Positive psychology: Not just happy–clappy coaching

Positive Psychology is coming to have an increasing influence on coaching. It can be defined as ‘the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive’ or ‘flourish’; it has also been described as ‘the study of happiness’. This makes it sound rather vague, woolly or ‘touchy feely’, but it has come to be something of an umbrella term, under which strengths working, mindfulness, wellbeing, resilience and other things now of interest to the professional world are collected.

Positive Roots

The founding father of positive psychology specifically is Martin Seligman, now Director of the Positive Psychology Centre at Penn State University in the USA, and he promoted the field when President of the American Psychological Association in 1998 – so the whole field is quite newly born. https://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology

Of course, the principles go back further than that – Abraham Maslow (he of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ and perhaps the first ‘positive psychologist’) used the term in the 1950s, and the idea that people want to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives, and actually move towards such ‘healthy functioning’, if given the chance, dates back at least to the person-centred work of Carl Rogers, in the 1960s.

Rogers’ ideas are at the core of the strengths-based Motivational Interviewing approach behind Ignition’s coaching; that the best outcomes are achieved when coaching clients are treated as a resource, with skills and insights, able to generate the best solutions to their own professional situation, not as something needing to be ‘fixed’ by an outside ‘expert’.

If it Ain’t Broke…

Essentially, the positive psychology coaching mindset begins from asking a question of ‘what is right with you?’ rather than ‘what is wrong?’ It takes a ‘competency’ worldview rather than a ‘deficit’ worldview and makes a basic assumption that people are essentially healthy, resourceful, and motivated to grow. This can be quite a shift in thinking and if taken on, fundamentally influences the coaching relationship and how a coach, coaches, just as it has done in the therapeutic world.

Outcome data from areas where the facilitation of change, growth and development is extremely challenging, such as child protection in social services, substance misuse and intimate partner violence and abuse shows that this general approach has a lot going for it and can be extremely effective. (link to BACP IPVA article), just as it can be in coaching. There are also links to emotional intelligence or ‘EQ’, where exercising optimism is a key skill for success.

Of course, as with some issues around ‘mindfulness’, the outcomes rather depend on how you do it! Translating a general positive psychology approach into a coherent coaching experience in the room can be tricky, and if not applied well, can lead to a tendency to be overly optimistic, simply ‘accentuate the positive’ and ignore the ‘negative’, thus failing to address the client ‘in the round’.

The Professional is Personal

The need to work holistically is why Ignition coaching uses a very clearly defined framework of concepts, skills, and understandings found in Motivational Interviewing (MI), as our baseline. MI falls under positive psychology, is very definitely a strengths-based approach to communication and change, but also integrates other outcomes-orientated and evidence based strategies, such as Solution-Focused work, to ensure insight is translated into action.

With the addition of Ignition’s experiential ‘out of the chair’ action work, positive psychology becomes more holistic and ‘in the round’, able to work with thinking and feeling and behavior, as well as difficult or negative experiences – the whole person.

One of the truisms of positive psychology (and also a facet of neuropsychology) is that ‘the brain remembers what it focuses on’. Hence, one’s outlook can indeed influence one’s whole appreciation of the world, shifting it from a heightened awareness of the negative, to a fuller awareness of the positive, with benefits for wellbeing.


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