Theoretical Considerations

So here you are, standing in a large room with many chairs scattered around. You are about to have your first meeting of a new group. You have told all the members during the screening that the maximum membership of the group will be eight members. Since you do not yet have the eight, you are beginning the group with the five members you do have. One of them calls early in the day to say he is out of town on a two-week business trip so he will not be attending this week or next. For tonight then, you have four members, assuming they all show up. So, it is time to set up the chairs for tonight.

Do you set up eights chairs to reflect the maximum group size? Five chairs because you have five members (you hope)? Or four chairs because four members are expected tonight? Unsure, you turn to the introductory group therapy literature about how to run groups and find either no advice at all (Brabender, Fallon, & Smolar, 2004; Friedman, 1994; Pinney, 1970) or confusing advice (Rutan & Stone, 2001).

Brabender, et al. (2004), for example, have a separate section on spatial characteristics of the group, and even mention the "configuration of the chairs" (p. 79) so everyone can see everyone else—but not a word about how to decide the number of chairs.

Yalom (with Leszcz, 2005) "If members are absent, most therapists prefer to remove the empty chairs and form a tighter circle" (p. 282), implying that the number of chairs can vary each week since chairs for any session should match the attendance for that particular meeting. Rutan and Stone (2001) speak to this issue as well, and present two alternatives. In the first, the therapist sets up chairs for all current and potential members of the group, emphasizing that members are absent, that new members will be coming, and that members who have terminated can be remembered and mourned. In the second, just as Yalom does, as well as Fehr (2003), the therapist sets up chairs only for those expected for a particular meeting. They conclude, "The general principle in either approach is consistency" (p. 180).

It is not until their fourth edition (Rutan, Stone, & Shay, 2007), that they add this approach: "A third approach, and perhaps the most common, is for chairs to be placed for the number of current members of the group, whether expected to be present for a particular session or not" (in press). This setup means that the number of chairs remains the same, week to week, and match the actual number enrolled in the group.

So what is the group therapist to do?

I am going to present a vignette of a group therapist who has selected one approach—placing eight chairs to represent all potential members of the group—but then decides, based on reading the following argument for another approach—to change the arrangement after discussing it with the group members. Among the various models, I will argue for this one:

Model 1: The number of chairs should equal the number of actual members of the group—not the number of maximum members, and not the number of members coming to any particular meeting.

Drawbacks for Models 2 and 3:

Model 2: The number of chairs should equal the number of actual participants in any given meeting. Drawbacks include

• interruption of consistency and predictability of seating arrangement from week to week;

• inability to know until the last moment how many chairs to set up;

A Chair Is Not a Chair Is Not a Chair 505

• confusion should someone expected to be missing arrive unannounced; and

• less of a sense that missing members are actually still part of the group even when absent.

Model 3: The number of chairs should equal the maximum number of participants, current and anticipated, in the group. Drawbacks include

• weekly reminder of participating in an incomplete experience;

• constant attention directed to the failure of the leader to fill the group;

• diminished sense that we are the group since new members have their chairs awaiting them; and

• shame in the group therapist who essentially makes a weekly admission that he or she does not have a complete group.

Assume then, that you are persuaded by Model 1 (knowing it too has drawbacks, primarily occurring when a member terminates the group and the chair is removed, making it seem more like a "death" without a symbolic reminder of this loss). How then do you make this change in your group, midstream?


Generally speaking, the nature of the chair arrangement from week to week—with respect to the number of chairs—has a greater effect on groups that are either ongoing, open-membership, and psychody-namically inclined, or time-limited with a closed membership. For groups in which the membership in its nature varies from week to week, for example, drop-in groups or support groups, or groups larger than, say, twelve, the number of chairs is important in that there be sufficient chairs for all, so that late-comers do not feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, or unwelcome.


Although I have not used this intervention for precisely this problem, I have used it successfully numerous times for similar situations in which I have felt I have made a structural decision that warrants modification.

1.1 arrange the room as I always have before.

2. At the beginning of the session, I say, "I've been thinking a lot about the way I set up the chairs in the room, and I would like to make a change in the arrangement, beginning in three weeks. I currently set up eight chairs to represent the maximum number of group members. In thinking about it, while this seems to have worked for the group, I've come to think there is a better way. I want to set up the chairs to match the actual number of you in the group currently. This will give us all a clearer sense of exactly who comprises the group at this point, so week to week, the group in its entirety equals all of you. Of course, I will add chairs when new members join and remove them when members terminate. I'm glad to hear your thoughts and feeling in reaction to this, and to answer questions you might have."

3.1 then create a space for reactions, encouraging verbalization of all of them.

Solid Confidence Affirmation

Solid Confidence Affirmation

Simple Steps To Raise Your Confidence Levels Easily. In this book, you will learn all about: Why Affirmations Are Important For Concrete Confidence. How To Use Affirmations Effectively For Concrete Confidence. How To Jump In. Dating Affirmation. Better Speaker Affirmation. Authentically Happy Affirmation and so much MORE.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment