Coaching Positively to Increase Flow and Involvement: The Engaged Life

Summary of strengths

Strengths are a person’s capacities they are instinctively good at that energize them when practiced.

Strengths-focus yields better results than weakness-focus.

We can overcome our negativity bias by accessing our resourcefulness and positive emotions.

Acknowledging one’s strengths and building them more into one’s life feels deeply authentic.

Weaknesses must be managed so they don’t become fatal flaws.

To be more vitally involved with what you are doing and, therefore, with your life, identify your strengths and learn how to use them at work, in relationships, leisure, and play.

Pulling more on natural strengths, and harnessing them, makes activities more enjoyable, and tasks become more intrinsically rewarding and motivating. 

Enhancing Engagement with Activity. Using Strengths in a New Way.

Choose one of your top strengths. Then, during the week, find a time to exercise the strength in a new way.

First, go through a day, in real-time or recall, to identify situations where your signature strengths are already in action.

Then brainstorm new ways to use the strength.

Variation 1: Under adversity, when in a challenging situation, brainstorm and practice applying your signature strength to improve or make the most of the problem.

How might you pull on your strength to center yourself on your core strength or value and find the energy or resolve to continue?

Variation 2: When engaged in an action that increases anxiety, consider the flow conditions and slightly alter the task’s parameters to align with your natural strengths.

Enhancing Engagement with Others: Strengths Date

With someone you will share some time, both identify your signature strengths through the Values in Action (VIA) Strengths Survey ( Then, plan an activity that engages one or more signature strengths of each.

Variation in a Work setting: Take team members’ natural skills into account when delegating or volunteering for particular tasks.

For Relational Engagement, practice active, constructive responding to foster interpersonal flow.

In the Work setting: Practice active, constructive responding, saving criticism until afterward. Notice whether conflicts are reduced and if the behavioral repertoire of the team shifts.

Introduction to strengths

The strengths approach has a simple message: if you are interested in developing yourself or others, building on existing strengths is more energizing, motivating, and fruitful than trying to make good weaknesses or plug gaps in weak areas. Objectives and action plans aimed at making good a weakness area are rarely achieved since it is difficult to sustain motivation not grounded in one’s interests, values, personality, and identity (and one’s weaknesses are most often not grounded thus). Focus on weaknesses is a major source of unhappiness and disengagement.

Nevertheless, this idea also recognizes the need to compensate minimally, through appropriate resourcing, the potential de-railers of important task accomplishment resulting from weaknesses.

To see the power of strengths, try this exercise in considering real issues from the two perspectives of strength and deficit.

First, take a deficit focus.

Think about a work aspect you find burdensome and struggle to do well.

Formulate a 12-month goal to bring your performance in this area to an adequate level.

Notice how you are feeling.

Now, take a strengths focus.

Think about a work aspect you enjoy and are good at.

Formulate a 12-month goal to develop your competence in that area still further.

Notice how you are feeling.

The coach helps clients be happier and more fulfilled, using well-proven methods to develop greater wellbeing and personal growth at work, including strengths identification and use. Happier, more fulfilled people perform better in their jobs or find better jobs to perform in.

Strengths can be classified and distinguished relating to talents, skills, values, virtues, and actions.

Widely-used 360-degree assessments rarely enthuse people. Inventories of alleged competencies are taken as input for prioritizing personal development plans, with higher scores taken for granted and focusing time and energy on the lower-scoring items. The effect is that a year later, lower scores rise a little, and the stronger scores drop because the effort is going elsewhere. The result is an attenuation of scores, tending toward a mid-point. It is common for individuals to discount well-scored areas but react strongly to the lower scores, seeing them as personal criticism instead of useful information. Inevitably, their focus is grabbed for prolonged times by the lower scores. By focusing on weaknesses, a person puts energy into something that de-energizes them and which they are unlikely to perform at more than an adequate level. At the same time, they take their attention and energy away from what they do well and are motivated by.

It is wise to pay some attention to low-scoring areas that could be problematic if not addressed but focus more on a person’s strengths and how even the higher scores might be increased. Focus on strengths, not weaknesses, is the key to higher performance for the client. Weakness areas can be strategically important when it becomes a flaw in a job that needs to be addressed. But, for the coach, it is important to know that we are at our best and most authentic when we major on our strengths. Identifying and building on strengths is much more engaging, motivating, and successful.

Strength is a pre-existing capacity that comes naturally to us and feels authentic. Its use is energizing. Weaknesses, in contrast, often drain us. This definition is the basis for the Strengths Profile questionnaire (former “Realise 2” from the Center for Applied Positive Psychology; Linsey, 2009), which distinguishes:

Realized Strengths that you perform well, that are energizing, and you should marshal their use;

Unrealized Strengths that you perform well, that are energizing, and you should maximize their use;

Learned Behaviors that you perform well, that are de-energizing, and you should moderate their use;

Weaknesses that you perform poorly, that are de-energizing, and you should minimize their use.

When we use true strength, we feel energized. The coach’s role is to notice when what is portrayed as strength is accompanied by energy. Typically, this energy is shown by a shift to more positive, upright, centered body language, by looking up rather than down, a stronger, more consistent tone, and more energy in the voice and the client’s body.

Think of something you love doing, ideally something that you are naturally good at and which people have always noted about you. That is probably a strength. Now think of two or three ways to make that strength even stronger. How does that feel? Notice the motivational power here. 

Notice, too, if you had some resistance to identifying the strength or to working on it. Where does that come from? How can you reduce the impact of this resistance?

The next time you coach someone on a career matter or a choice they need to make, ask them about a success or how well they are doing a particular task or role. Observe their energy as they speak and feed this back. Work with them to identify whether this is a true strength or something they have learned to do well.

Working with strengths

When you use strengths inventories in coaching, ensure you understand them deeply and have thought through what they mean or how a person can use them. To use questionnaires well as a coach, you must be able to explore them in depth with your client.

Alternatively, you might reveal your client’s strengths through reflective conversations and journaling exercises.

“At My Best” Exercise: A simple but highly motivating exercise is a version of the well-known “Peak Experience” exercise.

Dear Client,

Please identify two or three occasions when you have been at your best. These occasions can be of any duration, from a few minutes to a year. It is important that being “at your best” is meaningful to you, not an attempt to impress or conform to what others think. Neither is it a comparison with others.

Please talk about this experience, re-living it as vividly as possible as you go.

(The coach notes every example of a possible strength the client displays as they talk.

After the client has talked about the events, the coach invites them to consider the list he has noted and to hone it into four or five strengths that characterize the client at their best.)

Now, consider the strengths you have displayed in this experience; what strengths characterize you at your best?

Working with the four strengths areas

Strengths you are currently using: The main focus is for the client to maintain and use these strengths.

How are you currently using this strength? How useful is it in this organization or work situation? What scope do you have to use it more? What specifically can you do to use it more?

Strengths you currently under-use: These must be used more if the client is to become more effective and fulfilled. Therefore, they are the major focus area in strength coaching sessions.

Which of these strengths are you using, at least to some extent? How can you do more of this?

Taking the ones you use little or not at all, which ones could you use right now or shortly? What can you do to bring them into play?

Which ones have the least scope for use right now? How could you use them elsewhere?

How are you stopping yourself from using these strengths?

Dealing with learned behaviors: It is not always possible to stop doing things. Above all, the coach must discourage the client from striving to turn these into outstanding strengths because they won’t manage to.

Which of these can you stop doing?

Which can you get others to do who have the relevant strengths?

If you have to do some of them, how can you spend less time and energy on them? What would be “good enough” here?

Areas of weakness: It’s ok to have weaknesses. There is no point in striving to be something we are not. The coach must challenge the client to let go and reduce the need to operate in weakness areas. The leader must ensure things get done, not do them.

To what extent is this a core part of your job? Who else could do it? How can you get it done without doing it yourself? What would happen if you stopped doing it?

Organizational leadership is linked to performance through workgroup climate. People experience a more positive climate when they receive clarity about their role and job, are set high, achievable performance standards, are given recognition as a person and for what they do, are given accountability for delivering, and feel part of a team. The immediate line manager’s behavior is the most important factor in building a positive climate. It is positive and motivating when the boss gets you to focus on and build up your strengths, acknowledges you for things you are good at that energize you, and helps you do more of them and develop them.

Under pressure, people tend to default to a failure setting. In times of recession and change, positive organizational practices tend to disappear in favor of attending to weaknesses and deficits.

When the coach spots the propensity for negativity through a shift in the client’s attention and speech, they must hold up a positive attitude by focusing more on strengths than weaknesses and balancing negative with positive emotions following the general rule of three positive to one negative emotion.

How to use strengths

Validated strengths inventories are:

The Strengths Profile is available at (Free Starter Profile or paid profiles).

Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), freely available at or

CliftonStrengths (former “StrengthsFinder”), available for purchase at

Use one of these questionnaires and the “At My Best” exercise to help your client prioritize the list into their top four to six strengths as they see them. Then, use a Strengths Wheel to plot these, considering the center to be zero and the outer rim a score of “10.” Now ask the client to place two marks in each segment indicating how far they currently use that strength in their work and how much scope there is for using it at work. The bigger the gap, the higher the priority in targeting that strength, and the greater the return. Invite the client to note the gaps and identify ways to use these priority strengths in their work. Finally, ask the client to commit to using these strengths, or at least one to begin with, in new ways daily for the coming week. Ask how you can support them and keep them accountable.

Strengths and happiness

Of all the 24 character strengths (VIA-IS), the five most strongly correlated to happiness are gratitude, curiosity, vitality, hope, and the capacity to love and be loved.

Gratitude entails being aware and thankful for the good things that happen and for life itself, accompanied by warm goodwill. It is a route to the virtue of transcendence which are strengths that provide meaning and connection with a larger universe.

Curiosity is having an interest in experience for its own sake, openness to experience, and finding things fascinating. It is a route to the virtue of wisdom and knowledge, cognitive strengths related to gaining and using knowledge.

Vitality, Zest is feeling alive and activated, with vigor and energy. It is a route to the virtue of courage and emotional strengths that involve the will to accomplish goals in the face of external or internal opposition.

Hope and Optimism are expecting the best and believing good fortune is something you can help bring about. It is a route to the virtue of transcendence.

The capacity to love and be loved is valuing close relations. It is a route to the virtue of humanity, interpersonal strengths, and tending to and befriending others.

Character Strengths and the VIA

When we intervene to improve character, what is it we are trying to improve, exactly?

Cultivating and using one’s strengths is crucial to goal achievement and flourishing.

A strengths perspective on personal growth and development emphasizes mobilizing one’s strengths most effectively by measuring and intentionally developing them through application.

Set Goals Based on Your Strengths. 

Deliberately apply, utilize, and develop strengths to cultivate them.

Use Strengths in a Novel Way. 

Use your strengths in a new way daily. Seek out novel experiences and new opportunities to apply your strengths.

Use Strengths to Manage Weaknesses. 

Bring a strength to a task you may need to improve at or may dislike. When in groups, bring each group member’s strengths to the task.

Keep an Eye Out for Strengths in Yourself and Others.

Make a habit of noticing and identifying strengths. In groups, provide affirmative feedback. Focus and invest in others’ strengths. Assist in each other’s cultivation of strengths.

Character traits bring about consequences at a cost.

Your values and goals influence the use of character strengths.

Beyond universally valued virtues and strengths, there are also virtues unique to a tradition or highly desirable as a matter of social convention peculiar to the time and place of the beholder.

Strengths of character are the specific routes by which we achieve the virtues. There are always several ways to achieve each virtue.

These core characteristics, endorsed by almost all religious and philosophical traditions, capture the notion of good character.

Wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence; these virtues are built and measured by working with and manifesting character strengths.

Strengths-Based Coaching

Strengths-based coaching increases the client’s strengths-knowledge and use.

Strengths are closely linked to values and interests.

Strengths-based tools and techniques include using strengths inventories to examine and uncover strengths so the client can reflect on her strengths and consider them in relation to her goals.

Assist the client in setting self-concordant goals, i.e., consistent with values and interests, and her strengths will intrinsically motivate her to achieve them.

Encourage using strengths in new and different ways; encourage experimenting using newly discovered strengths.

A Character Strengths-Based Approach to PPC

{McQuaid, Niemiec, & Doman, 2018. In Green & Palmer (Ed.) PPC in Practice.}

The deficit bias is a tendency to invest most of our time, energy, and effort in fixing what is not working, leaving little to build upon what is working well.

What are the potential benefits of a strengths-based approach? Explore.

Coaches bring a character strengths focus into practice by using validated assessment tools, character strengths interventions, and strengths-focused questioning.

Questions shape our imagination. How you inquire determines what you discover. To create a better future, improve your abilities to dream of a better future, imagine, and then plan, commit, and act to create it.

With the historical introduction of PP, a call to develop a science of human strengths has been made. Many research studies identify character strengths as a key mechanism within the larger construct of human flourishing.

Positive attributes exist in every person; these are built upon to enable human potentials. An intentional focus on positive attributes balances our natural negativity bias.

We recognize that weaknesses, problems, and obstacles also exist. In addition, we intentionally focus on strengths to help the client focus on the true, the good, and the possible in any chosen life domain and support the client in taking steps to realize her goals.

People who report and endorse regular use of their strengths declare various benefits:

An increase in wellbeing is linked to lower depression, higher vitality, and good mental health.

The experience of less stress is linked to higher positivity; the expression of one’s kindness, social intelligence, self-regulation, and perspective create a buffer against the harmful effects of stress and trauma.

Being healthier and having more energy is linked to healthy behaviors such as leading an active life, pursuing enjoyable activities, and eating well.

Feeling more satisfied with their lives flows into better problem-solving, better work performance, higher stress resistance, and better physical health.

Strengths-knowledge and use are significantly associated with self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-confidence.

Being more creative and agile at work is linked to feelings of authenticity, vitality, and concentration arising and growing with developing strengths; these help you better adapt to change, engage in more creative and proactive behaviors, pay more attention to detail, and work harder.

Feeling more satisfied and experiencing more meaning in work is linked to using four or more of one’s top character strengths at work leading to the experience of job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning in work.

Regular strengths use increases engagement significantly.

The coach assists the client in finding a balanced expression of all of her strengths, helping the client understand how strengths can be integrated to form constellations and to develop unrealized or lesser strengths. 

Use a nuanced strengths development approach that incorporates the client’s strengths with her unique personality and situational factors.

Help the client identify and use her signature strengths; these are essential to who we are, our most authentic selves, and bring us excitement, energy, and fulfillment when expressed.

Variety of strengths

Character strengths are positive personality traits related to who you are, your identity, and what you do in the world, to being and doing. These are the pathway (and the fuel) to support other strength categories.

Talents are innate, with a strong biological loading; e.g., Gardner’s multiple intelligences include abilities or talents such as spatial reasoning, musical ability, and interpersonal ability.

Skills such as typing skills involve a specific proficiency and are developed as a means to an end.

Interests are areas or topics a person is passionate about, such as playing tennis or painting.

Resources are external but substantially support the person, such as family support, good friendships, a safe neighborhood, and a volunteer or spiritual community.

We also talk of inner resources, which refers to the capabilities and capacities of the person.

Practice for strengths-based coaching

Character strengths are a pathway to great virtues, to the core areas of wellbeing such as positive relationships, accomplishment, happiness, and engagement.

As a teaching moment with the client, explain that each person has a natural neurological and social bias to focus on what is not working and find ways to fix perceived weaknesses. Without dismissing the importance of weakness, how can we bring in character strengths to capitalize on intellectual, psychological, social, and physical resources already available and accessible to make achieving goals more engaging, energizing, and enjoyable?

PPI “use a signature strength in a new way”: 

Take the VIA Survey; identify one of your highest signature strengths; use the strength in a new way each day for one week.

PPI “strength alignment”: 

Link top character strengths with everyday work tasks.

PPI “self-concordant goal setting”: 

Link signature strengths with goals; strengths can serve as the means or ends of the goal.

PPI “signature strengths appreciation”: 

Label strengths in loved ones and express clear appreciation for the individual’s strengths.

Character strengths interventions: 

Counting acts of kindness, writing letters of gratitude, and recounting three funny things from the day to boost humor.

Use character strengths to weave in with any PPI, e.g., developing a growth mindset, and incorporate it with any coaching model, such as Grow.

Appreciative Inquiry: the 4D AI change framework

Discover the best of your past.

Dream of what is possible for your future.

Design pathways forward.

Deliver on changes you most desire.

Session 1. “Discover”

In preparation, ask the client to complete the VIA Survey and reflect on how her strengths are already appearing in her chosen life domain for coaching.

During the session, help the client add depth to her understanding, start spotting how character strengths are developed in everyday moments, to build an appreciation for where her character strengths may be underplayed or overplayed and the need to balance them.

Coaching outcomes: The session sets the tone for the process, helps to take an appreciative view of oneself, creates a more positive self-image, and helps build positive emotion and trust within the coaching relationship.

Session 2. “Dream”

In preparation, ask the client to complete the “Best Possible Future Self” exercise, to write expressively about herself, and imagine what might be possible in her chosen life domain if she were to develop her character strengths each day and everything was going as well as it possibly could.

During the session, review the client’s notes from the exercise, help the client hear the hopes and the “want to” goals, surface what is meaningful and personally important about these goals, and explore stories being told about what is and is not possible.

Positive future images pull us forward into positive action; they fuel us with hope and put us on the road to find solutions, empowering us to make things happen.

Coaching outcomes: This exercise helps clients boost their levels of optimism, clarify their goals, and improve their confidence to follow through.

Session 3. “Design”

In preparation, ask the client to complete the “Hope Map” exercise; record her “want-to” goal, chosen pathways (strengths) to make it a reality, obstacles she may encounter, and how she will maintain her motivation and willpower.

During the session, review the client’s notes, help identify multiple pathways to develop character strengths and move towards goals, and be realistic about obstacles she might encounter. Ensure she has the support to move from where she is to where she wants to be.

Coaching outcome: Cultivating hope can help clients make better short-term choices, regulate their behaviors, and give them the energy to make things happen.

Session 4. “Deliver”

In preparation, ask the client to create a daily “Strengths Development Habit,” including a cue, routine, and reward.

During the session, help the client improve the strengths habit design as needed. Explore what other strengths habits she can add over time to realize the “Hope Map” and “Best Possible Future Self.” Ensure the proper levels of feedback and support for the client to continue moving towards goals.

Recognize and celebrate what the client has achieved, prepare the client for potential setbacks or adaptations, and ensure the client is ready to move forward.

Coaching outcome: Confidence and success that helps the client maintain the change she is creating.

Which clients benefit most from character strengths-based coaching?

Clients genuinely interested in discovering what they do best want to build upon their potentials.

Problems and weaknesses will come up; the task is to reframe concerns through a strengths lens.

A weakness may be a strength that is underplayed or overplayed in the situation; if not, it may be minimized by reshaping what the client is doing, finding a complementary partner, or taking a more team-oriented strengths approach. If none is possible, explore how the client can develop a basic level of competence to minimize any risk around the concern.

Emphasis on strengths can make people more vulnerable to failure; clients can feel disappointed, disengaged, and distressed, and with decreased motivation, clients can feel their identity under threat when using strengths fails to deliver the desired results.

In the workplace, the willingness of leaders to have meaningful strengths conversations directly impacts a client’s ability to identify her strengths, use them daily, and feel engaged and energized by what she is doing. Conversely, a lack of organizational support triggers feeling more disengaged and disillusioned due to the client’s expectations and hopes for a better and more fulfilling way of working being undermined in the social setting.

A “strengths gym” program targeting character strengths in schools significantly boosts adolescent life satisfaction.

Considering how character strengths coaching may benefit clients. 

How might you incorporate your signature strengths into the coaching process as you interact with clients?

How comfortable are you with introducing character strengths, the rationale for strengths, VIA Survey instructions, and debriefing of results with clients?

Do you need to script some of this to help you remember key points?

What character strengths interventions do you need to practice personally before trying them out with your clients?

How will you integrate strengths interventions into your existing coaching framework, or would an appreciative coaching framework benefit clients?