Recently, a friend of mine shared that she was working with a life coach. She was having a hard time adjusting to some major life changes and wanted to take positive action. I was thrilled to hear this. As a certified health and life coach and faculty for Wholebeing Institute’s Positive Psychology Coaching Certification, I know how empowering and life-changing working with a skilled coach can be. I’ve experienced that personally, in peer coaching during training, and throughout my career as a coach. It’s so inspiring to witness clients finally reach goals they’d dreamed of for years.
My friend told me she loved her sessions, and from what I was hearing, her coach clearly had an awareness of positive psychology. Over time, though, I began to notice that the recurring theme was how wonderful and wise the coach was. Meanwhile, nothing seemed to be changing in my friend’s life.
When I asked her more about her experience, she shared that she was coming away each week with a list of action steps, many of which made sense on the surface. Get out more. Develop and use mindfulness practices. Exercise. She even had instructions on when and how to do them. They were all things she understood and believed in, but she wasn’t actually accomplishing them. I watched week after week as the initial excitement she experienced after each session faded into a sense of failure, and then a new call, after which she would be temporarily hopeful, and then the cycle would repeat. Throughout all of this, her admiration for her coach never faded, though it was now accompanied by a new self-doubt and even a veil of shame.
It seemed like two core principles of coaching were missing from her sessions: client agency and small steps. The former holds fast to an approach that assumes that the client can—indeed, must—be the engine of their own progress. The latter is about how people tend to accomplish change.
Everything we do as Positive Psychology Coaches seeks to keep agency, or ownership of the change, in the client’s court. We do this by asking open-ended, curious questions that allow ideas to emerge authentically from our clients. We do not know best what our client needs. Rather, we are experts in applying positive psychology to facilitate change. This can be hard for new coaches, who come with an abundance of life experience and wisdom, and yet, this is the transformative piece for our clients. They reflect and come to their own conclusions about what’s best in the context of their lives, and surface their own ideas and solutions for how to achieve what they want.
That doesn’t mean Positive Psychology Coaches are passive. We listen deeply, we identify and focus on our clients’ strengths, and we elicit and play back to them explicit examples of their values, strengths, and successes. We embed approaches that support our clients to develop self-compassion and growth mindset along the way. When we skillfully create an environment where the client creates and witnesses their strengths and progress, and is able to see setbacks as part of the process, we facilitate real change that will endure long after our relationship ends.
The second observation I had about my friend’s process had to do with the long, ambitious lists that were weighing her down in between sessions. As coaches, we meet with eager clients longing for—sometimes desperate for—change. We want our clients to succeed. Indeed, our success as coaches can feel like it depends on it. Yet to be successful, we have to resist the urge to produce instant results. Often, coaches actually support their clients’ success by finding ways to help them slow things down. Ironic, right?
If a client comes in ready to get unstuck and eager and hit the ground running, we need to balance our support for that bravery with what we know about change. At WBI, we are explicit about the value of taking very small steps, and we have strategies and questions that help our clients break down ambitious goals into manageable pieces. Sometimes steps towards a desired outcome seem tiny, and are more reflective and observational rather than action focused. In session, we amplify those small steps and give them the credit they deserve, and our clients see themselves in a new light, becoming the thing they are aiming for. This fuels further success. And, yes, if a client chooses to go big from the get-go, it’s their choice. We go there with them. There is no “I told you so” in coaching. If things don’t work out as planned, we celebrate effort and activate a growth mindset, asking specific learning-oriented questions to help them glean value from what happened.
Back to my friend. She eventually stopped seeing her coach. I suspect the work did yield some benefits. Simply committing to the process and showing up to those calls started the change process. Witnessing my friend’s experience was a reminder that a coach’s job is not to give our clients assignments; it’s to listen to their needs and help them put together a plan that reflects their values, their life, and their timetable. Ultimately, our aim as coaches is to eventually become obsolete.
Jennifer is a core faculty member of WBI’s Positive Psychology Coaching Certification program. She is a health coach who helps her clients to live their healthiest and best lives. She holds National Board certification as a Health and Wellness Coach, Duke University certification as an Integrative Health Coach, and a Certificate in Positive Psychology from WBI.