Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The “Empty Chair” Technique

Originally posted on February 7, 2018

(This is the beginning of a new era for me. I have become accustomed to publishing in various recognized professional journals, but now I just want to get the word out, and there are other reasons I will write about shortly.)

Although the empty chair technique arose from psychodrama psychotherapy, like many “therapeutic” techniques, this approach can help psychologically-minded people in general. That is, it’s really for applications in everyday life. All it requires is imaginativeness. It helps to have another friend or family members around who know you and are somewhat familiar with this way of dealing with your taking the time to “think out loud.” They (trusted friends or family) are in the role of “audience” as you engage in this or that bit of process.

Publishing this on the internet recognized that our internet-connected culture has perhaps gained enough “psychological-mindedness” so that it’s possible.

Most people need to be witnessed, heard, known. Humans are social animals. This technique helps people think through their jumbled thoughts about some issue. To help, what’s needed is that other people around can be oriented to the technique.

So people need to hear themselves think out loud. That’s why talking to yourself seems crazy. It is crazy only insofar as the social sensitivity is blunted: Normally, people don’t do that. But if you can get friends to play along; if you and they can realize that life is to some extent like theatre—a metaphor of life-as-theatre—it works. This requires  people recognizing that we all need a bit of what might have been called the equivalent of psychotherapy to get things clear in our minds. But that’s beginning to happen with more psychologically-minded people. Then a person can feel validated in thinking things out, if one can get others to join in on the process, which friends and family in this psychologically literate age have learned to do naturally.

With this proviso—that others involved know the “game”—the use of “as-if”—the use of what the inventor of psychodrama, Dr. Jacob L. Moreno, called the concept of “surplus reality”—then it’s no problem: People can think aloud, which adds a bit of definiteness to what would otherwise be rather blurred in the mind.

The empty chair technique also can be used for working through a situation when the other can’t be there (died, moved away; or the other doesn’t talk to mere mor-tals). But really, it’s for getting ideas out of your head so you and the audience can hear more objectively and give feedback. It’s of course about talking to someone who is not able to be present. More anon.

Thinking Out Loud versus Musing

People think they think, but often they muse, or the adopt an opinion from someone who seems to have thought, and they claim to agree with them, saying that they thought that too. Really coming up with an independent thought may be slightly different.

Really, people sort-of think. Actually, often political leaders say what we are in-clined to agree with and we say “yeah.” The trouble is that when our leaders speak and we ae inclined to agree, then doubts, opposite thoughts, are repressed, pushed aside. Hearing one side articulated by a leader whom we are tempted to follow, inclined to agree with, has the unfortunate side effect of implying that the matter has indeed been thought through. This is an illusion! The opposite thereby gets “un-said” and hidden, and the opposite, or doubts, might be also sort-of true. So taking personal responsibility to have  a conversation about it—presenting both sides—getting both sides said out loud, equalizes it and allows higher functions to operate, higher functions such as judgement.

It is generally unacknowledged how much plausibility counts for belief, but there’s a big difference. Lots of things can seem plausible but on closer inspection are full of flaws. Astute advertisers, political campaigners, and others feed on these. They talk themselves into believing their own propaganda, so most seem (to themselves) sincere. But the whole things stands on the ground of sort-of hypnotized focused attention. (Indeed, much of human life operates not on ab-solute truth, as it seems to do, but rather on illusion, which seems like absolute truth!)

Another pseudo thinking process is a sort of rehearsal. It’s lining up your thoughts. In this sense, one talks to oneself.  The problem is that those who do generally don’t bother to have an audience who can say, “Did you hear what you just said?”  This reinforces craziness.

Knowing about psychodrama presupposes this audience and works to keep the conversation more balanced. There is an audience who tests reality. (There’s a function in psychiatry known as “reality-testing”—asking “but is it so?”  There’s enough political ambiguity that this is in fact rather elastic. The current Presidency of the USA tests this frequently!)

Back to psychodrama: Having an audience reinforces the need to reality-test. Speaking nonsense is not okay, and people know it. There’s a huge gap, though, speaking propaganda, mouthing cliches, engaging in bulls…t, and it blurs over into what is assumed that everybody-knows (but actually only a small cadre of believers agree on, and not really in detail), and there are many other forms of what I (charitably) call “blurred thinking.”

This blurring carries over into courtesy, while efforts at making conversation more accurate seems “picky.” We give each other lots of room this way, overlooking dumb things—or maybe it’s us who is dumb?

Anyway, talking out loud, it helps to clarify your thoughts by arguing with yourself and knowing there’s an attentive and critical audience out there. It doesn’t help if you can harangue the audience into meekly agreeing, though. But there’s a middle area where one has a reality check, and that’s where talking out loud to oneself, with a respected audience listening, makes sense.

Summary

Most people are not committed to clarity, though. Just getting along suffices. Folks just want to get by without a lot of friction, which allows the world to go on. A lot of nonsense, cliche’d thinking, and stupid stuff disguised as thoughts that are obvious or “everybody knows” slip by without comment—in the service of fellowship and harmony.

It needs to be thus, until the level of discourse or intelligence rise, which may (for most people) be never. But for people who can keep up, asking themselves as well as others “is it so?” then talking out loud with an audience willing to say “that’s just not so” is a useful tool.

For example, rehearsal may be helpful when preparing for an ambiguous encoun-ter. You don’t know what the other person or people will say. Or it may be to clarify your own thinking. The technique of multiple parts of self is helpful. Part of me thinks…. while another part wonders….

Rehearsal also my be used to communicate to those near and dear how you are mixed in response or just mixed: Part of me while another part of me…  It’s more inclusive to the other person, expressive you willingness to be open to the others’ feedback. One needs seeks help in deciding. Comments?


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