The Structure of a Positive Psychology Coaching Session

A session moves through these phases: 

Establishing trust using positive regard, empathy, active constructive responding, emotional contagion, and motivational interviewing.

Building the foundation for the client to become more resourceful and resilient by coaching on values, leveraging strengths, and building on positive emotion attractors.

During this phase of the session, the coach draws on SDT, Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions, and other autonomy-supporting relational tools and techniques.

After establishing trust and building the foundation, move the coaching session to explore the client’s growth edge.

The growth edge is the place to shift the client’s perspective on their issue where difficulty or limitation turns into growth opportunity or transformation. The growth edge is where psychological flexibility is nurtured, and the client shifts from chaos or rigidity to flow.

The coach supports the client in expanding awareness using CBC (Cognitive Behavioral Coaching), ACC (Acceptance and Commitment Coaching), and SFC (Solution Focused Coaching) tools.

The next steps are to set goals, design action items, discuss accountability, clarify the support system, and crystalize a learning point that supports the client to take action. 

Throughout these steps, goal-setting theory and hope theory are used.

Between sessions, exercises from the positive psychology toolkit can be used as needed.


Values guide and motivate us. They answer questions like, “What is most important to you? What makes your life worth living? What do you want your life to be about?” At a more mundane level, they are your motivations for daily choices. At a grand level, they are your heart’s deeper desires, how you want to be, what you stand for, and how you want to relate to the world around you. As inferred from the previous wording, values are mostly espoused and aspirational when asked about instead of enacted and lived by when observed. Connecting with values and acting on them gives a sense of contentment, fulfillment, and completeness.

Values in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) are ongoing actions that give life purpose and meaning and create the sense that our hard work is worth the effort.

The client can clarify values concerning relationships, work or education, play and leisure, personal growth, and where the client is now relative to fully living with and from their values. Values clarification tools are “letter from the future self,” “imaginary eulogy,” or some appreciative inquiry-informed future-back questions.

Self-concordant goal-setting involves setting purposeful, meaningful, values-coherent goals.


The most important contribution of coaching to a client’s life is to add a strengths perspective to their worldview and initiate discovery, purposeful development, and targeted use of their strengths in daily life. The coach facilitates active inquiry into the client’s strengths, how a strength could help in a concrete situation, what strengths make sense to cultivate, and what a shift from a deficiency lens to a strengths perspective would mean.

Positive Emotions

Starting coaching sessions with positive emotion, the positive emotional attractor (PEA), improves the chances of building foundational resources and resilience. Positive emotions broaden cognitive and emotional processes, widening perspective, opening to possibility, and turning toward opportunity. Conversely, arousal of the negative emotional attractor (NEA) activates the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment, a state less likely for clients to make changes and get insight during coaching.

The client can experience a positive shift by establishing a daily habit of simply asking themselves, “What went well today? What three good things happened today, and what was my part in bringing them about? What are the three things I am most grateful for?”

Start the session by asking the client to recount their blessings, and the client will experience more openness and resourcefulness.

Positive Psychology Coaching (PPC) Session Model and the RAW (Resilience, Achievement, Wellbeing) Wellbeing Model (Green & Palmer, 2014)

Positive emotions help to physiologically down-regulate negative emotions, which is the ability to bounce back from stressful encounters. Repeated, mindful experiencing hardwires the brain and inclines the mind to positive emotion, turning a state (i.e., a fleeting feeling) into a trait (i.e., a strength that can be evoked easily and purposefully). Such a propensity for positive emotions enhances coping in stressful situations and increases resilience.

Positive emotion generally enhances wellbeing, affecting physical, subjective, and psychological health and facilitating health behaviors and beneficial lifestyle choices. Values coaching and self-concordant goal setting increase purpose and meaning in life, which are ingredients of wellbeing. Strength awareness, knowledge, and optimal use benefit wellbeing by increasing engagement, confidence, and self-belief, lowering stress, anxiety, and depression, effectively lowering vulnerability, and increasing resilience. 

Achievement is facilitated by positive emotion broadening mental capacity for open-minded inquiry and better decision-making, aspiring to higher goals, and persevering in the effort. The impact of strength on wellbeing through engagement, confidence, and lower stress is equally and directly connected to achievement. Flow, purpose, and meaning are strong drivers of goal-striving and accomplishment. 

Values-congruent, self-concordant goals enhance goal-striving and hence goal-attainment, as well as increase self-efficacy, hope, and optimism, strengthening resilience. 

Planning Positive Psychology Coaching Sessions

{Biswas-Diener, & Dean, 2007. Positive Psychology Coaching Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for Your Clients.}

Views on coaching and how it works range from defining it as primarily an act of facilitation to including direct instruction in sessions.

One primary aspect is the collaborative coaching relationship; another is the change process.

The positive psychology (PP) perspective in coaching brings attention to the focus on strengths, the harnessing of the power of positivity, and using evidence-based approaches and a systematic method to gauge success, all as tools to be built on.

A PP coaching session would include some form of formal measurement.

As a coach, to manage our positivity toward our clients, we may keep track of what we like about our clients; their strengths, personality traits, interests, and personal similarities. Anything that reminds us that our clients are interesting, worthwhile people. Spending a minute or so before the session meditating on these likable qualities helps sessions start smoothly.

Start a session with a strengths introduction.

A coaching session is a transformative space. Conventional conversation rules can be set aside. It can be a time and space where clients can brag, daydream, be silly, and voice anger at their boss. The strengths introduction can become a practice to start a conversation with vigor and aliveness, setting aside old social scripts and formalities.

As a coach, make an offer to the client to introduce yourselves by telling about one of your strengths and sharing a short anecdote in which you used the strength.


(Dear client), Let’s begin by telling me about one of your greatest strengths if it’s all right with you. Tell me a story about a time you used this strength. …


I want to know about your strengths. I’m really curious. So, let’s do that again, but this time I’ll start. Is that all right with you? …


My greatest strength is curiosity. I’m curious about everything. (story, story, story).

Ok, now you. … 

Start a session with humor.

Another great way of starting a session is to use humor. Anything you can do to promote a positive mood at the outset of your session will affect the outcome.

Before you start brainstorming, you may tell a joke to jump-start those positivity benefits, including creativity.

For coaches who aren’t natural jokers, asking clients to tell a short story about a funny thing that happened to them might be a good way to introduce a positive mood.

Start a session with a baseline assessment.

Beyond anecdotal feedback, collect some actual data on the client’s progress. Again, choose data congruent with the client’s agenda. For example, if a client wants to improve an “aspect” of their life, you might want to develop a gauge of what an improved “aspect” might look like, be it relationships at work, character strength, self-capacity, or else.

Use also formal measurements that are informative and easy to use.

Formal Assessments

Have your clients take the VIA-IS character strengths assessment between the first and second sessions. 

To see upfront how positive your clients are about the future and chart their satisfaction throughout the coaching relationship, use a measure of general life satisfaction, such as the Satisfaction with Life Scale, as well as a measure of optimism, such as the Life Orientation Test-Revised (LOT-R).

Pillars of a Balanced Life or the Wheel of Life

This is a domain satisfaction measure. It asks how satisfied you are with various aspects of your life on a 0 to 10 scale, graphed as pillars or as a wheel; the domains can be client determined or the usual aspects of life, such as marriage, income, commute, family, office, career, or vacation time. Other appropriate wording may be; Professional, Financial, Physical, Spiritual, Intimacy, Social Support, Family, Learning and Growth, Home or Office, Play and Fun, and Overall Life Satisfaction. Tailor it to cover specific life and work domains relevant to your client.

Establish a baseline by which to measure your client’s satisfaction over time.

Use the exercise with your client to identify a direction for the coaching relationship. Then, use it to inform the agenda for your coaching work.

Use it to inquire about the link between domains and how they may influence each other. Notice how success in one area can energize your clients in others.

Use the exercise to forward the action. Use it as an intervention. Have your client identify an area they would like to work on. Ask what it would take to raise the score in that domain by one point or even half a point. Shift the focus to the future and offer the chance of a modest, attainable goal. 

Ask for commitment when your client lists the actions necessary to jump up half a point. 

This exercise, used as an intervention in this way, can leave the client feeling hopeful and with a clear to-do list for improving their lives.

Optimal Level of Happiness

In light of concepts such as hedonic adaptation, the set range of happiness, and the optimal level of happiness, we could surmise our optimal happiness score as a 7 or 8. Novel events like new babies, pay raises, holiday bonuses, or winning the lottery will bounce your clients to a 10, but ultimately they will drop down to a natural 7 or 8. This can be used to your clients’ advantage through a little didactic instruction during the coaching session. Simply tell your clients about the optimal level of happiness, and watch as they begin to think about their scores differently. Suddenly that 6 is only one point away from optimal instead of four points away from a lofty 10, which is what almost all of your clients will think they should be aiming for. This perspective will let the clients off an emotional hook.

Using PP research creatively in coaching sessions

PP applications can be deployed as baseline measures, identifying a direction for the coaching work and forwarding the action. In addition, you can use PPIs as homework, such as the gratitude exercises; you can use instruction as a direct PPI by telling your client about relevant research, such as the work by Carver and Scheier, in which they distinguish between “giving up effort” and “giving up a goal”; you can use PPIs in-the-moment during sessions, as they are appropriate to the content of the session, such as walking your client through a positive reminiscence of a past success.

Some commentary on PPC

Seligman (2011): “The purpose of life is to discover your gifts and the meaning of life is to give it away.”

Seligman’s PERMA acronym has given us a heuristic to categorize the research on optimal human functioning into five domains: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

Positive Psychology (PP) has given us research into factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life, along with interventions to leverage human strengths and foster wellbeing and optimal human functioning.

The humanistic perspective has introduced us to the idea that the mind is naturally inclined to unfold its potential; the actualizing tendency is the dynamic force of the living organism orienting consciousness to evolve and grow.

By formulating this idea into “who we are becoming,” organizational psychologists have constructed and operationalized concepts for workplace performance improvement.

In my evidence-based practice and contextual model, I aim to measure outcomes of coaching and intervention efforts and build links between outcomes and my theoretical coaching framework.

This is a way to establish evidence-based protocols and standards and ensure consistent delivery. My self-defined protocols for professional development and continuous education support my claim to professionalism.

Central assumptions in a strengths approach

Strengths development is intrinsically motivating and energizing. This can be operationalized into an inquiry of “What activities do I find energizing? What do I bring of myself to these activities?”

Strengths are best developed in relationships that bring a balance of challenge and support; this includes taking on a leader identity, declaring an ideal self, and seeking feedback on what others see as the leader’s best potential self.

Attention is paid to derailers, blind spots, shadow sides, and weaknesses in critical competencies for job performance.

Human development forms the common ground in a helping relationship such as coaching; by entering into the coaching engagement, the development process of leader and coach will unfold on this common ground, making the coach’s development an integral part of the possibilities of the leader’s development.

Coaching can have a positive impact on the behavioral or performance outcomes of leaders. The impact will depend on the protocol followed, among other factors.

Some examples of performance or behavioral outcomes that a client can attain are in the following areas:

Self-care through self-regulation and work-life balance.

Stress reduction through disciplined action, focused engagement and effectively dealing with distractions, and increases in effectiveness and productivity.

Rewards that are attained as a result of achieved business results or through promotion into a new role.

Self-awareness, reflected in attitude, attention to positivity, intentional modeling of valued behaviors, confidence in word and deed, clarity in self-worth, values, and commitments.

Other awareness is reflected in a balance of advocacy and inquiry in conversations, interest in and openness to others’ views, curiosity, and care for others’ personal lives.

Managing others, reflected in effective delegation and timely and consequential accountability practices operating on realistic and clear expectations with commensurate support effort and prompt remediation fail-safe structures.

Communication is reflected in valuing immediate and frequent feedback from others, monitoring the impact and effect of own performance, orientation to increase positivity and create a supportive environment conducive to capacity and capability building, adding value in translating and emanating communications downward and outward, adding value in aggregating and integrating communications inward and upward.

Future planning, through intentional practices of hope and optimism development and deployment, following smart choices and good decision practices, reflected in clear strategic intent and declaration, strategic influence and leadership behaviors.

Professional development through active engagement in creating a supportive network and cooperative relationships.

Some specific benefits (positive impact) of PPC on client performance outcomes

Increased productivity, outcomes in terms of business measures, key performance indicators, business goals, metrics, sales, goal attainment, advancing project milestones, cost savings, and solutions generated and implemented.

Focus, in terms of strategy alignment and future orientation.

Confidence reflected in contribution to group process, positive sense of self or self-evaluation, conscious identity formation as a leader and declaration of leadership vision and values, and increased life satisfaction.

Relationships, constructive partnering, supporting, collaborating and cooperating, listening, and providing active constructive feedback.

Performance, monitoring and evaluation with deliberate taking on challenging tasks for future role preparation, seeking promotion and career advancement opportunities, and reward collection.

Balance, deliberate and mindful work-life balancing act.

Some specific benefits (positive impact) of PPC on client behavioral outcomes; observable behaviors in interactions, attitude, engaging in new actions, asking, listening, and speaking patterns

{Positive impact on … observed as client …}

Relationships, building intentional boundary-spanning relationships, building a network of mentors, and making empathy seen.

Communication, taking an interest in others’ points of view, listening, summarizing, skillful interactions, and building trust.

Effectiveness, embracing action and efficiency orientation in task implementation and managerial activities, purposeful delegation, strengths awareness in team leadership practiced through strengths spotting, strengths speak.

Confidence is enacted and reflected in clear and intentional speech, open questions and curious inquiry, and executive presence.

Clarity, setting quality goals, active search for possible obstacles and overcomings, alternatives and options, and motivational clarity.

Attitude, positivity, learning and growth mindset, optimism.

Stress, self-regulation, employee satisfaction, and wellbeing.