

The Three Chairs Exercise: A Transformative Tool for Executive Coaches

Finding innovative and effective exercises that promote self-awareness, empathy, and strategic thinking is crucial. One such exercise is the "Three Chairs" exercise. This powerful tool not only aids executives in navigating complex interpersonal dynamics but also enhances their leadership capabilities. Designed to foster a multi-perspective understanding, it serves as a spark for personal and professional growth. In this article, we delve into how the exercise works, its impact, and considerations for its successful incorporation into coaching sessions.

How the Three Chairs Exercise Works

The essence of the Three Chairs exercise lies in its simplicity and impact. It is structured around three stages, each corresponding to a different chair representing distinct perspectives:

  • The Current Perspective (Chair One): The executive begins in the first chair, articulating their viewpoint on a specific challenge or decision. This stage is introspective, focusing on personal thoughts, feelings, and intended actions.

  • The Other's Perspective (Chair Two): Transitioning to the second chair, the executive adopts the stance of another individual affected by the situation (e.g., a team member, a stakeholder). This perspective-taking encourages empathy by expressing the challenge from the other person's viewpoint, considering their emotions and potential reactions.

  • The Observer's Perspective (Chair Three): In the final chair, the executive assumes the role of an external observer. This neutral standpoint aims to objectively analyze the situation, offering insights and advice that might have been overlooked from the internal perspectives.

Why It's Impactful

The Three Chairs exercise stands out for its ability to cultivate essential leadership qualities:

  • Empathy: Research by Harvard Medical School and MIT ties directly into the concept of "Theory of Mind" (ToM) and the importance of perspective-taking and empathy in leadership and social interactions. The study's discovery of specific neurons involved in social reasoning—the process underpinning ToM—provides a biological basis for how individuals understand and predict others' hidden beliefs and thoughts. This neural evidence supports the psychological theory that perspective-taking exercises can enhance empathy, as it reveals the brain's capacity to engage in complex social cognitive processes required for effective leadership and interpersonal understanding (MGH News and Public Affairs, 2021).

  • Reflective Practice: The Three Chairs exercise encourages reflective practice, a concept that involves critical thinking about one's actions and experiences, leading to insight and learning. Schön’s reflective practice theory (1983) argues that professionals can improve their understanding of their practice by actively reflecting on their experiences (Schön, 1983).

  • Perspective-Taking: The exercise borrows from techniques used in CBT, particularly those involving cognitive restructuring and the examination of thoughts from multiple angles. Research in CBT has shown that challenging and reframing one's thoughts can lead to changes in emotional responses and behavior (Fenn, 2013). The Three Chairs exercise can be seen as a form of cognitive restructuring, encouraging individuals to examine and challenge their perspectives. For more information on CBT, read “What Coaching Can Learn from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)” published by Arete Coach.

  • Emotional Intelligence: Role theory, a concept in social psychology, examines how individuals fulfill the expectations of different roles in society and how these roles influence behavior, perceptions, and interactions. By adopting different roles (such as another person's viewpoint or an observer's stance), the Three Chairs exercise taps into the principles of role theory, encouraging individuals to explore how different roles and perspectives can influence their understanding and decision-making processes.

Considerations When Incorporating into Executive Coaching Sessions

To maximize the benefits of the Three Chairs exercise, consider the following:

  • Safe Space: Ensure the coaching environment feels safe and confidential, allowing executives to express vulnerabilities and experiment with perspectives without judgment.

  • Guidance: Provide clear instructions and support throughout the process, helping executives navigate the transitions between chairs and perspectives.

  • Debrief: Facilitate a reflective debriefing session after the exercise. Encourage executives to articulate their insights, feelings, and potential action steps inspired by the experience.

  • Customization: Tailor the exercise to the specific context and challenges of the executive. Adjust the perspectives and scenarios to align with their unique leadership journey.

  • Integration: Incorporate the exercise into a broader coaching strategy, ensuring it complements other tools and methods being used to support the executive's development goals.

The Main Takeaway

The Three Chairs exercise offers a unique and impactful approach for executive coaches aiming to deepen their clients' leadership competencies. By fostering empathy, strategic thinking, and emotional intelligence, this exercise equips executives to navigate the complexities of modern organizational life with greater insight and effectiveness. As coaches, incorporating this exercise into our toolkit can significantly enhance the transformative potential of our coaching engagements, ultimately contributing to the development of more reflective, adaptive, and impactful leaders.


Biddle, B. J. (August 1986). "Recent Developments in Role Theory". Annual Review of Sociology. 12 (1): 67–92. doi:10.1146/ ISSN 0360-0572.

Fenn, K., Byrne M. (2013). The Key Principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  InnovAiT:6(9) 579-585.

MGH News and Public Affairs. (January 27, 2021). Theory of Mind.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in action. Temple Smith.

Copyright © 2024 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved. 


bottom of page