Positive Psychology Coaching: 12 Urgent Questions Answered

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positive psychology coaching

Positive psychology coaches and practitioners at the World Conference on Positive Psychology, June 2015, Orlando, Florida

What is positive psychology coaching? How does it differ from regular coaching? When can I call myself a positive psychologist?

These are just a couple out of the numerous questions about positive psychology coaching that we have gotten over the last two years.

In order to provide you with the most satisfactory answers to to these question as possible, I decided to interview positive psychology expert Lisa Sansom.

Not only has she taken the time to elaborately answer these questions, she has also provided lots of useful links to other websites for you to explore.

(Lisa is the beautiful woman at the right side of the picture)

Can you give a definition of positive psychology coaching?

Others have defined this before me. For example:

“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. At the core of PPC is a belief in the power of science to elucidate the best.”
(Source by Carol Kauffman, Ilona Boniwell & Jordan Silberman)

MentorCoach indicates that:

“In short, positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. It is a rich and growing field, and aligns perfectly with coaching: both assume people are basically healthy, resourceful, and motivated to grow.”

Essentially, I’d say that it’s using the positive psychology research findings to inform one’s coaching techniques, methods, mindsets and approach.

So how does it differ from regular coaching?

On the surface, it might not look or feel much different to a client. However, what is different is that the PP coach continues his or her life-long learning in the field of positive psychology by staying engaged with the research, the literature, the researchers and other PP professionals.

The PP coach also adjusts his or her coaching techniques, methodologies, etc, accordingly when new findings are discovered. “Regular” coaches may not be as tied to the empirical evidence and research findings, and so their techniques and methodologies may change only as a function of their own experiences, or attending conferences where they learn from other coaches’ anecdotal experiences, or they may not change substantially at all.

You can also learn more about positive psychology coaching from the Institute of Coaching.

One of the Directors of the Institute of Coaching, Margaret Moore, wrote a great article about it here.

U Penn MAPP grad and coach, Peter Berridge, wrote his Capstone on the topic, if you are looking for more in-depth information. You can download it as a PDF here.

Is a positive psychology practitioner called a PP coach? What is the difference between a coach and a practitioner?

A PP coach is someone who does coaching and is trained as a coach. A PP practitioner may apply positive psychology research findings to other areas, such as nursing, teaching, social work, therapy, parenting, etc. There are many “positive psychology practitioners”. Coaching is one area where individuals may choose to apply positive psychology.

Robert Biswas-Diener of Positive Acorn wrote “the” book on positive psychology coaching – it’s well worth a read for any coach who wants to know more about the field. It’s called ‘Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching’ and with Ben Dean (of MentorCoach), they wrote ‘Positive Psychology Coaching’ (Amazon links here and here respectively)

How does a PP coach differ from a life or business coach that applies the principles of PP?

Now we’re really splitting hairs! I suppose you could say that the “principles” of positive psychology are not quite the same as the “research” of positive psychology. If we go back to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, you’ll see this definition of positive psychology:

“Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”

In order to be a PP coach then, you would also have to believe “that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play”.

However it is my experience that most, if not all, coaches who are properly trained in the field hold these beliefs. Before I knew about PP, I was taught as a coach to believe that people are “creative, resourceful and whole”. (Co-Active Coaching Amazon, Laura Whitworth). I would say that these principles are consistent with PP principles.

Perhaps the one thing that is different, as I alluded to above, is that the PP coach also believes in staying close to the science and adjusting his or her approach (etc) accordingly. Coaches that are getting their PP from mass media books only are not getting the full richness and subtleties that are inherent in positive psychology research.

Is an online course enough to become a PP practitioner, or does one need background in psychology in the form of a Bachelor, Master or Ph.D.?

This is definitely an “it depends”. There are great online courses out there, such as MentorCoach, Positive Acorn, CaPP Institute, CiPP, Zone Positive, WholeBeing Institute, Caroline Miller and others which I’m not remembering right now. These are courses designed and delivered by people with deep expertise in positive psychology – founders of the field, researchers, people with advanced degrees.

However, there are also fakers out there (I won’t provide links but check out some potential criteria here) who basically say “read these books and write a report and now you’re certified”.

Consumers, as always, must do their due diligence. I get a lot of requests from people asking me if I’ve heard of such-and-such a practitioner or program. I’m very happy to help people do their due diligence by providing my own perspective. It also helps if the program (founders, designers, instructors) has an affiliation with a recognized MAPP program (such as U Penn, Claremont, UEL, Bucks, etc) and/or a positive psychology association like IPPA or the CPPA.

Overall, to be an effective PP coach or practitioner, one does not need a strong background in traditional psychology and one does not need to be a certified, qualified psychologist.

However, beware of anyone calling themselves a “positive psychologist”. You can only do this if you have psychological credentials. That term merits further investigation by a savvy consumer. We prefer to use the title “positive psychology practitioner” instead.

Beware of anyone calling themselves a “positive psychologist”…

How does PP coaching work? What does the process look like?

This will differ from coach to coach. There is no prescribed process for positive psychology coaching.

What makes you a PP coach and what qualifications should people look for in their positive psychology coach?

What makes me a PP coach is that I am a certified coach through the Adler School of Professional Coaching and I took the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.

I also took courses through MentorCoach and had professors such as Chris Peterson. I continue my education through MOOCs with amazing professors such as Barb Fredrickson and I attend conferences such as the IPPA World Congress on Positive Psychology (June 2015) and the Canadian Positive Psychology Association conference (coming up in June 2016 – ).

When clients are seeking a PP coach, they should ask questions about those three areas.

  1. What is your training and certification to be a coach?
  2. What makes you qualified to call yourself a “positive psychology” coach?
  3. How do you stay on top of the new findings in the world of positive psychology?

And, of course, clients should go through other questions to ensure a “good fit” with their coach.

Some further guidance on how to do that can be found on the ICF (International Coach Federation) site.

What is the process for seeking out and engaging a PP coach?

There are several options for you to find a PP coach.

You can use the directory at a coach training institution, such as those mentioned above.

Positive Psychology News Daily has a list as well.

Noomii, which is “the web’s largest directory” of life and business coaches, was started by U Penn MAPP Grad Kurt Shuster. You can also search there for positive psychology (and other) coaches there.

What are the potential benefits of PP coaching?

The potential benefits of PP coaching are much the same as regular coaching – personal and professional growth, moving closer to your important goals, self-awareness and so on. The ICF has a good page that outlines why people would engage with a coach.

Additionally, the benefits to working with a PP coach who is well-trained and qualified are potentially that you will be drawing on a valid body of research (as opposed to just intuition and that individual’s personal coaching experience) and that your coach will know the why and wherefore of the practices, rather than just guessing that things might work for you.

What are the potential downsides of PP coaching?

This is a fabulous question, because there are downsides to everything. One potential downside is that the research findings from PP apply to an “average” person within the tested population. You, as a very individual client, may not fit that “average” – it’s important to realize that nothing works for everyone, even if that intervention or activity is empirically-based.

For example, a very famous positive psychology intervention is the gratitude journal where you write down things that you are grateful for and why. This intervention can be changed up a number of different ways, not all of which have been thoroughly tested – for example, how many things do you write down each entry?

When do you write the journal (morning, evening)? Do you have to do it every day or more or less frequently? Do you have to hand-write it or will an app work as well? What are the components of a highly successful gratitude journal?

And even after nailing down all of those details, it turns out that a gratitude journal *still* won’t work for everyone. There are cultural differences about what gratitude means, gender differences, age differences, values differences, etc, and all of those combinations and permutations have not been thoroughly tested.

All this means that your PP coach might mention that you could benefit from doing a gratitude journal, and it might not work because you just aren’t a “gratitude journal” type of person. And that’s totally fine.

There are also issues about ensuring that the PP coach stays on top of the current research. For example, for quite some time, Barbara Fredrickson’s 3:1 positivity ratio was almost PP doctrine. Then along comes Brown and Sokol who say, wait a minute – the mathematical modelling doesn’t hold and there is no tipping point!

However, there are still many interventions, books, blogs, etc that make use of the 3:1 tipping point model, even though it’s been mathematically debunked and the psychological research is still ongoing. This might be one of those things that doesn’t go away, like neuroscience myths that our right brain and left brain have domain-specific independent functions and roles, or we only use 10% of our brains. Those are both myths, by the way – just to be clear about that. With the 3:1 ratio, it’s still under investigation.

Another downside to PP coaching is the belief that positive psychology is about happiness. Let me say quite clearly that it’s not. But many believe that it is. If you’re about happiness, get a coach who is clearly about happiness. It’s a life goal and some people have it and if it’s yours, then get someone who will help you with it. (But be aware that, according to recent research, the pursuit of happiness can make you unhappy (here and here) and placing too much value on happiness can make you unhappy too…)

There is nothing in positive psychology that has ever said to ignore the downs of life or to turn a blind eye to its vicissitudes. A savvy PP client knows this and so does the well-trained PP coach. It’s not all about only ever experiencing positive emotions. That can be problematic too.

I’m a big fan of PP coaching – I have a clear bias on this because I do coaching and I do use PP findings to inform my coaching and help my clients move towards their goals. However, both coach and client need to be very aware of what PP is and isn’t, just like they need to be aware of what coaching is and isn’t, so that they don’t fall into these traps and downsides.

“Both coach and client need to be very aware of what positive psychology is and isn’t…”

What are the limitations are of PP coaching and coaching in general (as opposed to when a situation may call for counselling, therapy, medical interventions, etc)?

The International Coach Federation has a great list of FAQs on what coaching is and isn’t, and when other modalities (like counselling, therapy, etc) may be called for.

To quote from their FAQ:
Professional coaching: focuses on setting goals, creating outcomes and managing personal change. Sometimes it’s helpful to understand coaching by distinguishing it from other personal or organizational support professions. Therapy: Therapy deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or in relationships... Consulting: Individuals or organizations retain consultants for their expertise. While consulting approaches vary widely, the assumption is the consultant will diagnose problems and prescribe and, sometimes, implement solutions... Mentoring: A mentor is an expert who provides wisdom and guidance based on his or her own experience... Training: Training programs are based on objectives set out by the trainer or instructor...

You asked about medical interventions. Coaches do not prescribe medication. They may, however, ask about lifestyle elements such as sleep, eating habits, exercise and so on. There are specific lifestyle coaches who can help clients make positive progress in these areas, and some of those lifestyle coaches are trained in positive psychology as well.

I have had clients who were working with a therapist AND myself as a coach. It works well. For example, I had a client who was on anti-depressants and working with a psychotherapist about her past. This client wanted to work with me to be able to craft the life and balance she wanted for when she was done with the anti-depressants and therapy. It’s sort of like planning for your retirement while you are still working. As long as the coach is clear about the boundaries and the client is clear about the issues and boundaries, then it works.

What areas of life and business can it apply it to?

All of them. Just ask.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I would highly recommend that you reach out to Ebbe Lavendt about this too – it’s the focus of his research and he’d have some great answers.

  • Ebbe Lavendt’s Youtube channel
  • Paper on positive psychology coaching
  • Ebbe Lavendt’s talk at the World Conference on Positive Psychology:

Lisa is one of the most knowledgeable and helpful persons that I’ve ever met and without her, Positive Psychology Program wouldn’t have been half as valuable. Lisa, thank you, thank you, thank you for being so generous with your time and expertise.

Anything to add? Questions?

Please leave a comment below. We love hearing from you 🙂

About the Author
Seph Fontane Pennock is always attempting the absurd through his writings, thoughts and impulsive acts that appear to lack any kind of motive. He comes armed to the teeth with an optimistic and pragmatic attitude. Get to know our whole team!
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