My view on positive psychological coaching

What is the aim of positive psychology-informed coaching practice?

Positive psychology is a new science for the benefit of the public, providing theories, assessments, and applications for bettering the lives of everyday people in everyday situations. It is a system of change aiming at happiness, optimism, and character strengths. It investigates the dynamics of healthy relationships, the factors that lead to high-functioning work groups, and what leads to lasting personal fulfillment.  

Happiness is beneficial, so it makes sense to understand how it is defined and measured, how much is enough, which routes to happiness are worthwhile, and which are dead ends. Most importantly, how can this information be used to help clients succeed? How can empirically supported assessments, validated interventions, and exciting new theories be integrated into a coaching practice?

A coach is a personal change agent. On a larger scale, a coach may be involved in designing and implementing coaching workshops for organizations. Positive psychology can inform coaching practices of all kinds, supporting the purpose of harnessing the best in people and inspiring them to live out their potentials. Positive change in action taps the inner abundance of people for positive growth and achievement, using explicitly defined theories of human development. It empirically validates coaching services as a scientifically grounded approach to positive growth. The applied science of positive psychology offers theories, interventions, and assessments that form a valuable addition to current coaching tools. Research science can add practical tools to any coaching practice, regardless of theoretical orientation or coaching context. Empirically-based interventions and solid theoretical frameworks provide a foundation for higher-quality coaching to introduce tested, effective, and appropriate interventions to the individual client. Businesses and other clients want to invest in workshops, training, and services that work. They want proof that the methodology and assessments they buy are valuable, not simply the month’s flavor. This is the promise of positive psychological coaching as an evidence-based coaching practice.

What might a scientifically-driven coaching practice look like? The Foundations.

The definition, cultivation, maintenance, and benefits of happiness provide a core foundation for positive psychological coaching with an additional pillar comprising the development and use of character strengths and virtues.

The first foundation of positive psychological coaching is happiness, conceived as lasting personal fulfillment. Happiness is implicitly understood to be the ultimate goal that underscores all other coaching goals. However, happiness is far more than a goal; it is vital to healthy functioning and one of the greatest personal resources one can build on.

Happiness is beneficial in and of itself; it acts as important psychological capital, which can be spent while working toward other goals. It is a desirable outcome of effort and achievement. Happier people are more helpful, creative, prosocial, charitable, altruistic, and healthier; they also live longer, are more likely to marry, tend to stay married longer, tend to have more close friends, and earn more money; they also win out in the workplace, with better organizational citizenship, performance evaluations, and increased productivity. As a means to an end, optimal happiness levels grant the emotional resources for clients to tap en route to their dreams.

How can clients be encouraged to be happier? How does anyone achieve happiness? The first step is to set realistic expectations about happiness. There is an optimal level of happiness that is mildly pleasant rather than ecstatic and euphoric. One of the most powerful interventions for increasing happiness is educating folks not to expect extremely intense or permanent fulfillment. Accepting the realities of daily pleasantness and satisfaction and viewing your mild satisfaction as success makes you more motivated, optimistic, and positive about future outcomes. This one small area of success sets you up for future successes in other areas of your life. Chasing the elusive emotional highs that accompany rare life events such as promotions and weddings is elusive and destined to fail.

In addition to optimal happiness, clients can focus on existential challenges such as mastery, connectedness, and self-acceptance to increase their wellbeing. Studies have revealed useful strategies for achieving and maintaining happiness that include attention to physical circumstances, personal attitudes, subjective evaluations, and social capital, as well as the key importance of goals and social relationships. Personal strivings promote happiness by structuring people’s time, giving them a sense of meaning and purpose, and supplying a useful target for measuring growth and progress. Values-congruent goal setting or self-concordant goals contribute to happiness and hold the greatest potential for an emotional payoff. Framing goals as approach goals rather than avoidance goals impacts whether the goal adds to or takes away from psychological wellbeing. Targeting positive outcomes rather than avoiding possible negative consequences contributes to lasting satisfaction. In contrast, the reverse generally leads to more dissatisfaction.

The two most important influences on happiness are emotions and relationships. Social relationships offer security, growth opportunities, and physical health. Trusting becomes the social capital that can improve performance at work and set the stage for tranquil home life. Good relationships lead to effective work and life. Yet, they have a diminishing marginal utility, at which point additional friendships offer little additional happiness.

The second foundation of positive psychological coaching is character strengths. People are at their best when they can use their character strengths. A strengths-based coaching practice is an effective way to work with people. Optimal strengths use requires taking stock of these strengths and asking when they are best employed and when they might not be helpful. For example, although bravery, curiosity, and leadership are all traits held in high esteem worldwide, there is a time to harness courage and a time to keep it in check and act prudently; the ability to discern between the two is a matter of developing wisdom. Taking ownership of personal strengths is a great way to boost confidence and optimism. Growth and change require client resources, and strengths are the ultimate positive resource we possess. Using strength-based positive psychology to facilitate human growth and development is equally valuable for clients and oneself.

Positive psychology research in the workplace reveals the benefits of a positive paradigm for both the wellbeing of employees and organizational effectiveness. For example, job crafting is modifying employees’ work to make it more meaningful.

Positive psychology works. Strengths, optimism, and happiness are psychological capital with tangible benefits. Likewise, improving employee welfare on the job has positive organizational consequences.

The accessible science for the coach

General familiarity with relevant background research is the first step. Still, basic knowledge of the scientific literature is also necessary to call oneself a positive psychology coach, and ongoing professional development should be standard practice for the coach.

Well-validated measurement tools are another area of scientific concern. Formal assessments are interventions used to identify strengths or areas needing attention. They also guide practice by measuring outcomes of interest. For example, many positive psychological measures are available that are easy to take and interpret and free of charge; these contrast to proprietary personality or ability assessments that require licensing to administer and interpret.

Research on coaching effectiveness and outcome evaluations also provide an evidence base to understand the nuances of interventions and an awareness of what works, when, with whom, and why. Observations on how coaching produces hope, happiness, and goal striving for the clients participating in research studies become hopeful messages for future coaching participants.

Theoretical orientations are world-views that guide practice. Moving from the medical model to the reflective practitioner model was one step toward the client-oriented consulting practice; the next step is the informed, reflective practitioner model. The underlying view of our work is as important as the practical strategies of coaching itself. The informed practitioner model requires us to continually evolve our theories of change and human nature, incorporating new findings on the positive potentials of the human being. Our task as facilitators of change is well served by inquiring vigilantly into the notion of helping clients.

What is the best way to help clients achieve goals? Is it more important to help remove obstacles, or should we focus on developing strengths or a combination? Are client-driven goals the only yardstick for coaching success? Is it ok to work with clients on goals that are not likely to produce lasting wellbeing or on pursuing achievements to the detriment of wellbeing?

An explicitly defined theoretical orientation is a map guiding us through this uncertain territory. Positive psychology is a natural fit with coaching because it assumes that people are healthy, resourceful, and motivated to grow. It emphasizes the importance of building on personal resources for success in life.