Introducing Positive Coaching

{Driver, 2011. Coaching Positively: Lessons for coaches from positive psychology.}

If you harness positive psychology, you can know and value your strengths and note and value others’ strengths. Your mindset could lead you to grow and develop and encourage others to do so. You could actively seek positive emotion and trigger it in others through careful words of acknowledgment and respect. You could seek genuine happiness for yourself and others.

You can benefit from using the positive approach in areas important to you, focusing on building your resourcefulness and positive self-beliefs. Furthermore, positive coaching approaches, tools, and techniques impact and contribute positively to your life. So, use these skills in situations and areas important to you. Practice positively.

Core positive psychology themes related to psychological wellbeing are strengths, mindset, resilience, positive emotions, relationships, and personal growth. These themes ground the positive coaching approach, helping people turn their aspirations and ideas into action and enabling them to live more fully in the present as they successfully build a better future.

Goal-setting focuses on what you want to be different and better instead of dwelling on the misery of the problem. Your language is also critical to how resourceful you feel concerning the issue.

Applying the relevant research in your everyday life, you can experience the most useful ideas from positive psychology, adapting them to your benefit and making a difference in your personal, professional, and social life.

Positive Psychology and Coaching

Positive psychology is about what works, focusing on conditions and experiences for wellbeing and happiness. The main positive psychology themes linked to coaching focus on success and how to achieve it, goals and desired outcomes, strengths, and developing positive emotions, resilience, mindset, and positive relationships. Enhancing these areas is foundational to the good life.

Positive psychology findings are based on quality research focusing on the application and what works, justifying approaches and practice methodologies that move beyond developing good ideas and thinking.

Main themes of positive psychology and their use in coaching

Strengths are a major focus in positive psychology. Focusing on what we are naturally good at produces better results than constant attention to what we don’t do well. So even if people come to coaching to comply with some development needs assessment or a personal development plan, intending to get the low scores up rather than leveraging the high ones, a strengths-based approach delivers improved individual and organizational performance.

Positive emotions enhance resourcefulness and scope of action. People can overcome challenges that keep them stuck when they are not making hoped-for progress by tuning into positive feelings associated with past and present successes.

Resilience is the ability to cope with pressure and tough situations. Lifestyle behaviors to keep one’s energy and focus on essentials enhance resilience when coping with the pressures of learning and delivering during transition or change.

Mindset is our frame of mind and how we make meaning when faced with difficult moments in our personal or work lives. Making useful meanings and appropriately re-framing attributions and assumptions about what is happening can provide useful insight into situations.

The quality of the coach-client relationship is key to the learning that emerges. Establishing and maintaining a high-trust relationship is the foundation for the client to enter openly into dialogue and freely discuss their important issues.

Personal growth is at the heart of coaching for the client and the coach. The coach brings his or her strengths, capacity for positive emotions, resilience, mindset, and capacity for a positive relationship to the coaching as a resource for personal growth, fostering authenticity, and facilitating trust and openness.

Criticism of positive psychology

The main criticism of psychology in general and positive psychology, in particular, is its focus on the individual and less on the social context.

Nonetheless, two people in the same context often respond and develop differently. {From a constructivist perspective, this makes sense since the context is not limited to concrete, physical, and objective conditions. Instead, the person constructs her world in her mind and steps into it to live her daily life.} Accounts of people’s coping while imprisoned in concentration camps indicate the place of individual psychological beliefs and attitudes in survival. For example, Viktor Frankl observed that those who survived longer tended to retain some sense of choice about how they thought and behaved, whatever the guards did to them.

Yet, social context often does have a high-level impact on people. The context cannot be ignored, but it is the individual in the end who chooses how they respond to that context. Some personal choice is almost always possible, even in the toughest situations. Thus a key coach’s role is to help clients find choices they did not see before, for example, by looking within instead of without and finding the capacity to choose how to respond to someone and to own their response instead of reacting at an instinctive or learned level.  The coach is helping their client to learn to choose their response to situations instead of being driven by automatic patterns or habits. The coach’s role is to keep the client “at cause” so they can see themselves as part of everything that happens to them and around them instead of “at effect,” where they act as the recipients and victims of what goes on.

How positive psychology helps coaches

The importance of relationship

We have ample evidence that inadequate or dysfunctional relational contexts at home, school, and play hinder children’s learning and growth, such that their intellectual learning and physical and psychological wellbeing often suffer. A healthy learning environment provides, beyond functionality and methodology, a quality of interaction, trust, and challenge for the learner. The coach-client relationship is the primary context that contributes significantly to the end results.

The importance of autonomy

A sense of self-direction and autonomy is important for individuals and society, leading to greater life satisfaction and higher work performance.

The importance of achievement

Many people don’t bring their whole selves to work, leaving their talents at the front gate when they enter the workplace, which is a major impediment to experiencing competence at work.


Think of two or three people who have had a significant positive impact on your career or life. Consider how they had such a big impact. List what specifically they did or still do. Consider how the characteristics identified apply to any positive coach.

Responses to this exercise fall into three categories: a strong personal connection with me, allowing me to take the lead and choose for myself, and seeing potential in me beyond what even I was aware of. These categories parallel the basic human needs for being able to do things for themselves; developing competence and achievement; experiencing strong, supportive mutual relationships.

The three areas of importance exemplify the coach attitude they need to bring to their positive coaching practice:

The client is independent and autonomous. The coach’s role is to foster and encourage independent, autonomous thinking and action.

A key coaching purpose is to build capability, however the client defines it. If there is no movement forward or development of the client’s talent, they will not experience increased competence.

Relationship building is fundamental and goes beyond the sometimes functional and superficial “rapport” and “mirroring” often propagated.

When coaches do not follow these tenets, their clients get stuck at superficial levels of insight and progress, focusing on “this week’s problem,” instead of transforming themselves and making significant changes. When a coach needs to exhibit competence and be seen to help their client make visible progress, they lose their presence and authenticity, falling into traps that hinder their full attention to the client. Positive psychology reminds us of the important things to attend to and cultivate in ourselves and our clients.

Positive Psychology in Coaching


Positive psychology is important for individuals at work, offering resources to the positive work and workplace coach. It underpins and supports existing coaching practices and enhances them by goal setting, using a strengths approach, attending to mindset, and resilience practices. For example, the strengths approach helps people be more truly themselves and do a better job. More broadly, positive psychology seeks to identify how people can be at their best and experience greater happiness and wellbeing. One key wellbeing ingredient is active and warm social relationships with important implications individually and collectively, whether in teams, departments, or whole organizations.

A coaching culture

A coaching culture can be identified where coaching is the main way of managing. Many organizations have announced their aspiration for such a culture, yet the actual situation seems lacking. For example, what is meant by “coaching culture” is not defined or clearly understood and agreed upon, or senior management is not actively backing such a culture change. Deploying coaching strategically, purposefully, and in an organized way strengthens the shared culture. It can assist the antecedents of psychological capital, for example, by facilitating a better person-job fit, directly affecting satisfaction and performance. Successful coaching increases happiness and wellbeing across an organization and beyond.

What is culture?

A national or ethnic culture is a set of common beliefs and practices. The beliefs concern the nature of life and how people should live together. The practices include rituals and other well-established behaviors.

Goffee and Jones (2006) describe a useful organizational culture model using a traditional sociological model that identifies sociability and solidarity dimensions that can be positive or negative.

Solidarity is a task-focused collaboration between individuals and groups. It stems from perceived shared interest and leads to focused work. Positive solidarity gives focus and gets the job done efficiently and effectively. Negative solidarity is intolerant of dissent and can lead to the efficient delivery of the wrong things. It can also emerge in internal competition between individuals and functions.

Sociability is about the warmth of relationships between people. Ideas and values are shared, and relationships are valued for their own sake. High levels of mutual help are common. Positive sociability is people working hard for one another. Negative sociability is typified by covering up for poor performance and the formation of cliques.

Leaders are part of a culture and are thus influenced by it. For example, a leader in a highly negative solidarity organization with low sociability must access her resilience to continue performing in such a demotivating environment. In addition, leaders also create culture, especially for the people in their departments or divisions. The coach helps them consider how their behavior, what they do or do not do, affects others and therefore either supports or obstructs a high-performance culture.

Another useful model is the “culture web” by Johnson and Scholes (2006), interlinking a set of factors that make up the culture’s totality or collective mindset. These are:

Stories: The events that are talked about and how things are related.

Symbols: How an organization represents itself visually through logos or websites.

Power structures: How and where the real power is held and wielded.

Organizational structures: How the formal organization holds itself together.

Control systems: How control is enforced, for example, financially.

Rituals and routines: The daily ways of going about things.

The client can use the model as a framework to identify where they are supporting or blocking the kind of culture they want to put in place.

A leader’s behavior is never neutral; individual action or non-action affects the community around a person, making every person an agent of cultural transmission and change. Individuals can act effectively within their workplace, being at cause and seeing themselves as an actor in all situations, not just the victim of circumstance, seeing more broadly their potential to influence their surroundings either through intentional action or, at times, through choosing inaction. The coach can invite the client to consider the wider implications of their actions and ask how non-action might affect stakeholders while challenging the narrowness or low levels of goals they set, moving from a transactional, low-level view of their own presence and influence within their organization or work sphere to a leadership role in creating, maintaining, or changing organizational culture.

An example is the impact of simple greetings and acknowledgment, creating short, positive emotional experiences, ultimately improving performance and motivation.

A coaching client’s behavior, or lack of it, is a significant symbol and offers rituals that support a positive, performance-focused culture.

Elements of culture are interconnected. For example, an organization’s structure, operational decisions, and cost or operational effectiveness come alive in how it is managed and how its purpose and intention are communicated, contributing to the beliefs and assumptions people hold concerning their jobs and the whole organization.

Capital: investing in people and the organization

A leader and manager must see their behavior and decisions as a serious investment in the organization’s future through investing in key success drivers: people capital that drives financial capital. A recent concept is social capital, the value of social resources in a society that offers development potential. It involves networks, norms, and sanctions (Halpern, 2005):

Networks: the extent to which connections between people can be made and work well, particularly between people, say, from different parts of the organization, who do not know each other well.

Norms: the behavioral rules, values, and expectations that people apply collectively.

Sanctions: how behavior is regulated, sometimes formally, but most often informally.

Coaching conversations can be about making connections, networking and connecting externally, and opening up communication channels for building relationships easily. Coaching can enable a manager to review their applied norms and how these affect others, “And what is the likely impact of this on your situation?” Sanctions might consider how they handle a performance issue and how they can tackle poor performance or behavior constructively.

Psychological capital

The client is resourceful and does not need fixing. The coach’s role is to connect the client to that resourcefulness when they feel disconnected from it, keep the client in touch with it when thinking positively about the challenges they work on, and strengthen it to enable independence and learning to apply in the future. The positive psychology tools for helping the client be more resourceful include playing to their strengths, experiencing more positive emotions, and developing a growth mindset enabling them to believe in their capacity to develop and overcome obstacles.

If all or many people within an organization were helped this way, the organization’s culture and all its aspects could be impacted or aligned, enabling its collective resourcefulness and beliefs and behaviors to become more positive. Coaching builds an organization’s psychological capital and resources.

To build psychological capital, the organization must have the antecedents or the things that come before: people with the right personal characteristics and strengths, a culture and strategies that support developing psychological capital, and people in the right jobs and with the right values and beliefs.

Positive coaching builds and strengthens the antecedents and key elements of psychological capital, becoming a lever for cultural and performance change.

Efficacy, hope, optimism, and resilience impact an organization’s or society’s psychological wellbeing. Efficacy is a person’s belief about how well they can mobilize their resources to perform well. These are self-beliefs; coaching enables clients to uncover and shift beliefs about themselves and supports holding and acting upon new and empowering ones.

Hope is a sense of agency, directing energy toward goals and believing one has the ways and means to achieve those goals. Coaching helps see the way ahead, move forward, and identify actions, thus releasing and channeling energy toward goals.

Optimism is about positive future expectations and holding the most useful attribution styles when positive and negative experiences occur. Useful attributions include owning successes instead of discounting them or attributing them to luck and attributing failures to something temporary that one can rectify with the right approach. Coaching helps address challenges with one’s full resourcefulness marshaled and reviewing current and recent events from a positive and resourceful perspective.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back from disappointment and sometimes from positive events. Coaching helps to talk out the issues a person faces safely and confidentially and to face up to difficulties without denial, but identifying how to keep going. The person can pick themselves up again and refocus on what they want instead of the immediate problem that has set them back.

Introducing the Positive Coaching Themes


Understanding what happens to us and around us helps explain what is going on, the meaning we place on events, and the choices we make. Stable environments with reliable explicit and implicit behavior and relationship rules support established meanings. But in times of rapid change or collapse, people struggle to make sense of circumstances. In such cases, it helps to focus on meanings held in place and test their usefulness. 

Wong (2010) considers cognitive meaning as how clients make sense of what they do and what happens to and around them. The coach’s role is to help the client explore what meaning they make of unsettling events and discover more useful meanings to cope with negative emotions. When helping clients make meanings explicit, they begin re-evaluating them and therefore create some mental space or perspective.

The second kind of meaning is existential and concerns a person’s sense of the overall meaning of their lives and a sense of purpose. When clients focus on misguided goals, they must discover their life’s true meaning and purpose. The client must connect their success and accomplishment to a sense of where their lives are going, especially when they find themselves at a significant crossroads.

Helplessness and optimism

Explanatory styles are different ways of interpreting and creating meaning about events one is involved in. Helplessness arises when one focuses exclusively on these events’ external and permanent nature, explaining inaction with the external preventing forces leading to defeat and failure. Failures in daily life are natural. The concern is the client’s negative and pervasive interpretation of these occurrences, seeing them as indicating permanent inability, stupidity, or incompetence.

Learning optimism is possible through techniques such as disputing: noticing a negative assumption and arguing with it mentally by checking the facts about how correct the belief is, looking for alternative explanations, and checking how useful an explanation is. For example, when a client says words like “always” or “never,” it is a statement to dispute: “Always?” Next, looking for alternative explanations, “What else might be going on here?” or “What alternative explanations could there be?” Finally, checking usefulness, “How useful is this for you to believe nothing will ever be allowed?”

The coach abides by the coaching principle that the client is resourceful. So it is important for the coach to be optimistic for the client, believe they can identify what they want, and find ways to achieve it. The coach’s role is to keep the client in a resourceful state. Optimism helps in resourcefully setting goals and working actively toward them.

Optimism should not interfere with acknowledging risk or uncertainty or when the client is unlikely to achieve something. A reasonable question is, “How might you stop yourself from succeeding?”


When does time stand still for you?

When do you find yourself doing something you don’t want to end?

Distinguishing gratifications that absorb us completely when consciousness is often suspended and pleasures that cause an immediate and transitory emotion without lasting benefit; it is gratifications that have a deeper impact on us and contribute to our happiness. Flow is experienced in gratification activities and builds psychological capital for the future. It increases our resourcefulness. Conditions for flow include:

Goals are clear: the person knows exactly what they are doing.

The person receives immediate feedback on what they do: they are responsive in the moment to how well they are doing.

They experience an optimum balance between challenge and ability: neither too little nor too much stretch.

They are fully in the present, and external worries, plans, etc., are absent: they are not thinking about tomorrow’s work or the journey home.

They do not worry about failure: they do not experience any pressure to perform.

There is no self-consciousness: they are fully inside what they are doing and are not looking in on themselves.

Time becomes distorted: they may lose themselves, for example, in writing for several hours and not realize the time has passed, or the act of one second can seem like hours.

The activity becomes an end in itself: there is enjoyment in actually doing the thing, and there is no external reward or endpoint in view.

Helping clients identify flow states and experiences to tune into what is most important to them and what they can do more of to experience greater meaning provides examples of how to tackle current challenges. Here, they must speak from within those positive experiences instead of speaking intellectually about them. The coach uses the present tense in questions or requests, “As you are once again in that moment, tell me what you notice; what are you seeing or hearing or feeling?”

Useful questions to apply elements of flow to present issues include:

How clear are you about what you want next?

How might your actions be contributing to that person’s difficulties?

What will happen if you are not successful?

How do you (does he or she) know whether you are doing a good job?

To ensure more flow experience, the coach helps the client attain a clear understanding of the job requirements and a realistic sense of their competence level, retaining or restoring the balance between challenge and competence levels.


Happiness is a goal in itself. Additionally, it produces individually and socially good results. Happy people live longer, are healthier, have a better social life, and do better at work. They are more satisfied with their jobs, highly rated by their managers and customers, and earn more. They have a wider circle of friends and more close friendships, are more involved in social activities and are more empathic and altruistic. People with positive mindsets select higher goals and show greater persistence and performance.

Strategies to increase happiness include:

Increasing satisfaction with the past by expressing gratitude, forgiving and forgetting hurt, and doing a “weighing up the past” inventory once a year.

Building optimism about the future by learning positive attributions, building hope, and disputing negative beliefs.

Learning to experience more happiness in the present by finding more flow activities.

Learning to savor good things and live mindfully in the present moment.

Learning about your strengths and playing to them.

Letting go of anger or hurt requires some space to voice what they want to say, with no consequences, addressing their concern to you, representing the other person, or to an empty chair or just as they imagine the person being there.

Building optimism about the future might require dealing with the fear of what might go wrong or of something that happened before happening again. Disputing the likelihood of a catastrophic result might be helpful. The question, “What will happen if you do not take this forward?” can be very powerful. Often the negative feelings associated with not having tried are enough to gain commitment.

Re-appraisal strategies for coping and adapting to negative events are more effective than suppression and provide a person with more positive emotions. Other coping mechanisms include positive interpersonal relations, seeking out social support, and using humor.

Bringing attention to the present and getting clients to talk about how they are feeling in the present is also helpful in letting go of future and past worries.