Looking At and As the Empty Chair

Dr. Jonathan Moreno’s essay, “What the Chair Could Have Told Clint,” reflects on what might have happened had the actor/director occupied the empty chair he spoke to during the Republican Convention in an attempt to feel what it’s like to actually sit as the President of the United States. (See below for addresses if above links don’t work).

Dr. Moreno speaks to the techniques used in psychodrama and voice dialogue, in which individuals are invited to speak to someone, often but not always someone who has hurt them, using an empty chair to represent that someone. Competently guided, the process can lead to insight and a letting go of pain, resentment and anger.

What Dr. Moreno suggests “would have really made his day,” was if Mr. Eastwood had taken what is often the next step–actually sitting in the chair himself–which, done authentically, might have allowed him to feel at some level what it’s like to be the individual he so glibly criticized. This “next step” is not intended to dismiss or justify egregious past wrongs if they exist, but to invite a more insightful understanding of what it’s like to be the person represented by the empty chair.

In a more popularized sense, we’re speaking about the metaphorical advice to not criticize someone unless we’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes–which usually means not so much that once we’ve walked that mile, it’s fine to criticize, but that our deeper insight into the “someone” often softens or eliminates our need to criticize.

My experience with this advice is that it’s been thrown around by so many people, for so long, and without any authentic investigation into what the metaphor, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, might truly mean, it’s usually an essentially meaningless, albeit well-intentioned, suggestion.

My concern is grounded in my own attempts to walk a mile or more in someone else’s shoes, and in observing others as they make a similar journey. With very few exceptions, when most of us think we’re taking a walk in another’s shoes, we sincerely think we’re feeling into and understanding the other’s response to an event or set of circumstances by imagining what it would be like to be the other. Inevitably, however, what we do is imagine what it would be like to be ourselves in the other’s circumstances, and this is perfectly understandable.

Each of us looks at ourselves, others and the world through a unique set of lenses that includes worldview, behavior, culture, environment, moods or states of mind, masculine/ feminine balance, personality, and levels of development across a wide variety of intelligences or developmental lines. When we look at this person in whose shoes we intend to “walk a mile,” we indeed look at him or her through our own lenses.

It is not until we can, with some degree of competence, do the work of identifying and understanding aspects of this other person’s unique set of lenses—and experience his or her circumstances through his or her lenses—that we are in some small or large way truly walking in shoes that are not ours. We make the move from looking at to looking as this other person.*

This is no small task. It’s a lot of work, quite complex, and requires the essential first step of learning to look accurately both at and as ourselves, becoming familiar with our own unique set of lenses, also known as biases.

To come back to the ongoing political idiocy in the United States: imagine if leaders and “hardcore” constituents of political parties were both developmentally able and courageous enough to look first at and as themselves, and then at and as their opponents. Imagine if they did this motivated only by a deep, authentic desire to truly know themselves and their perceived opponents in order, not to push forward their ideology, but to work openly toward resolving the myriad local, national and global issues we face.

That’s a long way from the attempted cute, snide, derisive and ultimately embarrassing and useless comments and tactics that political parties regularly engage.

As each of us negotiates our respective “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and unique experiences of “Triumph and Disaster,” may we do so in a way that is increasingly better able to look both at and as ourselves and others, especially, but not only those with whom we come into direct contact day-to-day.


*Two ways of looking—looking at and looking as—have been developed extensively as tools for understanding self and others by Laura Divine and Joanne Hunt at Integral Coaching Canada. For an article that deals directly with these two ways of looking, see Laura Divine’s “Looking AT and Looking AS the Client: The Quadrants as a Type Structure Lens” Journal of Integral Theory and Practice,  4.1 (Spring 2009): 21-40.

Dr. Moreno’s Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/01/opinion/what-the-chair-could-have-told-clint-eastwood.html

More on Dr. Moreno: http://www.med.upenn.edu/apps/faculty/index.php/g358/p8145264

Journal of Integral Theory and Practice: https://foundation.metaintegral.org/JITP

PDF – Downloadable Excerpt from Chapter 12 of Revised 2012 Edition of The Quality of Effort: On walking a mile in someone else’s shoes: looking at and looking as: https://reggiemarra.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/excerpt-from-the-quality-of-effort-looking-at-and-as.pdf

2 thoughts on “Looking At and As the Empty Chair

  1. Reggie, thank you for bringing Dr. Moreno’s article to my attention. Looking AS requires us to have more than the intention of empathy. I find I need to use my centering techniques, my meditation practice, and my loving-kindness practice to quiet my busy mind and open my heart to another. It’s still harder to do than to say! Looking AS doesn’t mean we see a person in a more positive light – it means we see them as close to how they see themselves as we can. Certainly there is some imagination involved. I love the idea of imagining ourselves as the leaders we criticize. Wouldn’t that change a lot of workplaces?

  2. You’re very welcome, Jill, and thanks for your insights into looking AS–especially that it requires we have more than the intention of empathy. As this post grew, I chose to limit my “description” of looking AS to “no small task, a lot of work and quite complex”–and leave it at that. Your sharing your own particular process–centering, meditation and loving-kindness–provides great examples of what’s involved, and your pointing out that we won’t necessarily see the other in a more positive light, but rather “as close to how they see themselves as we can” brings a wonderful clarity to this conversation. Thanks again!

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