Positive Psychology: How to Use It in Health Coaching

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by Will Welch, A-CFHC, NBC-HWC

What topics come to mind when you think of the field of psychology? When I started college at UCLA, I thought that psychology was only about psychopaths, psychotherapy, Freud, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—a field focused on mental illness and fixing what’s broken. It turns out that there’s more to psychology than that, including a subfield called positive psychology that plays an important role in health coaching.

I first encountered positive psychology as an undergraduate, and it was eye-opening. I learned that in addition to psychopaths, psychotherapy, Freud, and OCD, psychologists also study the positive areas of our lives. Positive psychologists want to know what makes us happy, motivated, and resilient. In other words, they explore what’s going well and how people can create a good life.

After college, positive psychology became an important part of my career. I researched stress management and ways to boost people’s motivation, and I helped companies unlock engagement and motivation for their employees. Now, as an ADAPT-Certified Functional Health Coach, I use positive psychology every day in the work that I do with my clients.

Positive psychology and health coaching go hand in hand. Check out this article from health coach Will Welch to find out why. #changeagent #kresserinstitute

What Is Positive Psychology and Why Is It Important?

We offer great discussions of positive psychology here and here, so I’ll provide just a quick recap.

Positive psychology has emerged as a field focused on what’s working about the human mind and behavior rather than what’s broken. Positive psychologists explore personal traits and experiences such as happiness, purpose, character strengths, and resilience. But they don’t just study individuals.

They also study our relationships and how our communities can thrive. This includes topics like “responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethic.” (1)

As you may be able to tell from some of the topics listed above (e.g., resilience, moderation, and responsibility), positive psychology is not just about being positive all the time. It also focuses on how we respond to difficult circumstances.

When I step back and look at the broad scope of positive psychology, it’s clear that the field has a lot of important things to say about what contributes not just to our happiness, but also to our well-being and health.

So, how do I use positive psychology as a health coach, and why is it so valuable?

How Positive Psychology Can Help Coaches Prepare for Coaching

A large part of my coaching happens outside of client sessions. How I prepare for a session sets the foundation for successful coaching during the session. Preparation helps me occupy the role of supporter and facilitator, and it gives my clients room to explore and develop their own solutions to their health concerns. Positive psychology concepts have a big influence on how I prepare.

Positive Psychology Focuses on People as Whole, Not Broken

One question that I think about before each session is, “What’s remarkable about this client?” This helps me see what’s working for them and where they’ve made progress. If I start the session seeing the client as a whole person with an abundance of resources, then I lay the foundation for a session where they can generate powerful solutions for themselves.

Positive Psychology Focuses on Growth

I also approach my clients with a growth mindset. Based on the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset in coaching views any client setbacks and struggles as stepping stones for future growth rather than as a reflection of their abilities or character. (2) Failure is information and useful material for discussing lessons learned and next steps. A growth mindset also creates a culture of experimentation in the coach-client partnership. Clients who feel free to experiment can test out a variety of solutions and find the ones that work best for them.

Positive Psychology Focuses on Motivation

One of my challenges as a coach is how to help clients find a vision, a purpose, and weekly actions they can master to achieve their goals. Purpose and mastery are key components of motivation and they have a strong relationship with vision and behavior change. (3) As I prepare for sessions, I try to focus on how I can help clients explore their purpose and build mastery over the skills that they want to develop to achieve their goals.

How Positive Psychology Can Help Coaches Ask the Right Questions

Asking the right questions at the right time is part of the “art” of health coaching. What can positive psychology teach us about the right questions, ones that lead clients toward behavior change and help them reach their goals?

Robert Biswas-Diener, one of the instructors in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program and a leader in the field of positive psychology coaching, describes how positive psychology plays an important role in the questions that coaches ask. Approaching clients from a positive psychology mindset, one of abundance and success, “can lead you to ask a different type of question than the client would ask himself or herself. This, fundamentally, is what coaches offer to clients, that outsider perspective.”

Positive Psychology Focuses on the Future

Another perspective on the questions that coaches ask comes from the difference between coaching and therapy. In coaching, we have a constructive view of the past. Reflecting on the past is about what clients can discover to help them move forward rather than the reasons that clients are facing their current health challenges. As a coach, I want to explore how my clients can build on their past experiences instead of focusing on those past experiences themselves.

Positive Psychology Focuses on Resources

Because positive psychology focuses on people and their environment, it’s natural for coaches to ask clients questions about how the clients’ environment can support them. One of my favorite questions for clients is, “Who or what resources can support you as you work on this goal?”

For years, researchers have shown that social support is an important factor in health and successful behavior change. (4, 5) With some of my clients, the key to success has been finding other people to work out with or try a new way of eating with. They share what’s working for them, empathize with one another, and help motivate each other when change gets difficult.

How Positive Psychology Can Help Coaches Listen

Coaches spend a lot of time listening. As a coach, I’m there to guide my clients and help them explore goals and develop solutions. It’s not just important for me to listen to what they’re saying; I also need to listen to how they are saying it and what they’re not saying. What are some of the things that I listen for and where does positive psychology provide guidance on listening?

Positive Psychology Focuses on Strengths

The focus on clients as whole, capable people naturally lends itself to looking for their strengths. We call this “strength spotting,” and it can be a powerful tool for helping clients take steps toward their goals. As I explore coaching topics with my clients, I ask them about times where they’ve succeeded with recent goals or in important areas of their lives.

Part of what I’m listening for here is what character strengths they lean on to succeed. Are they tapping into curiosity, bravery, adaptability, etc.? Once I’ve picked up on a strength, I reflect it back to them to get their insight, and then I ask them how they might be able to use this strength in the current situation.

A great free strengths assessment is the VIA Character Strengths Survey. Try it and see what your signature strengths are.

Positive Psychology Focuses on Solutions Rather Than Problems

Another distinction that I listen for in coaching sessions is how much solution-focused talk versus problem-focused talk my clients use. Solution-focused talk is about what they want rather than what they don’t want (i.e., problem-focused talk), and it often generates clients’ goals, plans, and action steps.

One example of solution-focused talk that I find interesting is with clients who want to lose weight. The conversation often starts with how to drop the number on the scale and by how much. The number on the scale is the problem, and it’s a source of frustration for them. When the coaching conversation shifts to what they will gain from the weight loss process and how they want their life to be once they’ve lost weight, clients often then generate insights and ideas about their bodies, their lives, and how they want to feel that they’d never considered before.

Positive Psychology Focuses on Positive Affect

Positive affect is the outward expression of positive emotional states. It can show up in tone, body posture, and facial expressions. Listening for and reflecting back changes in tone, for example, that indicate optimism, hope, or enthusiasm can bring clients’ awareness to these qualities.

I’ve often found that when clients are talking about challenging health topics and taking the next step toward a daunting goal, they may not pick up on their own enthusiasm or optimism for an option that works well for them. As a coach, part of my role is to listen to their tone and watch their facial expressions for this positive affect. Bringing awareness to a client’s upbeat tone when they talk about going for a walk tomorrow morning, for example, can contribute to their motivation and positive feelings about change. Reflecting clients’ positive affect back to them doesn’t just help their motivation, but research has shown that qualities like optimism can act as a resource that protects our physical health. (6)

Pulling it all together, positive psychology can help health coaches in a variety of ways. It can help them prepare for coaching sessions, ask the right questions, and listen to their clients. Positive psychology provides coaches with useful tools to help their clients succeed in reaching their goals.

Want to learn more about positive psychology and the role that it plays in health coaching? The ADAPT Health Coach Training Program includes positive psychology as an important part of its curriculum.

Our expert faculty members offer evidence-based instruction on the science of positive psychology and other skills and competencies that can help inform your work as a health coach, like mindfulness, motivational interviewing, relationship skills, and much more. We also offer instruction in Functional Health topics, like the fundamentals of ancestral nutrition, the role of nutrient status and supplementation, and the power lifestyle and behavior modifications have on health, as well as course materials on business and professional development.

Our year-long, virtual course is designed to give you the in-depth knowledge and training you need while also providing you with ample opportunities to practice and hone your skills as a coach. Find out if the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program is right for you.