The Two Chair Technique: Applying Gestalt Therapy Approaches to Executive Coaching

The Two Chair Technique is a beneficial and research-based conflict resolution technique that applies gestalt therapy. The technique is periodically used by executive coaches when walking their clients through challenging topics including conflict resolution.



What is gestalt therapy?

When applied to executive coaching, gestalt therapy focuses on helping coachees develop an awareness of how their “beliefs, values, and attitudes affect” their “relationships,” their response to “change” and “therefore impact” their business goals (Carden, n.d.).


Support for the Two Chair Technique

Research from the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration indicates that the Two Chair Technique helps participants transform and confront their inner critic by bringing “understanding” to “its fears and function” (Bell et al., 2021). Research also indicates that this technique is also helpful in “conflict resolution,” lowering “anxiety,” improving “performance,” and increasing “positive mood” (Talbot, 1989).


The Two Chair Technique offers executive coaches a “holistic” practice that addresses emotion, conflict, career, and even “personal issues” that affect the success of a client (Cardoso & Duarte, 2020). The ability to address these emotions is a vital skill for executive coaches because emotions are an integral part of how coachees “manage interpersonal relationships” and make decisions throughout their career journeys (Cardoso & Duarte, 2020). Furthermore, this technique “enables coachees to identify and reflect on the patterns” of behavior with their clients “and through this” help them “make changes to their behavior” (Carden, n.d.).


How to implement the Two Chair Technique

The Two Chair Technique is done in a one-to-one coaching scenario with two open chairs.

Step 1: identify the conflict or challenge

The conflict or challenge can be something that coachees feel “stuck” with and unable to move past (Dodge, 2020). It can also be an internal or interpersonal conflict. An internal conflict could be deciding on a career path, but being afraid to take risks (Cardoso & Duarte, 2020). An interpersonal conflict could be any tension or dispute between a coachee and an individual or organization (Dodge, 2020).


Step 2: name it

Once the opposing challenge or conflict is established, the coach instructs the coachee to give it a simple straightforward name. This technique “requires physicalizing the two ‘parts’”—the coachee and whatever they have named (Dodge, 2020). For example, if a coachee has a conflict with a co-worker named Dave, the coachee can stick with the name Dave and complete the technique with themselves and “Dave.” If the conflict is internal they can name these different aspects of themselves “brave Mike” and “fearful Mike” taking the perspective of each when indicated.


Step 3: start the discussion

With the coachee sitting in one chair facing the empty chair, the coach instructs the coachee to “reflect on what you want to say to the” named challenge or individual, “sitting across from you” in the empty chair. After being given a moment of reflection, the coachee is then instructed to “speak to” the chair as if the named challenge or individual is present (Dodge, 2020).


Step 4: change seats and respond

After the coachee has completed their statement to their named challenge or individual, the coach then instructs them to switch seats and adopt the perspective of their named challenge or individual. The coach then instructs the coachee to respond to what they previously said in the other seat from the perspective of the other party. Once this response is complete, the coachee can direct the client to switch seats/perspectives until there is no more “energy” or insight being found from the conversation.


Step 5: return and reflect

After completing the conversation, the coachee can then return to their original chair. Once settled, the coachee and coach can work through the experience together, reflecting on what they have learned, and how they might apply that information later. The goal is to build awareness of the many aspects of their conflict or challenge (Allan & Whybrow, 2018).


Step 6: action steps

The final step of the Two Chair Technique is creating action steps with the new awareness built in Step 5 (Allan & Whybrow, 2018). Executive coaches can use insightful questions and active listening skills to help their clients build these action steps and apply them toward their goals.


Tips for success


Focus on learning

When using the Two Chair Technique, focus on learning as opposed to solving the challenge or conflict. The purpose of this exercise is to “uncover, explore” and “further understand the dynamic that is happening.” While a resolution might come about, “the intent is to remain” present in the moment to learn more about the challenge at hand (Dodge, 2020). These learnings can then be reflected on and acted upon in the future (Simon, 2009).


Take a breather

This can be an emotionally charged process. It is important to remind coachees to take a deep breath and pause before switching perspectives. This adds to the clarity of the discussion and also reinforces their attention to the present moment instead of the past or future (Dodge, 2020).


It’s okay to call timeout

If a coachee becomes upset or uncomfortable, it’s okay to call a “timeout” and work with the coachee to understand why they felt uncomfortable. Additionally, we recommend using discretion on topics discussed. It is important to remember that executive coaching is looking ahead, while therapy and counseling look to the past. If needed, it is important to direct clients to mental health professionals. For more information on how to indicate when a referral should be made, we encourage you to read: Are you asking “how are you sleeping these days?” instead of “how are you?".


The interplay between personal life and career

According to Cardoso & Duarte, the Two Chair Technique “enhances holistic practices that deal with the interplay between career and personal issues” (2020). Executive coaches should be prepared for a potential interplay between these two facets of their client’s life when doing this exercise.


While executive coaching primarily focuses on career and leadership development, it is important to remember that personal life can sometimes affect career and vice versa. As stated previously, coaches focus on the future as opposed to the past. If necessary we encourage coaches to make the proper referrals to mental health professionals as needed.


References

Allan, J., & Whybrow, A. (2018). Handbook of Coaching Psychology: A Guide for Practitioners. In Gestalt Coaching (2nd ed., pp. 133–159). Routledge.


Bell, T., Montague, J., Elander, J., & Gilbert, P. (2021). “Suddenly you are King Solomon”: Multiplicity, transformation and integration in compassion focused therapy chairwork. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 31(3), 223–237. https://doi.org/10.1037/int0000240.


Carden, J. (n.d.). How can I use gestalt to help my coaching clients? Henley Business School. https://assets.henley.ac.uk/defaultUploads/18.XOP.102-INSIGHT-TEMPLATE-19-08-18-10-online.pdf.


Cardoso, P. M., & Duarte, M. E. (2020). Two-chair dialogue: an emotion-focused technique applied to career counselling. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 49(2), 177–186. https://doi.org/10.1080/03069885.2020.1782833.


Dodge, W. T. (2020, March 29). 6 Steps to the 2-Chair Process: Gestalt Therapy at Home. The Haven. https://haven.ca/post/6-steps-2-chair-process-gestalt-therapy-home/.


Lovering, C., & Gepp, K. (2021, October 14). Empty Chair Technique: What It Is and How It Helps. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/health/empty-chair-technique.


Simon, S. N. (2009). Applying Gestalt Theory to Coaching. Gestalt Review, 13(3), 230–240. https://doi.org/10.5325/gestaltreview.13.3.0230.


Talbot, L. (1989, October). The Effectiveness of the Gestalt Two Chair Counseling Technique in Reducing Paper Presentation Anxiety (Thesis). Emporia State University. https://esirc.emporia.edu/bitstream/handle/123456789/1885/Talbot%201989.pdf?sequence=4.


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