Conflict is an inevitable aspect of organizational life, arising from diverse perspectives, goals, and personalities. According to a study by CPP, Inc., employees in the U.S. spend an average of 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflicts, which translates to approximately $359 billion in paid hours. When tensions escalate between two individuals, it can undermine productivity, teamwork, and overall morale. Traditional conflict resolution methods often fall short in addressing deep-rooted issues. In such scenarios, the Empty Chair Technique in the world of Business Coaching emerges as a powerful tool that leaders can employ to facilitate open dialogues and foster understanding between conflicting parties.
The Essence of the Empty Chair Technique
Originating from Gestalt therapy, the Empty Chair Technique is a psychological approach that externalizes an internal conflict. Its application in organizational settings has proven transformative, allowing participants to express feelings, thoughts, and perspectives in a safe and structured environment. By placing an empty chair in a discussion space, participants symbolically represent an absent party, engaging in a conversation as if they were present. This technique creates a powerful context for introspection and communication, ultimately paving the way for resolution.
Gloria Sánchez-Bello, a clinical psychologist and expert in Gestalt therapy, has written about the application of the Empty Chair Technique in psychotherapy. She has shared insights into how this technique can be used to facilitate emotional expression and healing.
Unveiling the Practical Steps
1. Preparation and Setting: Begin by creating a safe and neutral space for the dialogue. Gather the involved parties, ensuring they understand the purpose and expectations of the Empty Chair Technique.
2. Personification: Invite one participant to sit in the empty chair, embodying the perspective of the absent individual. Encourage them to express feelings, thoughts, and concerns as if they were that person.
3. Active Listening: The other party listens intently, avoiding interruption or defensiveness. This step fosters empathy and understanding as they gain insight into the other’s viewpoint.
4. Emotional Expression: Encourage both participants to articulate their emotions openly and honestly. This step allows for catharsis, reducing emotional tension.
5. Role Reversal: Have the participants switch roles. The person who initially assumed the absent individual’s perspective now speaks from their own viewpoint, responding to the expressed emotions and concerns.
6. Dialogue and Resolution: With emotions and perspectives laid bare, guide a discussion between the two participants. Facilitate a constructive conversation focused on finding common ground and potential solutions.
How Can the Empty Chair Technique Make a Difference to An Organisation?
The Empty Chair Technique holds the potential to make a substantial difference within an organization by fostering enhanced communication, empathy, and conflict resolution. By providing a structured platform for individuals to express their thoughts, concerns, and emotions through the representation of an empty chair, this technique encourages open dialogue and deep self-reflection. In a professional context, the technique can facilitate constructive conversations, enabling team members to address unresolved conflicts, make decisions collaboratively, and better understand differing viewpoints. This approach not only strengthens interpersonal relationships but also cultivates a culture of active listening, empathy, and inclusivity.
Empowering Leaders for Effective Implementation
1. Facilitator Neutrality: The role of the leader as a neutral facilitator is pivotal. Create an atmosphere of psychological safety where participants can express themselves freely.
2. Active Listening Skills: Leaders must exemplify active listening, demonstrating empathy and respect for both parties’ feelings and viewpoints.
3. Objective Guiding: Ensure the conversation remains constructive by guiding participants towards resolution and preventing the dialogue from derailing into blame or personal attacks.
Example of Application of Empty Chair
Sarah: Senior woman leader
Sarah is a highly competent and experienced senior leader in a tech company. She’s proposed a new strategy for the company’s product development, but John, the CEO, is resistant to her ideas. He feels that the proposed changes are too risky and could negatively impact the company’s profitability. Sarah believes strongly that her approach will lead to innovation and growth.
The Coach’s Intervention:
Alex, an external executive coach, has been brought in to help mediate the situation and find a resolution.
1. Setting the Stage: Alex arranges a meeting with Sarah and John to address their differences. The three sit in a room, with two empty chairs placed facing each other. Alex explains the concept of the empty chair technique to both of them.
2. Empty Chair Technique: Alex asks Sarah to imagine that John is sitting in one of the empty chairs, and John to imagine Sarah in the other. They are instructed to speak directly to the imaginary person as if they were really there.
Sarah (addressing the imaginary John): “John, I understand your concerns about the risks involved in my proposed strategy. I want the best for the company too, and I genuinely believe that this approach can lead to growth and innovation. I’ve seen it work in other companies. Can we find a way to mitigate those risks and make this strategy more appealing to you?”
John (addressing the imaginary Sarah): “Sarah, I appreciate your enthusiasm and experience. My main concern is that we might be moving too quickly. What if we phase in your strategy gradually to reduce the risk? Can we work together to create a plan that addresses both our concerns?”
3. Role Reversal: After this initial exchange, Alex asks them to switch chairs and respond to what the other person said, still addressing the imaginary person.
Sarah (now sitting in the CEO’s imaginary chair): “John, I understand your need for a phased approach. Let’s work on a detailed implementation plan that ensures we don’t rush into things and minimizes risks.”
John (now sitting in Sarah’s imaginary chair): “Sarah, I appreciate your willingness to work on this together. Your experience is valuable, and I believe we can find a middle ground.”
4. Discussion: After the role reversal, Alex facilitates a discussion between Sarah and John, now speaking directly to each other. They find common ground, agree on a phased approach, and outline the next steps to implement the strategy.
By using the empty chair technique, the coach helped Sarah and John to empathize with each other’s perspectives and facilitated a more constructive and open dialogue. This technique allowed them to find a compromise and work together effectively, ultimately leading to a resolution of their differences.
The Transformational Impact
The Empty Chair Technique transcends traditional conflict resolution methods by unearthing hidden emotions, breaking down barriers, and fostering genuine understanding. As participants step into each other’s shoes, they recognize shared concerns and potential areas of compromise. By externalizing the conflict, the technique reframes the issue from adversarial to collaborative, aligning both parties on a path toward resolution.
In an era where organizational success hinges on effective collaboration and harmony, the Empty Chair Technique stands as a beacon of hope for leaders seeking innovative solutions to entrenched conflicts. By embracing this technique, leaders can guide their teams toward healthier interactions, improved morale, and sustainable productivity, ultimately enriching the organization’s overall culture and success.