Positive Processes in Strength-Based Coaching

{Scheel, Davis, & Henderson, 2013. Therapist Use of Client Strengths: A Qualitative Study of Positive Processes. The Counseling Psychologist. 41(3)} 


Positive processes designed to help clients toward optimal functioning can be categorized into five themes: 

(a) amplification of strengths: amplify strengths through encouragement and exception finding;

(b) contextual considerations: match client contexts through strengths;

(c) strength-oriented processes: identify strengths through the interpersonal coaching process;

(d) strength-oriented outcomes: use client strengths (in the learning process) to broaden client perspectives and create hope and motivation;

(e) positive meaning-making: use client strengths (in the learning process) to create positive meanings through reframing and metaphors.

Using client strengths (in the learning process) to affect developmental change builds the client’s strengths and assets in developing a healthy and effective self. The strength-oriented approach aspires to use more strength-oriented methods and positive processes for 

accessing and using client strengths to pursue optimal functioning and 

construct new meanings in the form of client strengths.

{accessing = matching intentions with environmental affordances ~implementation intentions ~from goals to plans to actions}

{mastery path ~know, do, become: I accept what I am; I do what I can; I become who I am meant to be.}

Building trust in the coaching relationship, motivating clients, instilling hope, and demonstrating the coach’s hope for and belief in the client are positive processes that broaden clients’ perspectives about themselves, the goals for which they are seeking coaching, and how change could occur.

{This is in line with the shift from the clinicians’ attention to “what is wrong and how to treat it” to counseling psychologists looking for “what is right and how to help use it” (Super, 1977).}

Positive processes identified in different approaches include 

(a) reinforcement and support in CBT, 

(b) authenticity and self-acceptance in humanistic-experiential, and 

(c) insight and emphasis on the adaptive human capacities in psychodynamic approaches. 

Humanistic approaches promote congruency to unleash humans’ natural tendency to self-actualize through empathy, positive regard, and genuineness as positive processes that move clients to congruence and self-acceptance.

Positive processes are defined broadly as attention to clients’ assets and strengths.

The use of a positive process is one strength-oriented strategy; another is the specific use of client strengths in the learning process, which includes strength-oriented conceptualizations and enactments.

{Positive processes = positive attentional processes in conversation}

Conceptualization is paying attention to and incorporating the client’s assets as well as deficits by 

(a) asking questions about client strengths (e.g., “In what areas of life does the client do well?” “What are the client’s internal-psychological assets?”), 

(b) embracing strengths revealed through the interpersonal process of the coaching relationship (e.g., spontaneity and trust; ability to enter into a coaching relationship), 

(c) noticing strengths embedded in client deficits (e.g., all personality styles having an adaptive purpose; humor as a defense against pain also eases emotional pain to facilitate facing difficulties), and 

(d) using empathy to understand client strengths and the client’s culture as a mediator of the meaning and expression of strengths.

Enactments include 

(a) pointing out client strengths to the client (e.g., commenting on the progress a client is making), 

(b) positive reframing (e.g., explaining a client’s weakness or deficit as a “once appropriate strength that made sense in an earlier context”), 

(c) attending to strengths embedded in defenses (e.g., intellectualization allows clear thinking), and 

(d) interpretation of strength within one cultural context but not another.

Several strength-based models, grounded in positive psychology, have been proposed, such as the 10-stage model of Smith (2006) : 

(a) creating the alliance, (b) identifying strengths, (c) assessing presenting problems, (d) encouraging and instilling hope, (e) framing solutions (through exception finding and forgiveness), (f) building strengths and competence, (g) empowering, (h) changing (through meaning-making and reframing), (i) building resilience, (j) evaluating and terminating.

Wong’s (2006) model consists of four phases of promoting and using character strengths and virtues: 

(a) explicating or explicit identification and broadening of client strengths where existing strengths are recognized and overtly constructed, (b) envisioning is represented by goal-setting, fostering hope, and future orientation so goals can be achieved, (c) empowering takes the form of encouragement and amplification where clients are urged to try out their identified strengths and refine their usage, and (d) evolving is the generalization of strengths to contexts outside of coaching and provides a means of summarizing gains.

Looking at these models, we can identify core strength-oriented processes of strengths identification, goal-setting, empowerment, instilling resilience, being encouraging, instilling hope, and generalization of strengths.

Contextual-constructivist approaches are oriented toward positive processes, as described by Frank and Frank (1991): 

(a) an emotionally charged and confiding relationship, (b) a healing setting, (c) a rationale for change, and (d) positive expectations for change held by the client and therapist. The concept of engendering hope and countering demoralization is a positive process.

Exception finding and the persistent pursuit of strengths are important tools in solution-focused approaches. Positive methods (e.g., the miracle question, exception finding, scaling questions) and positive language in the form of change talk and solution talk move the context from “if the problem is solved, ..” to “when the problem is solved, ..”

The Positive Family Therapy model integrates positive processes, including gratitude exercises, evoking positive emotions and strengths through capitalization and exception finding, goal-setting through the miracle question and scaling questions, complimenting, reframing, and using presuppositional language.

Hope therapy emphasizes the future facilitated by establishing client goals and pathways and accessing the client’s agency (e.g., motivation to change).

Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001) provides a purpose for positive processes. The broadening function of positive processes fosters hope, creativity, alternative solutions, and positive energy, thereby building resilience to combat future challenges and building resources from which to draw in the future.

A balanced method of identifying both strengths and deficits is the four-front approach to client assessment: 

(a) Areas of client weakness, (b) areas of client strength, (c) deficits or destructive forces in the client’s environment, and (d) assets or resources in the client’s environment.

The Essence in 201 Words or so

Employ methods to identify strengths with your client.

Balance the use of strengths with a problem focus or goal focus.

Consider the metaphor of strengths as fortifying the client against problems.

Expand client perspectives and foster client awareness to include more positive views of self.

Expand client meanings about strengths through reframing, exception finding, and using metaphors.

Explicitly ask clients about strengths.

Also, reveal strengths more strategically as the context may permit or through a collaborative interpersonal process.

Assume the role of a change agent advocating for the client and let strengths emerge through the process.

Hold hope for the client, so the client feels empowered to be more hopeful.

Uncover strengths buried underneath client problems when the client is unable or unwilling to see their strengths.

In your encouraging and pursuing positives, be authentic and see if you can genuinely believe in the client and trust that the process will uncover positives the client can value.

Form meanings about strengths by listening and reframing.

See resilience, hope, self-efficacy, and empowerment emerge as strength-oriented concepts in the coaching.

Let the client’s investment in the coaching engagement and the coaching alliance become strengths upon which the client can build and generalize beyond the coaching context.

The Strength-Oriented Structures and Tools

Exception finding, encouragement, and persistently watching for strengths amid client problems help to amplify and heighten strengths awareness.

Timing and balancing strengths with a problem focus are means to maximize the utility of strength work. The coach decides how much to focus on the problem and when to introduce strengths they have discovered. It is a balancing act influenced by client demoralization and feeling hopeless on the one hand and reframing struggles as proof of client strengths, thus opening new vistas for the client to perceive on the other.

The coach’s use of self and use of the coaching relationship are tools to experience the client’s strengths.

The identification process entails explicitly asking clients about their strengths.

The coach is the agent in identifying, using, and generalizing strengths, especially the strengths the client is unable to perceive. The coaching relationship provides first-hand experience of the client’s strengths and is the core of the strength work.

Hope, empowerment, heightened awareness, focus on future goals, and increased motivation are outcomes of using client strengths in coaching. Using client strengths increases client hope.

Metaphors, framing coping and survival as resiliency, and positive reframing are awareness tools. 

Theme 1: Amplification of Strengths

Amplification emphasizes positives of the client or their context. Exception finding, encouragement, and the helper role of an amplifier are the three meaning units in this theme. Exception finding highlights strengths when the client concentrates on adversity. For example, amplification through exception finding focuses on broadening the concept of positive relationships to counteract a failed relationship of the client and help the client tell her stories not just about what has gone bad but all the relationships that she has done very well in. The coach reorients clients to more successful areas and looks at what has gone well for them, things they are proud of, or achievements they have had in other life domains. In short, exception finding involves amplifying client strengths when clients focus on problems.

Encouragement amplifies strengths and is a deliberate source of positive support for the client, such as pointing out the client’s progress and helping them to recognize their progress. Encouragement is a form of advocacy, being the client’s positive voice, taking the role of advocate and support system to help them identify their strengths and resiliency.

The coach’s role as the vigilant observer of client strengths involves looking for success even in minor ways and highlighting those elements of accomplishment amongst all the adversity.

Theme 2: Contextual Considerations

The Contextual Considerations theme provides direction for when and how to use client strengths. The three meaning units of the theme are barriers to using client strengths, client characteristics, and matching strengths with problems. Barriers to using client strengths are client situations that prevent focus on strengths, such as when crises limit strengths work, and it is necessary to address the client’s concern directly. Directing attention to the positive without hearing out the problem or concern comes across as inauthentic.

Client characteristics also determine when strengths are used and include abilities, preferences, developmental level, and current client states. For example, intellectual understanding and insight might be reached, but the emotional ability and state may not be ready to make change happen.

Matching with problems refers to aligning the context and the presenting problem with an appropriate emphasis on strengths. Issues of personal growth or existential concerns without a specific behavioral component that requires change are appropriate for a strengths-based approach. Validating the client’s autonomy and self-knowledge and using strengths most advantageous, appropriate, effective, and fitting with each client’s context constitute the contextual considerations theme.

Theme 3: Strength-Oriented Processes

The Strengths-Oriented Processes theme has four meaning units, namely, the identification process, the coaching relationship, the coach as the agent of change, and client participation in identifying strengths. Identifying strengths may involve just asking and exploring clients’ perceptions of their strengths, expanding their view in terms of what they can do or not, expanding interpretations and conclusions about meanings and choices, and pointing out and exploring strengths and possibilities.

The coaching relationship as a strength-oriented process refers to aspects of the interaction and experience between coach and client that the client can utilize as a source of strength. This includes observing how the client interacts with the coach and pointing out the strengths of that interaction, utilizing the client’s ability to develop a relationship with the coach, their commitment to their work in the coaching engagement, the trust and the power the client extends to the relationship, their willingness to take risks and be vulnerable. This requires the coach to be dependable and genuinely demonstrate care so the client can hear and trust what the coach is pointing to.

Acting as a change agent is a strength source to clients; the coach demonstrates belief in the client’s capacity for change and persistently points to the client’s strengths, pointing out the effort clients put into the change work and appreciating and acknowledging the importance of their effort. Collaborating with the client to find strengths, asking what has changed in between sessions and exploring the client’s contribution to the change, looking to what the client takes from the coaching into their life and world outside of the coaching, and looking to how the client utilizes new-found strengths and putting it to the test. Acknowledging their willingness to utilize what is talked about and their commitment to the coaching process and to doing something different in their lives.

Theme 4: Strength-Oriented Outcomes

The Strength-Oriented Outcomes theme has three meaning units, namely, instilling hope and empowerment, self-awareness, and goals and motivation. Holding hope for the client and carrying it for them entails instilling hope and taking time until clients start believing in themselves.

Self-awareness entails helping people recognize what they are capable of and helping them recognize their potentials. Self-awareness by itself is a strength.

Goals and motivation are very positive things to recognize as vehicles for change.

Theme 5: Positive Meaning Making

Positive Meaning Making is represented by five meaning units of reframing, balancing strengths and problems, using metaphor to access strengths, resiliency, and generalization of strengths.

Reframing involves pointing out the positive in what the client can only see as negative, selectively attending to the positive or the strength embedded in a situation when the client is selectively attending to the negative. Reframing an interpretation imposed by someone as a liability and changing the cognitive structure by which clients view their situations to recognize the positive.

Balancing strengths and problems is essential to maintaining authenticity.

Metaphors broaden the client’s understanding and view.

Resiliency is generally unrecognized as people live through many difficulties, challenges, adversities, and ordeals without noticing their strengths and how they can cope and overcome them.

Generalizing strengths involves reminding clients that strengths helpful in one context could be applied in another. Incorporating a talent or a passion into a conversation or a plan of action to deal with a relationship issue, applying strength in problem areas of their lives.

What does a strength-based coach do when using positive processes?

Amplification of strengths

Exception finding

see the strengths in her past and present;

rekindle belief in her strengths;

see the strengths in how she is coping;

draw upon her past responses to challenges;

find out and point out exceptions to the problem;

use past successes to address present concerns;

hear the positive in what she is presenting with the problem;

tease out successes even if only small ones.


encouraging continuance of change;

helping the client feel heard;

advocating for a positive voice;

showing appreciation for the client’s hard work;

validating the client’s experiences;

recognizing the effort put forth by the client;

positively affirming client successes;

highlighting the client strengths;

incorporating strengths to create a balance with problems.

Subtle amplification of strengths

observing and emphasizing strengths that the client minimizes or ignores;

noticing client strengths;

amplifying strengths through cognitive restructuring;

highlighting explicit use of client strengths;

exploring and reinforcing current strengths;

amplifying positive changes and autonomous client actions.

Positive processes are defined broadly as attention to clients’ assets and strengths.

Conceptualizations and enactments are additional strength-oriented strategies that use client strengths in the learning process.

What effective methods do I employ to identify strengths with my client? – I amplify client strengths through encouragement and exception-finding.

How balanced is our use of strengths with a problem or goal focus?

How do I expand client perspectives and foster client awareness to include more positive views of self?

How do I expand client meanings about strengths through reframing and exception finding?

How effective am I in explicitly asking the client about her strengths?

How do I uncover strengths buried underneath client problems when the client is unable or unwilling to see her strengths?

Do I trust that the process will uncover positives the client can value; am I authentic in encouraging and pursuing positives? Do I genuinely believe in the client?

Am I effectively listening and reframing to form meanings about strengths?

Contextual considerations

How effectively am I validating the client’s autonomy and self-knowledge?

Am I facilitating the client using her strengths that are most advantageous, appropriate, effective, and fitting with her context?

Barriers to the use of client strengths

discerning when a problem may require more of a problem focus;

noticing the limitations to an exclusive focus on strengths;

using first a problem focus in a crisis before moving to work on strengths;

balancing a narrow, single-minded focus on problems by introducing strengths thus opening new vistas for the client to perceive;

appropriately timing the introduction of strengths to maximize the utility of strength work.

We think in terms of dichotomies, problem-solution, or weakness-strength. Furthermore, the figure-ground dialectic attenuates exclusivity; the more something becomes a figure, the more the rest fades into the ground. This is the actual barrier to the fluidity in our thinking and, thus, to seeing the world as it is. Increasing the fluidity may be possible by bringing more of what is absent into our purview and switching ever more easily between alternative explanations of what is and possibilities of what could be.

Client characteristics

emphasizing client help-seeking behavior as a strength;

fostering client awareness and acceptance of her strengths leading to increased motivation for change;

noticing and attending to strengths embedded in the client’s “seeming” deficits, such as her use of more flexible and sophisticated defenses;

discerning and adapting to the client’s current ability and state of change readiness;

fostering strengths knowledge and use for the client to utilize as resources of resilience in coping with the stress of change;

genuinely trusting the process so the client can uncover positives she can value in congruence with her development level;

framing the client’s willingness to try something different as a strength (involving, among others, curiosity, bravery, and hope);

acknowledging client open-mindedness as a strength (namely the strength of judgment);

acknowledging and celebrating client follow-through with coach suggestions or fieldwork as strengths (involving, among others, perseverance, integrity, self-regulation, and hope).

Almost any characteristic that enhances adaptive behavior is a strength or capacity.

Matching strengths to the client context

invoking suitable strengths to the problem, pointing to the right kind of vitamin suitable to the situation;

noticing the internal need or problem that is calling for a strengths-based approach;

supporting the client as the expert in her life, and adopting her intervention ideas;

capitalizing on the strengths that the client identifies.

Strength domains are a natural extension of the variety of domains of human endeavor. Personal strengths may well serve personal or psychological endeavors. In the same way, social or relational endeavors require more social or interpersonal strengths to be explored effectively. It is also reasonable to propose that personal problems benefit from engaging in social service or intimate connections, which are the flourishing ground for social and interpersonal strengths, and the other way around, that the social and interpersonal spheres benefit from an actor with personal strengths and virtues.

What the client has and what she values may differ; her identity should lead, and awareness of all she has enriches her autonomous choices.

Strength-oriented processes

Identification process

find ways to define her identity from a place of strength;

find strengths among the chaos of deficits;

identify social support as a strength;

notice the strengths she is explicitly presenting and manifesting;

find a small strength as a starting point;

explore her perceptions of her strengths;

raise her awareness of strengths so she will selectively attend to them;

overcome her selective attention to problems and deficits;

expand her view on the strengths she identifies;

bring out her strengths through inquiry guided by questioning;

expand her interpretations and conclusions about strengths;

take advantage of good times to explore strengths and possibilities, meanings and choices;

reveal and reflect strengths with questions in the intake interview;

develop strengths awareness.

Coaching relationship as a strength-oriented process

using the interaction to convey my firsthand experience of client strengths and self-worth;

communicating the client’s worth through my person-centered principled approach, thus engendering strength in the client;

working collaboratively with the client, so the relationship evokes both of our’s strengths;

using the relational process to reveal client strengths;

establishing the relationship firmly and authentically before proceeding to strengths work;

establishing the coaching relationship as the first strength to be built on;

gaining the trust and respect of the client as a foundation for the coaching and the strength work;

building on the trust the client extends before giving feedback on my experience of the client’s strengths;

utilizing the client’s strengths to benefit the forming of the alliance;

positioning the coaching relationship as a source of strength that the client can draw upon.

Coach as the agent of change

acting as a reflective self to point out client strengths;

modeling “being strong but not perfect”;

demonstrating my positive belief in human nature;

demonstrating my belief in the client’s capacity for change and autonomous action;

being persistent in the search for client strengths;

reflecting my perceptions of client strengths;

becoming a source of strength to the client from which she can draw.

Client participation in identifying strengths 

transfer her learning to her life and world outside the sessions;

build on the positive change and her contributions to the change as a source of strength;

see the strength in her following through on fieldwork;

appreciate her learning new skills and outlooks as strengths-building;

build on identified strengths through fieldwork.

Strengths-oriented outcomes

Goals and motivation foster strengths

increase her ownership of changes by recognizing and valuing her strengths;

increase her motivation for change by developing and utilizing her strengths;

do the strength work as a way to connect present potentialities to future possibilities;

form goals through the identification of strengths;

do the strength work as a resource for her motivation and investment in the coaching work;

set a goal of finding a strength;

enlist motivation as strength.

Instilling hope and empowerment

believe in her ability to handle difficulties;

feel empowered through her awareness of strengths;

gain insight as empowerment;

recognize the hope I am holding and carrying for her as long as needed;

grow her autonomy as an act of empowerment;

use her strengths and increase her self-efficacy;

develop and foster her belief in her strengths;

notice how her strengths feed her hope and increase her motivation;

create self-support;

set a goal of instilling hope and empowerment.

Self-awareness as a strength

recognize her potentials;

grow self-knowledge as a strength. 

Positive meaning-making

Balancing strengths and problems (wisdom & discernment) 

fostering understanding of problems that will also shine a light on strength;

bringing a realistic perspective that fosters a balance of negative and positive traits;

accepting deficits so the client can feel liberated to experience strengths. 

Use of metaphor to access strengths (enriching; the power of imagery as a generative process) 

using strength-oriented metaphors as a method of explaining client strengths;

utilizing the strengths metaphor as a firm foundation for dealing with stressors;

making use of metaphors such as taking on life’s challenges like athletes;

using metaphor to promote strengths and hope;

using metaphor to explain strength amid despair;

utilizing the immune system metaphor to indicate that strengths immunize the client from problems. 

Resiliency as a strength (building capacity through awareness of past successful coping) 

revealing and recognizing the sources of strengths in painful past experiences;

recognizing and noticing strengths that the client has utilized to cope and overcome difficulties and challenges, thus letting the recognition become a source of resiliency;

identifying resiliency of successful patterns of coping through an intake assessment;

identifying resiliency through how the client copes with and adapts to adversity. 

Generalization of strengths (learning transfer; generalized efficacy) 

generalizing or expanding the client’s use of strengths as a coaching goal;

extracting the strengths of the coaching relationship for the client to transfer to her other relationships;

facilitating the explicit transfer of client strengths in one domain to her current problems or circumstances. 

Reframing a deficit as a strength (awareness; languaging, storying)

facilitating the client to recognize as strength her contextual awareness that entails understanding the context in which a problem occurs;

drawing out and externalizing the client’s problems so she can see her strengths;

helping the client turn problems into strengths by way of reacting less to problems;

helping the client counteract selective attention on problems by refocusing on strengths;

using the client’s language;

reframing the client’s perceived deficits;

reframing to highlight the client’s resiliency;

using positive attributions to reframe the client’s struggles in strength-based language;

using the language of strengths.