Training and Credentialing
Seligman and Biswas-Diener are both champions of the field of positive psychology, yet have markedly different views on how the tenets and tools will reach the broader public. In Flourish, Seligman devotes a great deal of ink to describing how positive psychology can and is being taught in schools with the aim of reducing the growing incidence of depression in children. He is directly involved with the United States military in an effort to instill in these men and women coping skills and self-awareness through his programs that include Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, Post-Traumatic Growth, and Resilience Training. Seligman also includes an important chapter on studies linking positive psychology and optimal health.
Biswas-Diener focuses more narrowly on what he proposes for the profession of positive psychology coaching. Credentialing, such as master’s degrees and certificate coaching programs in positive psychology, should be combined with continuing education through additional training and regular journal consumption. Practitioners need to be well versed in the vocabulary of strengths and how to use established positive psychology assessments. Specialized coaches are also encouraged to distinguish their coaching style from others, and he gives the following example of how to communicate this information to a client:
I have a tendency to look for solutions rather than explore obstacles, that I use a codified vocabulary for strengths, and that I draw upon empirically supported interventions and assessments, and that I attend heavily to the role of positive and negative emotions when I interact with my clients.[xi]
Positive Psychology Tools and Research Applied to Coaching
There are a great many tools trained coaches use to facilitate a perspective shift in their clients. Because of the shared mission of coaching and positive psychology, it should come as no surprise that many of the tools are created around positive emotions. Although the research contains many, three particularly pertinent types of tools and assessments are listed here. They are tools that boost positive emotions, others that engender hope, and finally strength assessments.
The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions is the work of Barbara Fredrickson, a social psychologist at UNC, Chapel Hill. She found that negative emotions arise during times of stress and are necessary for our survival. When we feel fear, panic, distrust, even hatred, we narrow our focus onto that which threatens our survival. On the other hand, positive emotions broaden and build our natural resources and inclinations.
…When you are in a good mood, you become more curious, more sociable, more creative, and are a bit healthier. Your immune system works better, your cardiovascular system gets a boost, you become a better problem solver, and you persevere longer at tough tasks.[xii]
All in all, positive emotions are what we want to cultivate in our clients and ourselves. One simple approach is the Three Blessings Exercise that can be done as an individual or as a group, for example as a family dinner activity. It involves expressing three positive things that happened that day, and describing why this happened, what it means to you, and how you can experience more of this good thing in the future. Another exercise is the Best Possible Self in which you ask your client for a detailed description of the type of person they want to be or the things they want to accomplish. A variation is writing a personal mission statement to articulate their life purpose.
It should be mentioned that the theory of Appreciative Inquiry has strong parallels to the applied science of positive psychology. A.I. encourages a focus on strengths rather than weaknesses and encourages us to refrain from problem solving in favor of reframing the problem or turning one’s attention to the aspects of the situation that are positive. Though it originated as an approach for groups and teams, it has applications for individuals.
The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started. Norman Cousins
It is generally acknowledged that coaching has an emphasis on the future because of its focus on goal setting, growth, progress, and improvement. Hope is a critical component for coaching clients as they look ahead. Hope Theory, the work of Charles Snyder, is one of the early tools to emerge from the field of positive psychology. He found that hope has two elements: pathways thinking and a sense of agency. In order to sustain hope, humans must demonstrate flexibility in that they are able to come up with other solutions should they find their first pathway blocked. Sense of agency means that a person believes that he/she can reach their desired goal. Together, the two elements create a strong foundation for hope so that it is realistic and real.
To enhance hopeful thinking in their clients, coaches can use brainstorming exercises that involve working together to come up with multiple solutions. In doing so, the client is encouraged to develop pathways thinking. Positive affirmations and visualization also help the client to envision and believe that they can accomplish whatever they desire, thereby engendering a sense of agency. The Wheel of Life is a popular coaching tool that fosters both hope-building skills. By asking a client what he/she can do to raise their self-assessment score in a certain domain, the answer may well come through brainstorming and visualization, thereby increasing the clients hope for the future.
Becoming aware of our personal strengths, how we currently use them and how we can learn to use them more effectively constitutes a powerful intersection of positive psychology and coaching. Numerous empirically validated tools populate the Internet, among the most well regarded are the VIA Inventory of Strengths (www.viacharacter.org/), StrengthsFinder 2.0 (www.gallupstrengthscenter.com), and Realise2 (realise2.cappeu.com/4/login_public.asp). Each surveys the participant and ranks specific elements of their character.
In a coaching context, the survey results not only help the coach understand the client with a depth difficult to achieve otherwise, they also bring a new awareness to the client’s sense of him or herself. It is not uncommon for those tested to say their top or “signature” strengths are qualities that come easily to them. They are surprised that the same is not true for everyone, and therefore recognize their strength profile as descriptive of their fundamental or true nature. Kauffman calls the VIA survey “quietly radical” for how it can shift or validate someone’s entrenched beliefs about themself. In Western society we are raised to be modest about our achievements or advantages, and often feel uncomfortable expressing positive things about ourselves. Self-awareness around strengths coupled with a new and codified vocabulary with which to speak about them, opens the door to a novel perspective on ourselves. Finally we are inclined to believe that by exploring our weaknesses we find the biggest opportunities for growth, yet research shows that capitalizing on our strengths provides numerous benefits in areas such as confidence, effectiveness, motivation, and well being.[xiii]