The “two-chair” process is a remarkably effective, gentle and safe way to support new families. Popularized in the late 1960s by Fritz Perls, MD (1893-1970) as part of his Gestalt therapy, the method was expanded by Robert Hall, MD (1934-) based on Hall’s study with polarity therapy founder Randolph Stone, DO, DC, ND (1890-1981). The present-day manifestation of the two-chair process also reflects the influence of Peter Levine, PhD (1942-), who studied with Stone and Hall. For a complete description of the method, see Dancing with Yin and Yang (2013) by John Chitty, which contains an extensive 80-page, highly detailed chapter of the two-chair process.
The two-chair process, also known as polarity counseling, consists of alternating one’s perspective from one point of view to another, then back again. Actual chairs are used to heighten the experience of differentiation from one state to another. The effectiveness of the method derives from how it induces movement between perspectives. In a young family, the two perspectives might be mother and baby, mother and father, the client and a medical condition, or any other combination.
For example, before birth, the mother could imagine the baby to be in the other chair. The mother might experience particular emotions, sensations or thoughts in the presence of the imagined baby. Then the mother switches and sits in the other chair, “becoming” the baby. Typically the autonomic nervous system (ANS) state changes instantly, to a quite different configuration. A different set of emotions, sensations and thoughts appears. A conversation can be encouraged, with making statements or asking questions in one chair, then responding in the other chair. Often remarkable insights arise. By switching back and forth, experiencing different ANS states, the whole system loosens up and begins a healing process from within itself.
The theory underlying the two-chair process can be visualized as a pendulum in an energy field. Randolph Stone famously said that illness accompanies fixation and healing accompanies movement. We go through life residing in our primary habitual perspective, but we always have a secondary aspect. Switching from chair to chair causes the pendulum to start swinging, instead of being glued to just one position. Similarly, we all have a primary baseline autonomic state, deploying strategies that we developed in the past, for good reasons. Since the autonomic nervous system is the substrate for all health, including mental, emotional, and physical, fixation in just one state undermines wellbeing. Switching from chair to chair induces movement in ANS states, leading to profound benefits.
Substantial theory, science, and specific “tricks of the trade” form the foundation for the two-chair process method, but perhaps a few examples are the most expedient way to get a quick overview of how and why it works.
To read more of John’s article, Using the Two-Chair Process Helping Babies and Families.