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What is A Positive Psychology Approach to Coaching?

By Faisal Khan
What is A Positive Psychology Approach to Coaching?

Insights from Faisal Nadir Khan

This article includes insights Faisal Khan, CEO of 1ExtraordinaryLife shared in a recent conversation with VIA Institute on Character.

Positive psychology coaching integrates the principles of positive psychology, which stands on the premise that identifying and leveraging inherent strengths is a more effective and sustainable facilitator of growth than managaing weaknesses. Positive psychology posits that flourishing is more than simply the absence of illness or deficiency. To flourish, people need to discover their individual pathway to enhancing meaning, fulfillment, resilience, and positive relationships.

While other forms of coaching may center on solving problems or mitigating deficiencies, positive psychology coaching seeks to enhance a person’s agency and overall wellbeing by developing their personal and social resources, their ability to set and achieve personally meaningful goals, and to elevate their emotional state with enhanced positive emotions such as gratitude, mindfulness, and joy.

In a recent conversation, Faisal Khan shared his view of what it means to take a positive psychology approach to coaching—both when he was new to the field and as he has matured as a practitioner.

“From a practical and purist standpoint, the training to become a coach instructs you not to give advice and instead to ask a lot of open-ended questions that facilitate conversation and awareness.

As I've matured as a coach, what I've discovered is that in a certain sense, every coach is guiding the conversation or directing it in some way. Out of a thousand possible questions that you can ask your client, you're only asking one question. David Cooperrider, the founder of Appreciative Inquiry, is famously known for coining the phrase words create worlds. The words that we use as a coach in the form of a question will then determine what unfolds next. How will this question be answered? Therefore, in many regards, the coach holds a lot of power in what questions are asked.

In asking open-ended questions, a coach is creating a generative environment. Now, most of my clients are executives and they're very busy individuals. So if I ask them questions like: What do you think about this? Or: Let's reflect on that.

These executives only reserve a half hour for this coaching session so they would say: Hey, let's speed this up a bit. So I found these two circumstances in which positive psychology plays a very prominent role in my coaching especially with busy executives.

One is where if you've tapped into the resourcefulness of your client, they're hitting a hurdle, and they need a little nudge. Then the question to ask is one that is research-based, and it has some scientific oomph behind it. This way you tap into their resourcefulness by providing scientific insight that lends credibility to the question you’re asking and drives their engagement in discovering their own resourcefulness.

An example of that would be: How can you think about the current situation differently? If you share the robust science around the importance of reframing and cognitive behavioral therapy for example, you’ll connect with them in a way that is powerful. Then they’ll treat your question seriously and discover that their own capabilities are more expansive then they realized.

The other time is when a client might ask you for some advice. And in that case, you know, as a responsible coach, you will ask for permission to share your point of view. Sometimes you’ve established that parameter early in the coaching arrangement. You will have designed the alliance, for how the coaching will to play out.

Once you’re wearing a consulting hat, you can offer some advice where you feel you carry the expertise and can disseminate that information in a responsible manner. In this case, I do feel I have certain expertise in positive psychology. So I would impart that advice and it would be similar to answering a question like: What's a good book that I can read on this specific issue? right?

In that type of situation I would say, well, it looks like curiosity is one of your strengths. Why don't you go and read what VIA Institute on Character has to say about curiosity and some of the supporting research? And then if they want some live real-time information on the topic, we could extend the coaching conversation to that domain.

So those are two examples where you're hitting a hurdle in terms of resourcefulness, and you have a certain expertise. And then secondly when your expertise is directly requested. In my view, coming from a positive psychological perspective can add a lot of value to one's coaching practice in that fashion.”