Research Paper By Katherine Rutkevich
(Transformational Coach, CANADA)
Currently there is a limited but growing body of evidence of the effectiveness of coaching using positive psychology methods. As a graduate of the University of Toronto, with a BSc degree in Psychology, I’ve joined International Coaching Academy to apply theories and principle of Positive Psychology into coaching, and continue to develop my coaching presence and coaching techniques in order to become more effective coach for the benefit for my clients.
The goal of this paper is to communicate such positive psychology coaching methods. In this paper I will provide a brief overview of coaching and positive psychology, cover more recent developments in the combined field of positive psychology coaching (PPC) and review the most relevant interventions in PPC.
What is Coaching?
Understanding the definition, competencies, process, approaches, and effectiveness of coaching provides a starting point. Definitions of coaching vary considerably. Parsloe, for example, proposes that coaching is “directly concerned with the immediate improvement of performance and development of skills by a form of tutoring or instruction”. Whitmore proposes that “coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them”. Perhaps, my favorite definition arrived from the evidenced-based coaching research, and is: “Coaching is about helping people to create change, so they can realize their potential”.
What is Evidence-Based Coaching?
Overall, professional coaching can be considered an emerging cross-disciplinary occupation, the primary purpose of which is to enhance wellbeing, improve performance and facilitate individual and organizational change. The term ‘evidenced-based coaching’ is grounded in the behavioural and social sciences and is based on up-to-date scientific knowledge, and describes executive, personal and life coaching that goes beyond adaptations of the popular self-help or personal development theme.
Adapted from medical contexts, the term “evidence-based” means more than simply producing evidence that a specific intervention is effective, or being able to demonstrate return on investment. It refers to the intelligent and conscientious use of the best current knowledge in making decisions about how to deliver coaching to clients, and in designing and teaching coach-training programs.
It is important to know the distinction between the often exaggerated coaching that tends to be adapted from personal development and motivational programs and professional coaching that draws on solid theory and research. Evidenced-based approach is a foundation of future success. What is
Positive emotions have a huge impact on individual’s well-being. Research continues to show that positive emotions “increase immune function, improve resilience to adversity, reduce inflammatory responses to stress, increase resistance to rhinoviruses, lower cortisol, and impact brain symmetry, and a number of studies show they predict longevity”. Positive emotions are are also central to psychological flourishing and have been found to have a significant impact on increasing intuition and creativity, and widening scope of attention. They increase our capacity to use multiple social, cognitive, and affective resources and to take in an integrated long-term perspective—crucial skills corporations want in their leadership teams and that our coaching clients would like to build in themselves.
No wonder, the main focus of positive psychology is to understand the mechanism of positive emotions, such as joy, love, awe, gratitude, hope, or desire. A series of national and international studies collected data on hundreds of thousands of subjects in order to examine what makes people happy. Ed Diener and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who are the leading researches in the industry, had explored how happiness is (or is not) associated with macrosocial factors, genetics, chance, personality, behavior, and many other variables.
Is Coaching the Best Practical Vehicle in Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology Coaching (PPC) is a scientifically-rooted approach to helping clients increase well-being, enhance and apply strengths, improve performance, and achieve valued goals. The Centre for Applied Posotove Psychology, and such leading researchers as Carol Kauffman, develop coaching and clinical interventions based on the flourishing field of positive psychology.
Positive psychology and PPC focuses on character strengths, well-being, and the things that make life worth living. Coaching and positive psychology are natural “partners” in their explicit concern with enhancement of optimal functioning and well-being, their challenge of traditional assumptions about human nature, and their use of a strengths-based approach to performance improvement.
As an applied tradition, PPC serves a binary function. On the one hand, it provides a context in which the scholarly ideas of positive psychology can be applied and evaluated. On the other hand, it enables practitioners to understand how the sound base of theory and research provided by positive psychology can give rise to successful intervention and change.
According to Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney, there are three key categories of coaching application — skills coaching, performance coaching and developmental coaching.
1. Skills Coaching: developing a specific skill set
- this coaching process might be fairly short, where coach focuses on specific behaviours the client want to enhance their skill in
- coach models the desired behaviour first and then provides a space for a client to practice newly accrued skill providing a feedback
- clients needs: improving communications skills, sales skills, rehearsing for presentations or negotiations
2. Performance Coaching: improving performance in a given period of time
- this coaching process is more strategic type, more lengthy (may last from between 1 month and 2 years)
- coaching sessions are centered around the way client sets goals, deals with identifying and removing the obstacles; coach is observing and evaluating clients' performance as they are working towards their goal
3. Developmental Coaching: focused on more in-depth personal and professional development
- this coaching process may focus on increasing emotional intelligence (EQ) or being a more effective team member
- it also called "therapy for people who do not need therapy"
- coach creates the trusting environment where the client can explore issues and possible solutions, as well as design action plans in confidential, supportive environment
Of course, coaching process involves incorporation of all these categories. Whether the coaching process is aimed at enhancing EQ or leadership competencies, there always a room for a specific skill to be built up. Yet, once of these three categories usually dominate the whole coaching engagement including the coaching sessions. In this paper, I will focus on skills and performance coaching.
Skills and Performance Coaching
Many PPC theories and tools can be useful in the context of skill and performance coaching. These include theories of flow and peak performance states, which I’ve chosen to focus on for the present discussion.
Emotional well-being is one road to what we think of as happiness. However, an equally powerful route is being “vitally engaged” in one’s life and grounded in a sense of meaning and purpose . For the past forty years Csikszentmihalyi has studied the capacity to be a full participant in life. He describes optimal living as “being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad”. Thus, he sees the capacity to fully take in and metabolize one’s experience as core to psychological health.
Coaching for Flow and Peak Performance States
Flow, or “being in the zone,” is often described as an elusive, spiritual state that is available to only a chosen few. In contrast, Csikszentmihalyi has examined the conditions that make flow possible for ordinary, as well as extraordinary, individuals. His research shows that a number of conditions increase the likelihood of entering a flow state.
Coaches can learn and then tailor this information to help clients find their own ways to access this high-performance state. What follows is a description of some of Csikszentmihalyi’s “conditions of flow” accompanied by examples of how to apply the information to coaching or peak performance training.
Imagine you are coaching a client—an executive, or an athlete—who is doing well, but wants to move toward higher performance. Here are a few interventions developed by Csikszentmihalyi and Kauffman, that can help:
Clear and immediate feedback.
Feedback keeps the performer centered in reality. To keep at peak performance one needs to know how one is doing in order to meet the demands being faced (e.g. racers knowing their split times). However, feedback isn’t necessarily external; inner clarity seems crucial.
Absence of self-consciousness.
In a state of flow the individual is so fully engaged in the performance that he or she can let go of “over thinking and over trying” Exercises to increase mindful focus on the present and detaching from the outcome may help performers transcend themselves.
Merging action and awareness.
A coach can help the client manage the dialectical tension between transcending the moment and also being completely aware of and flexibly responding to new information coming in at the periphery. It’s like blinders that come and go when I need them. My focus opens up to absorb what’s happening, then narrows back down.
Sense of control.
In any challenge there are elements one can control and elements one cannot. Help clients to focus clearly on the first and defocus from the last. A motto the author asks clients to repeat regularly, particularly when facing overwhelming challenge, is: I’m not in control of my destiny but I AM in control of my probabilities.
Intrinsic motivation/autotelic experience.
Flow comes when doing what you want. If it isn’t automatically present in a task, help clients find aspects of the challenge that are intrinsically rewarding. A key intervention (the Authentic Happiness Coaching model, described later) is helping the client identify signature strengths and find new ways to use them in the service of the task.
Balance skills and challenge.
The optimal match between having a high level of skill and a high task demand is one of the crucial aspects that makes flow possible. When the balance is off you see the following: High challenge with low skill = anxiety; low challenge with high skill = relaxation boredom; low challenge with lowskill = apathy. To coach for flow, help clients find the right balance by either increasing skill level or decreasing challenge. The coach can help clients decrease challenge by breaking the task into smaller pieces and building skills until they feel equipped to handle the task at hand. Alternatively, if the client is feeling untapped or bored, the coach can help the client find ways to make the task harder and expand the client’s vision of the size and scope of the project at hand.
When in a flow state time transforms. For example, during a fencing match, a flow state heightens perception and the foils seem to move more slowly. Alternatively, a flow experience can feel like a wrinkle in time—hours go by in what feels like minutes. This one is hard to coach in a direct way, although visualization techniques can help build the perception skills. You can also have clients intensely recall past experiences of their own peak flow states to see if it becomes easier for them to replicate and access this statedependent experience.
Clearly, the concept of flow and engagement has many potential applications that coaches can harness in their work.
Carol Kauffman, points out that: “by pulling more strongly on natural strength, the client can find that certain tasks become more intrinsically rewarding and motivating. For example, if love of learning is a top strength, one can learn to utilize it to make activities more enjoyable”. She further offers some positive interventions that can help individuals to move to increase the state of the flow and engagement.
Engagement with Activity:
1. Using Strength in a New Way
Clients choose one of their top strengths and during the week find a designated time to exercise the strength in a new way at work, home, or leisure. The exercise is to first go through a day (in real time or through recall) to identify situations where one’s signature strengths are already in action. Then the clients brainstorm new ways to use the strength.
Variation 1: Finding ways clients can use their strengths under adversity. When a situation is challenging coach and client brainstorm and practice how the client’s signature strength can be applied to improve or make the most of the situation. For example: For public speaking anxiety, how might clients pull on gratitude, love of learning, or capacity to love in order to center themselves in their core strength/value and find the energy or resolve to continue?
Variation 2: When engaged in an action that increases anxiety, read over the conditions of flow and slightly alter the parameters of the task to be in line with natural strengths Increasing
Engagement with Others
2. Strengths Date
A client chooses someone with whom to share some time. Both participants identify their signature strengths through the VIA Signature Strengths Survey. Then they plan an activity that puts into play one or more of the signature strengths of each. For example, if one client has appreciation of beauty and excellence as a signature strength, and the other has love of learning, then they might plan a trip to the local art museum so that they can learn about beautiful art objects together.
Variations: In a work or team setting, take members’ natural skills into account when delegating (or volunteering) for particular tasks. Have work teams all take the VIA if they are interested. If a colleague or friend is unable or uninterested in taking the VIA, have the client guess what the other’s signature strengths might be and use that when planning an activity or choosing a gift for the friend.
3. Relational Engagement
Practice active, constructive responding based on findings that being active and constructive in responding to another fosters interpersonal flow. Being passive and constructive or active/passive and destructive does not predict interpersonal engagement
Variations: Practice active/constructive responding in the work setting, saving criticisms until afterward. Notice whether conflicts are reduced and if behavioral repertoire of the team shifts.
Coaching is a young field that needs continued development for future success. In this paper I’ve demonstrated some of the evidenced-based practices to coaching. For coaching to avoid becoming “self-help, pop-psychology or pseudoscience” it is crucial, I think, that new evidence-based methods and interventions are developed.
Positive psychology has the potential to provide a theoretical and empirical underpinning, to the emerging profession of coaching. It can be reliably and validly measured, and its positive impact on fostering cognitive and social skills is very amenable to the light of scientific scrutiny. Advances in the field also explicitly and implicitly offer a wide range of possible applications.
Obviously all coaching doesn’t work; we are a new field and must make mistakes to move the process of discovery forward. And as Kauffman summaries:
While coaching is an art, it is one that can be built on science. At each phase of growth as individuals and as a profession, there is an optimal dialectical tension of art and science as the art informs the science which in turn can inform the art. It is time to transcend the notion that it is one or the other, and for coach-practitioners to become adept at both.
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Berridge. P. (2011). From Coach to Positive Psychology Coach. University of Pensilvania, Capstone Project.
Positive Psychology in Practice. (2008). Harvard Medical Health Letter, Koffman, C., Boniwell, I., & Silberman, J. The Positive Psychology Approach to Coaching. In
Sage Handbook of Coaching.
Cavanagh, M., Grant, M., A., & Kemp, T. (2005). ntegrating Theory and Practice in Coaching. Evidence-Based Coaching: Theory, research and practice from behavioral science: