Positive psychological coaching tools and techniques

{Richter, van Zyl, Roll, & Stander, 2021. Positive Psychological Coaching Tools and Techniques: A Systematic Review and Classification. Front. Psychiatry 12:667200}

{van Zyl, Roll, Stander, & Richter. 2020. Positive psychological coaching definitions and models: a systematic literature review. Front. Psychol. 11:793.}

The positive psychology perspective

The positive psychology (PP) perspective positions personal growth and goal achievement as a function of the identification, awareness, and active utilization of one’s signature strengths, optimizing people’s potential by focusing on what already works well rather than on fixing what is wrong.

Different Positive psychological coaching (PPC) approaches and models have been developed, each distinguishing itself from others, distracting from what fundamentally constitutes PPC and what tools or techniques are considered “positive.”

Positive psychological coaching (PPC) is: “A short- to medium-term professional collaborative relationship between a client and coach, aimed at the identification, utilization, optimization, and development of personal/psychological strengths and resources in order to enhance positive states, traits, and behaviors. Utilizing Socratic goal setting and positive psychological evidence-based approaches facilitate personal/professional growth, optimal functioning, enhanced wellbeing, the actualization of people’s potential and aid in coping with work demands.” (van Zyl et al., 2020).

A positive psychological coaching model (PPCM) or process is constructed by van Zyl et al. (2020), comprising five sequential coaching phases supported by three continuous processes.

The positive psychological coaching phases and brief descriptions

Phase 1 Creating the Relationship

Clarifying Expectations, Establishing Rapport, and Creating a Conducive Environment

The purpose of this phase is to establish a positive, open, trusting, supportive, non-judgmental, and collaborative relationship with the client. This is done by establishing rapport and clarifying expectations between the client and other stakeholders (the direct line manager, and the coach). In this phase, the coach must thoroughly understand the client’s environment. 

Phase 2 Strengths Profiling and Feedback

Strengths, Personality, Values Assessment

The purpose of this phase is to aid the client in explicitly identifying, developing insight into, and facilitating the use and development of her strengths. This is done through employing strengths diagnostic tools, interviews, or techniques to identify strengths and provide active and constructive feedback. Wellness and Quality of Life are assessed to track the overall coaching intervention effectiveness.

Phase 3 Developing an Ideal Vision

Creating a Vision of the “Perfect Version” of the Client (Best Possible Self)

The client develops a clear picture of the perfect version of herself in the future. It can be described as an ideal future state that will stretch the client to optimize her potentials.

Phase 4 Goal Setting, Strategizing, and Execution based on Strengths

Strengths Use, Development, Optimization

Clients set specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound goals aligned with their strengths and that build up to their ideal vision. These goals are translated into a clear strategic-operational plan, which must be easily implementable.

Phase 5 Concluding Relationship or Re-Contracting

At the end of the coaching process, the effectiveness of the intervention is assessed. Clients evaluate if they achieved goals; if so, they are prepared for terminations. If they did not achieve goals, they could set new goals, and the coaching relationship is re-negotiated.

Continuous Supportive Processes: Empowerment: Reframing and Reinforcement

The purpose of this process is to aid the client in feeling connected to the proverbial bigger picture, reaffirm her confidence in her abilities, aid the client in experiencing a sense of control over initiating and regulating behavior, and make the client feel like she is making a difference in her context. The focus is on reframing challenges as opportunities and finding the positive in negative experiences. The coach focuses on what went “right” rather than on what went “wrong” to empower the client to take ownership of her personal development.

Learning Transfer: Evidence-Based Self-Administered Activities

Learning from the coaching is transferred to the work environment while the client takes ownership of the learning process. The focus is on actively transferring or “practicing” learnings from the coaching process in real-world scenarios. Positive psychological evidence-based intervention strategies are selected that are aligned with the client’s strengths to maximize the efficiency and benefits associated with deliberate practice.

Action Tracking and Continuous Evaluation

The purpose is to determine how to measure the success of the coaching and to develop a means to track the effectiveness of the intervention actively. Both goal achievement and wellbeing are actively monitored and tracked.

The evidence-based practice task is to operationalize the model by clarifying 

how each phase or component of the model is defined, 

how the sequential order is established, 

How and why components in the model relate, and 

what approaches, tools or techniques are required to activate each component.

Coaching tools are instruments or measures with set procedural guidelines validated for use within a given coaching context, such as psychometric assessment measures and validated self-administered intentional activities.

Coaching techniques refer to a specific technique, such as a skill, ability, or competence, that a coach could employ during the coaching process.

Positive psychological coaching tools and techniques

PPC aims to identify and utilize psychological strengths. Using Strengths-Focused Assessment tools and Psychometric instruments is a natural extension of the process. These assessment tools could either be aimed at measuring inherent psychological (or character) strengths (e.g., VIA Signature Strengths Inventory) or behavioral strengths (or competencies) through the CliftonStrengths Assessment, introducing the client to strengths language and opening the way to a conversation around the function and purpose of these strengths in their lives. This heightens awareness of one’s strengths when used and leads to reframing events from a strengths-based perspective.

Identifying strengths is also the aim of Strengths Spotting, where the coach facilitates an active and constructive process for the client to identify her strengths. The advantage of this technique over psychometrics is strengths identification taking place in the context of the client’s work and social environment. Relating to the strengths through her own experience, for example, by considering behavior from the prior week, allows clients to self-identify their strengths and determine strengths grounded firmly in the client’s lived experience, ensuring authenticity and ownership. Strengths spotting involves the careful, intentional observation of strengths within the stories, interactions, and behaviors of others and oneself. It involves labeling the strengths observed and offering a rationale for how it was expressed. As the client’s self-insight and self-reflection grow, these competencies further her habit of observing and spotting strengths, making visible what previously was hidden and now motivates conscious action. Of primary importance is to what extent the client herself identifies with a particular strength since a signature strength may be part of one’s character but not necessarily part of one’s identity.

Strengths spotting and strengths utilization and development are at the heart of a PPC approach.

Guided Self-Reflection facilitates clients in discovering their hidden potentials (e.g., reflecting on successes), reinforcing strengths use (e.g., appreciative questioning), or generating solutions to problems (e.g., sense checking or reflecting on how they solved similar problems in the past) during a coaching session. The use of the technique within a positive psychology coaching approach is focused on the role and the use of psychological strengths and positive emotions, what already works well, and ways and means to optimize the positive aspects of their lives.

These three techniques and the associated tools are introduced in the coaching process in Phase 2 (Strengths Profiling and Feedback) of the PPC model. Assessment is supported by processes to reconfigure possibilities and look for opportunities. Developing client awareness and self-insight becomes an important input on how she could use her strengths to foster personal development and achieve goals in later phases.

The coach plays an important role in determining the client’s strengths, what helps them overcome hurdles, and what gives them hope.

Given that the client knowingly or unknowingly filters the world through her strengths, a stronger focus is placed on diagnosing strengths instead of highlighting developmental areas. Therefore, the coach facilitates a process to enable clients to appreciate the power and opportunities of dominant strengths.

Diagnosis of Strengths is aided by strengths-based psychometric assessments (e.g., VIA Signature Strengths Inventory), strengths-based inquiry (e.g., Strengths-Based Interviewing), and strengths-based identification initiatives (e.g., Strengths Spotting or Listening for Strengths).

Strengths profiling initiatives, such as guided self-reflections, may also be actioned to explore the presence of strengths in past experiences or within the present. Clients describe an event where they felt particularly good or at their best and reflect upon the factors (strengths) which contributed to or manifested in this experience. Specifically, the client is facilitated to reflect on the function of strengths in her current realities. This supports the client in developing insight into how and when her particular strengths manifest and how to deploy such in the future.

Further, through becoming aware of one’s strengths, clients could actively use such to develop job-related competencies.

Finally, quality of life and wellbeing also are assessed as such is an outcome of strengths use. When individuals use their strengths, it has a direct, positive effect on their experience of overall life satisfaction or quality. Therefore, tracking life satisfaction, wellbeing, or quality of life would be a good indicator of the effectiveness of strengths utilization.

Strengths Identification is complemented by Strengths Utilization and Development, which aims to explore ways to activate the strengths at home and work intentionally. Interventions involve innovatively using strengths or using strengths to achieve a goal. Identified strengths can be cultivated through practice and developing related knowledge and skills to be productively applied. Strengths are the trait-level personality characteristics that, when activated (state-level), are associated with the person’s optimal functioning.

Strengths are best viewed as existing in a social, situational, or psychological context. Individuals will differ in how they explore or optimize their strengths in these contexts.

One pillar of PPC is identifying and utilizing psychological strength; another is using evidence-based positive psychological self-administered intentional activities (e.g., Gratitude Visit) to aid clients in enhancing their wellbeing or practicing strengths in a validated manner.

Evidence-based practices enhance specific positive states (e.g., happiness), traits (e.g., hope), or behaviors (e.g., deliberate practice). The practices can be broadly categorized as cognitive tools to change how a client thinks about herself, a given event, or the future, such as visualizing an ideal future self or self-monitoring (positive journaling); behavioral tools which require the client to action or show a particular behavior such as looking for ways to use strengths in a new way or performing random acts of kindness; and emotional tools to relive positive experiences from the past (e.g., gratitude visit), extend positive experiences in the present (e.g., savoring life’s joys), or to anticipate positive experiences in the future (e.g., practicing optimism).

These practices, or tools, should be aligned with the client’s strengths and goals to be effective.

The third pillar of PPC is Goal Setting, which focuses on optimizing strengths use. Goal setting is an integral part of any development process or intervention. Achieving these goals determines the coaching’s success. Given that the person has the requisite ability, goal-directedness motivates and drives actions.

A set goal creates the context for specific pathways and agency thoughts. It serves as an outcome measure, while people use feedback from goal outcomes to inform their future actions.

Self-concordant, meaningful, important, and autonomously set goals generate intrinsic motivation, a renewable energy source for goal-striving.

Specific goals increase the likelihood of positive responses to feedback received.

Concrete, attainable goals increase the sense of responsibility for self-development.

The goal-setting technique sets the direction and action plans for the PPC process.

Tools and techniques require competencies or characteristics of the coach to use such during the coaching process effectively.

Some psychological tools may be classified as psychological acts that require specialized training; PPC is not about the client’s mental health but mental growth and does not attempt to diagnose or cure ailments of the mind. The focus is on development rather than deficit correction.

PPC employs a comprehensive approach toward development, which aids clients in identifying and actively deploying their character strengths as well as acknowledges the multiple contexts which influence their lives. This approach leads to various positive consequences for the individual (e.g., improved performance, self-efficacy, life satisfaction, and self-confidence) and the organization (e.g., talent retention, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and financial growth).

The Phases of the PPC Model

Creating the Relationship is a pre-coaching phase in which the focus is on establishing a positive, open, trusting, supporting, non-judgmental, psychologically safe, and collaborative relationship with the client. This nurtures client empowerment and facilitates personal development.

The coach attends to physical and non-material barriers that may affect the coaching relationship. The coach uses curiosity to explore what works well in the client’s life, what she enjoys, and what values are most important to the client as a means to establish rapport.

The coach develops a thorough understanding of the client’s working reality and ensures an alignment of stakeholder expectations. A psychological contract is established between coach and client, coach and senior management, coach and direct manager, and client and her direct manager to establish rapport, transparency of expectations, and include the organizational context (e.g., vision, mission, and strategy) into the coaching process.

Creating the Relationship is a function of (a) establishing rapport and creating a conducive coaching environment, (b) clarifying expectations between all stakeholders in the coaching process, and (c) creating a positive relationship with the client.

Empowerment is a continuous process, manifesting in every interaction with the client and every phase of the coaching process. The client is empowered to take ownership of her personal development. The coach focuses on building self-efficacy by highlighting and reaffirming the strengths employed in given scenarios, cultivating and supporting the client’s internal belief of a positive future, and reaffirming her sense of what is possible. The client is encouraged to reframe the negative or challenging experiences of her work or private life, altering her perspective of the problem. Through this process, the client is made aware that numerous possibilities exist to approach, interpret, and experience a manifested problem. Gradually, the client would find it easier to look for the positive, even in the most challenging environments.

Empowerment aids the client in experiencing a sense of control over initiating and regulating behavior and taking ownership to make a difference in her context. Positive confirmations and questions assist the client in internalizing strengths as a personal resource.

A coach believes in the client’s ability to cope and change positively, making empowerment the linchpin of the strengths coaching model.

Empowerment yields a strengthened affirmative capability to build hope and sustain momentum for ongoing positive change and high performance.

Empowerment also builds a sustainable resilience level which fortifies the psychological barriers and buffers against recurrences of setbacks in the future.

The final phase is considered to be Concluding and Re-Contracting the coaching, during which the coach formatively assesses whether the coaching yielded the desired results and either prepares the client for terminating the relationship or, if there is a need for further development, re-contracting is initiated.

Here, all stakeholders (clients, managers, HR, and the coach) should honor the progress made by the client, and the coach is responsible for determining whether the changes resulted from the positive psychological coaching process.

Evaluating against the initial objectives, the coach and the client determine the success of the intervention.

{Evaluating the initial objectives and their effect on the quality of life may be another quest. Achieving success with the objectives should also result in accomplishment and enhanced wellbeing.

The coach can receive feedback on his approach’s perceived effectiveness and recommendations for improvement concerning specific elements of his coaching.

Referrals, testimonials, and references play a major role in reaching out to prospective clients who could benefit from the PPC service offered.}

Developing an ideal vision of the client’s future self and Realistic Goal setting, Strategizing, and Execution centered around Strengths is where possibilities and opportunities are explored and formulated, self-reflection and self-insight are engaged in and developed, vision, goals, and strengths are aligned, potential personal resources are identified, expectations are set, and a strengths-based action plan is initiated.

The coach helps the client create a clear vision of a positive future that stretches beyond the limits of her current comfort zone and level of performance, as well as a vision of her best possible self. Future-oriented desired outcomes reveal challenges in the client’s current work-related reality and the possible development needs. The client is encouraged to create images of possibilities, a vision of a positive future where dreams are realized, all goals are attained, potentials are actualized, and the client is living in accordance with her best possible self.

The focus is on expanding the client’s capacity, stretching her limits, and supporting her to have faith when things get tough. The dream of the ideal self must be aligned to clear, measurable results and the discovered potentials of the client. The coach must encourage the client to craft a vision aligned with her strengths, one where life and work have meaning, where the self-actualizing tendency is active, and where the client can optimize her inherent potentials.

A compelling strategic narrative that contributes to meaning at work and in life is created.

The 4D Appreciative Inquiry process can aid the ideal vision by Discovering strengths and the meaning of strengths from the perspective of the client; the client is encouraged to Dream about the ideal state and what it means to her on a practical level; in the Design cycle the client develops an action plan to achieve the ideal state, and the focus of Destiny is to build hope and sustain momentum for ongoing positive change and high performance. The ongoing coaching agenda for the development process is the gap between the ideal and current state.

Actualizing the client’s potentials is encouraged by seeking positive things in life, harnessing the best in the client, and inspiring her to live out her potentials.

The client is encouraged to use her existing strengths to identify her vision of what she wants and turn it into reality by focusing on her strengths, vision, and dreams.

The purposeful pursuit of goals follows goal setting. The client is encouraged to set goals that are either aligned with her strengths or goals aimed at developing a given strength further. The coach actively clarifies the purpose of the goals and guides in developing a mutually agreed upon developmental strategy or plan. Having clear goals, balancing challenges and skills, maintaining a high level of goal congruence, focusing on doing well, and having immediate feedback is important in setting goals.

Action plans should guide the client to use her talents and strengths more effectively in the workplace. The coach helps the client to see how she can use her strengths to achieve her career goals by investing in activities that build on her strengths.

The developmental plan aims to achieve the client’s dream, affirm the client’s reality, and support future actions. The coach facilitates the motivation and commitment of the client to implement the designed developmental strategy actively. The client identifies her available and required personal resources to fast-track goal achievement. The coach aids in constructing a personal resource map, which highlights the available and required physical, emotional, social, and fiscal resources to achieve her goals. This map is translated into a utilization plan which aligns goals with resources.

Identification and utilization of strengths, goal setting with a focus on optimizing the use of strengths in service of the ideal vision and dreams, development and action plans making use of a personal resource map through a resource utilization plan; these learnings are facilitated in the coaching sessions and transferred to the work environment to aid the client to practice the skills learned during the coaching in a real-life setting and to take ownership of the learning process.

Between sessions, engagement is essential to Learning Transfer. Personal growth and development are continuous processes.

Evidence-based positive psychological self-administered activities aligned to the strengths of the client and relevant to her goal and action plan ensure that significant gains in the client’s positive state are facilitated (e.g., the gratitude visit). These practices are aligned with the content of a given coaching session. They must be challenging in the proximal zone of development, there should be an opportunity to practice them at work actively, and they are aimed at actively developing skills. The client is requested to develop a portfolio of evidence while practicing these activities and developing her skills. The client is made aware that obstacles or failures are seen as learning opportunities.

The coaching process provides continuous support and helps the client develop and implement solutions to ongoing challenges faced during goal striving.

The client is ultimately responsible for taking ownership of her growth, career development, and life project. The coach stands with the client in her endeavor to change positively and creates the conditions for skill and capability development beyond the usual professional activities or the prescribed area of her organizational role.

Action Tracking and Continuous Evaluation is a continuous process focused on evaluating the progress and effectiveness of the coaching, the extent to which goals are achieved and gains maintained, and the continued assessment of the wellness and wellbeing of the client. Goals and aspirations are continuously revisited and modified based on the client’s current reality. Action plans are modified when necessary. Tracking aids in ensuring progress and intervening if evidence suggests that the client is not on track with her goal achievement.

Success criteria are established at the onset of the coaching process.

Tracking actions and goal achievement take the form of weekly updates, online tracking software, or quantitative assessments of wellbeing or performance. Goal achievement and wellbeing are assessed monthly to monitor the developmental trajectory and to actively intervene or re-prioritize goals to ensure goal achievement is still on target.

The individual development plan is updated with all this information monthly, supporting learning transfer and empowerment of the client to feel competent and in control of the development process.

The three continuous processes are dynamic and strengthen the interaction between the different phases, and at the same time, build on and are supported by each other.

Clarifying expectations with the client’s direct line manager and senior management determines the potential alignment (or misalignment) between the client’s strengths and the organizational demands and how the client fits into the organization’s vision. This ensures alignment of the coaching process to the operational role of the client and that work-related expectations are clear between the client and her direct line manager.

Clarifying expectations with the client of the coach as well as the coaching process, and also the coach’s expectations of the client and the coaching process culminate in a psychological contract, which defines the trajectory of the coaching relationship and demarcates the boundaries thereof, and defines the beliefs, assumptions, obligations, and expectations the client has about the coaching relationship and clarifies uncertainty.

Organizations are interested in the use of the competence of their employees, and the focus is on developing strengths and how one could use them to enhance competence in various applied domains, linking development and optimization to performance and accomplishment. 

The Core Principles of Positive Psychological Coaching

For people to benefit maximally from positive psychological coaching, they must be relatively well-adjusted and devoid of severe psychopathology. The coaching relationship is facilitative and solution-focused, enhancing personal fulfillment and positive growth. Counseling or psychotherapy, on the other hand, is problem-focused, diagnosing illness and restoring psychological functioning.

Well-adjusted individuals benefit most from working to enhance fulfillment and positive growth.

Second, PPC facilitates harnessing the best in people and optimizing their potentials through strengths-based initiatives. People become aware of, utilize, and develop their unique psychological strengths to reach their goals. This differs from correcting weaknesses, which reinforces low expectations, creates dependencies on outside resources, and discourages optimal development.

Focus on developing and optimizing personal strengths.

People’s lives entail “positives” and “negatives.” Fredrickson and Losada (2005) propose a balance be struck with a critical ratio of three positives, such as strengths, to one negative, such as a developmental area. Below this three-to-one ratio, wellbeing is weakened, and a balancing act of introducing positives is warranted.

People should determine their developmental areas and utilize their strengths to address these.

People function within ecologies embedded in higher-order ecologies and subsuming lower-order ecologies. Examples are work organizations, families, the multitude of communities one belongs to, and places of consumption, leisure, entertainment, or worship. Development is holistic, recognizing all life domains with relevant matters and capitalizing on available resources within each functional system, covering all valued aspects of a person’s life.

People have an inherent capacity to grow and develop through deliberate or purposeful endeavors, if not through incidental and accidental encounters. People’s inherent need and capacity to develop are furthered by active effort, dedication, deliberate practice, and hard work. Taking direct control over their development and lives, people can adopt a growth mindset to take on more challenges, bounce back from setbacks faster, and positively adjust their work performance. People can harness and deploy their expanding abilities to grow positively.

People can take ownership of their growth process and actively participate by taking responsibility for their developmental journeys. A coach supports discovering resources to achieve their goals, empowering the person to take ownership and responsibility.

An active, intentional developmental process is based on a personal vision of one’s ideal self, translated into specific goals and actions. A clearly defined vision of the preferred future self entails clear images of possibilities and identifies one’s preferred or “best possible self” or “best possible future.” A coach guides in developing a clear picture of a better future and formalizing it constructively, for example, through translating the vision into specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound goals.

Within positive psychological coaching, deeper listening focuses on people’s strengths they bring to the development journey, providing continuous support throughout the process.