Common Mistakes Life Coaches Make When Applying Positive Psychology, And How To Get It Right

Use the Broaden-and-Build theory in a real session in order to enhance cognitive activities and decision-making through acknowledging positive emotions.

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Using positive psychology and the Broaden-and-Build Theory in your coaching practice

What exactly is positive psychology?

The term "positive psychology" might conjure up visions of relentless positivity and the pursuit of happiness at all costs. But that’s not what positive psychology actually is all about.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes individuals and communities thrive, and it really crystallized as a legitimate field of study in the 1990s with the work of Dr. Martin Seligman.

The end goal of positive psychology isn't just the individual happiness of one person, but understanding how both individuals and larger groups can flourish, especially in today’s uncertain landscape. 

This field of research, as you can imagine, has enormous overlap with the work of coaching. In fact, nearly all of the curriculum in the Lumia program is built on the foundational work done in positive psychology. 

Common misconceptions about positive psychology

It's All About Being Happy: Many believe positive psychology is about promoting happiness and avoiding negative emotions. But it actually acknowledges all emotions, recognizing that negative ones are natural and can be essential for growth.

It’s the Same as Positive Thinking: Nope! Positive psychology is a scientific field that studies strengths, virtues, and factors that contribute to a fulfilling life. Positive thinking is more about a general attitude or belief system.

It Ignores Real-Life Challenges: Positive psychology delves into understanding resilience, coping, and how to thrive even in difficult circumstances.

It’s a Quick Fix: Mental and emotional well-being isn't achieved overnight. Positive psychology offers tools and interventions, but it doesn't promise instant solutions.

Only Happy People Benefit: It’s definitely not only for those who are already happy. Many interventions in this field aim to help individuals navigate challenges, improve well-being, and build resilience.

What is the Broaden-and-Build theory?

The Broaden-And-Build theory was proposed by Barbara Fredrickson in 2004. It emphasizes the power of positive emotions like joy, love, and gratitude -- and that they can be used to lead to better decision-making and creative problem-solving. 

The theory underlines the role of emotions in broadening our perspective from a narrow view of things to a zoomed-out, growth-centric, birds-eye view. By consciously generating such positive emotions, individuals can access higher plane thinking, allowing them to think outside the box and make more informed choices.

Ready to go deeper on Broaden-And-Build? Learn more about it here.

Using Broaden-And-Build in coaching – a case study

So, how do we actually use a theory like this in a coaching session? Let’s take a closer look at a possible way to use this in session:

Background: Maria, a 35-year-old manager, sought coaching after she felt overwhelmed with her new role. She had recently been promoted and, while she was excited at first, she soon started doubting herself due to a project that went off the rails. Maria found herself dwelling on the project's failure and second guessing her capabilities constantly, to the point where she considered leaving the company.

Session: The coach begins the session by acknowledging her feelings. Maria was visibly stressed out, and she couldn’t think about anything except the project’s failure. She kept saying she was "not cut out" to be a manager.

The coach introduced the Broaden-And-Build theory to Maria, explaining that while her feelings of doubt and failure were valid, they were not the only emotions at her disposal. The coach asked the question: "What else is present, Maria? Apart from this project's setback, what other emotions have you felt in this role?"

Maria shared that she had felt proud when her team completed their tasks on time and joy when they celebrated small victories.

Building on these emotions, the coach works to "broaden" her perspective. The coach asked her to share more about her strengths. Maria began to recall other successes in her career, moments when she had shown leadership and creativity.

As the session continued, the balance began to shift. Maria started recognizing other emotions: pride, joy, satisfaction. She began to see that her emotional state was more complex than just the feeling of failure in that exact moment

Outcome: By the end of the session, Maria had a more balanced view of the situation and of herself. She decided to take the failed project as a learning opportunity and identified steps to make positive changes. She decided to celebrate her team's successes more often and to seek feedback regularly to prevent herself from spiraling.

Using the Broaden-And-Build approach had allowed Maria to shift her focus, allowing her to open up to a range of emotions and subsequently creating an action plan that would help her achieve her goals.

How to incorporate a new theory into your coaching session

When you’re thinking of bringing in a new theory into your work with coaching clients, there’s a number of steps that might make it more likely to run smoothly.

  • Wait for the right moment: Don’t force the theory or framework on the client. Wait for a natural break in the conversation or an appropriate segue to introduce it.
  • Ask permission: Always ask if they are open to learning a new technique or hearing new information – consent is essential in coaching!
  • Explain the theory: If they agree, briefly explain the concept of Broaden-And-Build, focusing on how it could be beneficial for them.
  • Assess their reaction: After sharing, ask your client for their thoughts and whether they feel this could be a useful tool for them.
  • Co-create a plan: If your client is interested in exploring it, you can then proceed to make a plan for evoking positive emotions that will help in their decision-making and overall life satisfaction.

Results of applying positive psychology in coaching

Our goal when using positive psychology in coaching is to positively impact the client's life based on their unique, self-decided goals. 

Using positive psychology theories and frameworks with a client can:

  • Increase the experience of positive emotions
  • Help identify and develop individual strengths
  • Enhance goal-setting abilities
  • Instill a sense of hope and self-belief
  • Foster happiness and well-being
  • Cultivate the power of gratitude
  • Encourage the maintenance of positive relationships
  • Promote an optimistic outlook and resilience
  • Build a relationship with contentment

By skillfully leveraging the science of positive psychology, life coaches can offer more than just motivation; they can provide empirically-backed strategies that genuinely assist clients in navigating the complexities of life.

Remember, coaching is not a one-size-fits-all model. Just as every client is unique, so too are the techniques and theories you can apply. The key is to be adaptable and attuned to your client's needs. When you can be flexible and tuned in, it’ll be easier to help your clients take advantage of all that positive psychology offers.

This podcast relied on the following citations and resources:

Mentor Coach LLC. (n.d.). What IS positive psychology?

Peppercorn, S. (2014). The benefits of positive psychology coaching. (Link no longer active)

Barbara Frederickson (2004) The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.

Excited to use positive psychology within your coaching practice?

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