The chairs are arranged into a horseshoe. Three chairs are set apart as “hot seats” so that everyone sitting in the horseshoe can see them well (see illustration).
The only chair from which you can speak is the “hot seat” in the middle. A volunteer takes up the middle chair and calls on two other persons from the group to come and provide support by sitting on the hot seats to his/her left and right.
Their role is simply to sit next to the person who is speaking and provide moral support with their presence. When the volunteer finishes talking about a given topic, they return to their seat and the middle seat is taken by one of the supporters. Before they begin their story, the new person invites someone else from the group to come and be a supporter by taking the vacated spot among the “hot seats”. This is repeated until everyone (including the training team) has an opportunity to share their story with the others.
At the beginning, when all the chairs have been set up for the exercise and the exercise is explained, the participants should be given a few minutes to think about the given topic before they start the exercise.
As a rule, this exercise is not evaluated. However, if the participants come out of the exercise distressed by a story or there is a powerful outpouring of emotion, an emotional evaluation should be considered. Even in that case, however, it is best not to do the evaluation immediately following the exercise, because people will need time to reflect on what they heard, what happened and how it affected them.
This is a good method for difficult topics that most participants may respond to very emotionally, because it provides space to listen attentively. We use it when we want to tackle “big topics” from a very personal angle, so the topics can include, for example “When did my national identity affect my life?”, “The war and me”, “I am sorry for…”
Sharing one’s own story and listening to the stories of others both require a lot of energy and patience. It is, therefore, very important to pick the right moment during the training for this exercise, and it is good to introduce people to it and encourage them to tell their stories.
It can help if the first person to tell their story is someone from the training team or someone with previous experience of this kind of exercise. In some cases, the exercise may take up more time than planned, but as a rule, it creates an atmosphere of mutual care and empathy where time is not a dominant factor. Ideally, the exercise is not moderated and participants going over their allotted time respond to discreet signals from the trainer, because if they do not respond, there is a danger that the group will become impatient and stop paying attention, which will require the trainer to intervene.
“Hot seats” are usually great at connecting, fostering better mutual understanding and developing empathy among people.