At one time I had a reputation for causing furniture to move around in mysterious ways, somewhat like a poltergeist. The problem, though, was not that I was possessed by an evil spirit, but rather that I had to work in shared offices.
All you really need in the room for therapy is two chairs and somewhere to put that box of tissues. How hard can it be?
The trouble with offices is that they are, well, officey — arranged for certain formal functions. The arrangement of furniture is rarely right for the kind of encounter that therapy is. So I would simply move the furniture around to make the kind of space that I wanted.
Although I always tried to put the furniture back afterwards, other people would notice that things were never quite the same after my visit. Trying to explain sometimes seemed only to make their puzzlement worse, “But what was wrong with the desk?”
The desk in the way
The classic mistake, if you are a therapist, is having a desk or table in the way. It creates a physical blockage between you and your client. If the chairs are on opposite sides, they force you into a confrontational pose, facing each other directly.
The more cluttered the desk, the worse it is. A meeting room table is almost as bad. Both create a formal environment that inhibits both patient and therapist from relating well to each other.
Some therapists are said to be so frightened of their patients that they deliberately place a desk in the way as a kind of protection. I don’t think I actually know anyone like that, but it seems reasonable to suppose that a few therapists are that bad.
The waiting room
Another mistake is using spare chairs just where you find them, perhaps shoved against a wall. You might do this to get away from the desk, but sitting side by side with your patient makes it feel like you are both in a waiting room.
The problem here is that if you both relax you face forwards and cannot make eye contact. You can twist round in the chair, but then you are not relaxed.
If you are used to a desk but the room doesn’t have one, or if you have been told by your supervisor not to hide behind a desk and you are slavishly obeying, then there’s a temptation to place chairs facing.
The feeling of confrontation here is worse than when there’s a desk.
It’s awkward when there’s one big comfortable chair and one nasty little chair, unless you are a nervous therapist who likes the feeling of power that the big chair gives you.
If these are really the only chairs available, the best thing to do is to make a joke about it, and offer the big chair to the patient. As a therapist you already have enough power.
In the classical arrangement for psychoanalysis, the patient lies on a couch and the therapist sits slightly behind, out of sight.
There’s no easy way to make eye contact, and there’s a temptation for both patient and psychoanalyst to forget that the other is present. Research papers have been written on the best way for psychoanalysts to stay awake.
This tradition is very dated, and not even all psychoanalysts now maintain it.
The solution, of course, is to have two similar chairs at right-angles.
Imagine you are a patient and you are very distressed. You lean forward with your head in your hands. What’s the least movement that you can make to make eye contact with your therapist? It’s just to turn your head to one side, and that’s where your therapist should be, also leaning forward so your heads are at a similar level.
The aim is closeness and eye contact when needed, without being invasive, confrontational, or actually touching.
It works with a sofa, too.
On those occasions when a third person is present — a family member, perhaps — the patient sits at the end nearest the therapist as usual, and the third person has to sit further away. This places the third person in a deliberately disadvantaged position, helping therapist and patient to maintain their close alliance. For this purpose, a sofa is much better than three chairs.
So don’t be ruled by your furniture. Move it around to make it fit the kind of relationship you want to make with your patients.