Chair Work with the Empathic Other : Providing Basic Need Support for Resolving Unfinished Business

Édua Holmström*, Virpi Liisa Kykyri, Frank Martela

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


In this case study we present an example of a modification of the chair work technique, called ‘chair work with the empathic other’, and examine the process of emotional change of the participant. We find that talking directly to the empathic other supports the participant’s emotional engagement with the task and guides her emotional processing through the four necessary components of successful empty chair work, specified in previous research: experiential access and intense expression of primary adaptive emotion, expression of thwarted need, and a shift in the representation of self and the other. Drawing on self-determination theory, we conceptualize the trainer’s person-centered communication as a basic need-supporting therapeutic action. Throughout the chair work process, the need-supporting positioning of the ‘empathic other’, provided by the trainer, consistently engages the participant in the emotional processing of unfinished business: it deepens and widens her emotional exploration, leads her to express thwarted need, and finally, to change representation of self and other. We discuss the findings within the framework of self-determination theory and in relation to research on emotional change and therapeutic practice. Previous research has pointed out the difficulties many clients face with engaging in chair work. Introducing need-supportive communication, drawing on self-determination theory, we suggest that the modified technique is a possible intervention to facilitate engagement in chair work and emotional change.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Contemporary Psychotherapy
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Jun 2024
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Basic Need Support
  • Client Engagement
  • Psychotherapy Process Research
  • Self-determination Theory
  • Unfinished Business


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