We don’t come ready-made, with all the skills we need.
Once we recognize the gaps or identify a goal we wish to direct our energies toward, it may be worth seeking professional support.
Coaching is well established in many areas of life as a powerful vehicle for “increasing performance, achieving results, and optimizing personal effectiveness” (Cox et al., 2018, p. xxix).
As the field of coaching psychology has developed, with increasingly broader contexts and diverse client groups, many coaching styles and approaches have evolved.
This article will help the reader better understand several approaches and the exciting opportunities for meaningful interaction between coaches and clients.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
A clear and widely accepted definition of coaching has proven challenging. However, as a field, it continues to grow and develop with an increasing number of coaching styles available to the practitioner and the client (Passmore & Tee, 2021).
Unlike mentoring, where the mentor shares their wisdom, experience, and advice, effective coaches serve as guides rather than advisors (Passmore & Tee, 2021).
And unlike counseling, “coaching psychology is for enhancing performance in work and personal life domains with normal, non-clinical populations” (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p. 239).
While the term “normal” may be questioned, the implication is that those seeking help from a counselor typically seek support for “developmental and mental health issues and challenges faced by individuals across their lifespan” (American Psychological Association, 2022, para. 3).
Coaching psychology draws knowledge and theory from a broad range of disciplines, including sports, counseling, occupational, social, learning theory, and other domains within psychology. As a result, there are many varied coaching styles to choose from (Passmore & Tee, 2021).
So, what do we mean when we talk about coaching?
Different types of life coaching styles can be a valuable element of an individual’s development. They typically involve “structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools, and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the client and potentially for other stakeholders,” (Cox et al., 2018, p. xxix).
And while a great deal of coaching takes place in the workplace, providing an essential impetus for its development, coaching is now used in various contexts, including health and wellness, education, sports, financial, and personal development (Cox et al., 2018).
The list Elaine Cox et al. (2018, p. xxxvii) provided in their book The Complete Handbook of Coaching gives an idea of the range of the different types of coaching approaches available.
Psychodynamic approach to coaching
Solution-focused approach to coaching
Person-centered approach to coaching
Gestalt approach to coaching
Transpersonal approach to coaching
Positive psychology approach to coaching
Transactional analysis and coaching
In the following sections, we will highlight and introduce some of the most popular types of coaching styles and our personal favorites, along with how they can be applied.
Positive Psychology Coaching
Positive psychology coaching, like positive psychology itself, is based on science, theory, and research. Its aim is to help individuals (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019):
Increase their wellbeing
Identify and develop their strengths and competencies
Improve their performances
Live more fulfilling lives
Set value-driven goals
Positive psychology transforms people’s lives by enhancing optimal functioning rather than focusing on “fixing” the client and attending only to what is broken. Instead, coaches use the power of science to uncover and adopt the best approaches to transform clients’ lives and encourage “flourishing” rather than simply “survival” (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019).
As a result, positive psychology coaching centers around the following (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019):
Positive psychology assessment
Strengths awareness and deployment
Increasing positive emotions and wellbeing through applying validated positive psychology interventions.
Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are vital to this coaching style and integral to enhancing each aspect of human wellbeing, as captured in Martin Seligman’s (2011) PERMA model:
Meaning and fulfillment
Achievement and accomplishment
Interventions based around directly increasing individual elements of wellbeing (for example, gratitude, setting and working toward meaningful goals, visualizing my best possible self, etc.) have proved incredibly effective. Developing the Values in Action (VIA) inventory of strengths may have been the most ambitious and far-reaching project of all (Boniwell & Kauffman, 2018).
The VIA 240-item self-report questionnaire is free to take and helps individuals identify their top 24 strengths, categorized under six virtues. Assisting clients to become aware of their top five strengths and how and when to apply them can be integrated into coaching models with significant effect (Boniwell & Kauffman, 2018).
Research into PPIs has confirmed their effectiveness in increasing wellbeing and transforming lives. Bolier et al.’s (2013, p. 1) meta-analysis found “that positive psychology interventions can be effective in the enhancement of subjective wellbeing and psychological wellbeing, as well as in helping to reduce depressive symptoms.”
“Narrative coaching helps people shift their stories in order to generate new options and new results” (Drake, 2018, p. 109).
This “third-generation” psychological-driven practice focuses on collaboration and co-creative dialogues between the client and coach, supporting the former as “narrators.”
Rather than imposing a fixed coaching structure, it builds on the change process already underway (Drake, 2018).
The narrative coaching approach recognizes that the stories we tell ourselves are vital to how we live our lives. The coach partners with their client to help them understand how they construct and examine the world, often taking a nonlinear route to circle deeper while asking the following questions (Drake, 2018, p. 111):
“What does this person need most from me right now? “What does this story need most from us right now?”
Through coaching, the client can change how they see things, releasing old stories that are no longer helpful — for example, switching from a “glass half empty” to a “glass half full” outlook. Clients are encouraged to notice how they currently position themselves and others within their story to increase their positional repertoire and broaden their narrative agility and range of responses (Drake, 2018).
The four phases of the narrative coaching process can be captured as follows (Drake, 2018):
The client explains what they think is going on in their lives, why they believe this is the case, and what they would like to change. Their explanations are vital to the process, offering more profound insights into why they may limit themselves.
Next, the client searches for what a fulfilling life might look like while getting a sense of what they need to resolve issues and obstacles that stand in their way.
Transformation involves a change in focus from the past to the future. The move from insight to action is a significant step in the coaching journey.
Lastly, narrative coaches support the clients on their — sometimes bumpy — transition and help them express themselves in new ways. Part of the process involves integrating what they have uncovered and learned into their new lives.
Ultimately, “narrative coaches help people to examine their assumptions about reality as reflected in their stories” (Drake, 2018, p. 113). As a result, it is particularly valuable in addressing developmental issues at personal, social, somatic, and cognitive levels, enabling people to reconfigure their working models of how they see their environment and their lives.
While valuable in life coaching, research suggests that such an approach can also be influential within organizational settings in coaching management and coaching leadership styles. Close (2013) found that it can help leaders explore their use of power and become more politically astute.
And when combined with additional techniques, narrative coaching can transform the learning process and the ability to overcome problems in the workplace (Close, 2013).
At one or more points in our lives, all of us will probably have difficulty making sense of our existence.
It seems to be an expected, perhaps necessary, part of the human condition (Deurzen, 2002).
“Existential theory in general concerns itself with the clarification of what it is to be a human being and how human beings experience their particular way of being” (Spinelli, 2018, p. 81).
As a result, existential coaching helps people explore, understand, and move forward from the dilemmas they experience in their personal, professional, and interpersonal lives that challenge their way of being. According to Spinelli (2018), a leading theorist and trainer in existential coaching, it proceeds by emphasizing three key foundational existential principles:
We, as humans, are beings in relation to everything in our world. And relatedness proposes that we are in a process-like flow, engaging with and interpreting separate and distinct structures, including “the self.”
As a result, we cannot see our problems and concerns as solely our own, socially isolated or private, but rather in a world of “co-constitution” or relatedness.
“We experience our existence through our bodies and within conditions of time and space” (Spinelli, 2018, p. 82). We have hopes and fears and maintain dreams and expectations along our inevitable journey toward death.
Directly as a result of our relatedness, any “givens” are relation to our world and our life and are therefore uncertain. “Existential uncertainty” refers to that lack of predictability and the recognition that each moment of existence is a one-off event open to many possibilities, good and bad.
Such relational anxiety, almost inevitably, leads to unease and insecurity. We often respond by capturing and placing “self” and everything else into fixed categories.
While existential anxiety can be debilitating, it can also invigorate, putting ourselves in touch with the realization that we are indeed here, now, and alive.
The client is, therefore, in a relationally open-ended trajectory, full of uncertainty — and potential anxiety. The coach attempts to “be with and be for” the client while respecting and accepting their worldview. They provide an opportunity for the client to voice and work through worldview insecurities and recognize that conflict — experiences of unease and tension — is neither good nor bad.
Therefore, existential counseling is not necessarily targeting behavioral or performance shifts; instead, it supports clients as they recognize their stance on life and how it affects how they think, feel, and behave (Spinelli, 2018).
Existential coaching has proven particularly helpful with leaders, allowing them to authentically consider “What am I bringing to this role?” and “What kind of leader do I want to be?” (Fusco et al., 2015).
Solution-focused coaching is highly future focused, recognizing a desired future state and constructing a pathway to get there. To a greater or lesser degree, such an approach is found in all forms of coaching. The coach and client work together to develop solutions to issues and problems (Grant & Cavanagh, 2018).
Solution-focused coaching makes two key philosophical assumptions:
It is how the client thinks and talks “about events that constructs those events as problematic” (Grant & Cavanagh, 2018, p. 37).
The coach sees the client as “fundamentally capable of solving their problem” (Grant & Cavanagh, 2018, p. 37). In turn, they have all they need; they are “resource-full.”
As a result, the solution-focused approach is relatively straightforward (Grant & Cavanagh, 2018):
Focus on solutions
Rather than focus on its cause, the coach works with the client to solve the problem(s).
Assume positive behavior will occur
Positive change is believed inevitable, a reliable product of change-related activity beyond the coaching session.
Change the view to change the doing
Looking at a situation differently, while still fitting the facts, creates an alternate understanding and can open up new ways of thinking.
Be pragmatic and flexible
Problem-solving and “solution construction” requires practical and flexible approaches and solutions. The coaching process is not limited by bias but focuses on what works.
The goals of solution-focused coaching are often narrower and more directed than other approaches because the intention is only to do what is necessary to move the client forward. As such, it can be beneficial in coaching management styles.
The coach’s role is to facilitate the journey through the following cycle (Grant & Cavanagh, 2018, p. 39):
Develop action plans.
Cycle through steps three and four until each goal is successfully reached:
Act, monitor, and evaluate progress.
Either continue with what is working or change what is not working.
If reached, celebrate the success; otherwise, revisit the goal or actions (or both) if the client’s situation or needs have changed.
The miracle question (for example, “Assume your problem is gone. What is different?”) is one of the hallmarks of the solution-focused approach. It is introduced at the first session or when the client is ready to shift to an implementation mindset (Strong & Pyle, 2009, p. 334).
King et al. (2017) investigated the impact of solution-focused coaching in pediatric rehabilitation and found supporting evidence for increased skill development in children and youths, enhanced parenting skills, heightened community participation, and more family engagement.
This exercise encourages clients to connect with their strengths to cope with a problem they are facing.
Identify a recurring problem that you would like to overcome.
Describe the problem.
What would it feel like if a miracle happened, and it was gone by tomorrow?
What would you and others notice about how you think, feel, and behave?
Reflect on what you discovered or rediscovered about yourself.
The Resilience Plan (The Four S’s)
Without resilience, we may fail to reach our goals or live according to our meaningful values.
This tool helps clients unpack their resilience resources by giving them a framework (the four S’s) to determine what works for them.
Step one – Recall a recent example of resilience.
Step two – Identify supportive people who helped you get through it.
Step three – Identify strategies that helped you cope.
Step four – Identify sagacity. What wisdom and insight helped you bounce back?
Step five – Identify solution-seeking behavior that helped you actively deal with the problem.
Use the results from each step to define, apply, and evaluate your resilience plan.
A Take-Home Message
In today’s fast-paced world, developing the skills necessary to achieve our goals and optimize personal effectiveness is essential.
Coaching is a well-established process proven to help individuals enhance their performance and achieve results. The skilled and experienced coach is a guide, offering opportunities to strengthen performances across multiple life domains with nonclinical populations rather than providing advice.
Coaching psychology embraces many psychological disciplines, including occupational psychology, sports, counseling, cognitive science, and social psychology. Its diversity and multidisciplinary theories and approaches have led to the development of many varied coaching styles.
While we discussed several coaching styles, each one involves structured, focused interaction and appropriate strategies, tools, and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change in the client.
Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the available coaching styles and choose the one that best suits your client’s needs. This article highlights some of the most popular and how and when they can be applied, helping you decide which coaching style is right for your client.
American Psychological Association. (2022). Counseling psychology. Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/counseling.
Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G. J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13(1).
Boniwell, I., & Kauffman, C. (2018). The positive psychology approach to coaching. In E. Cox, D. A. Clutterbuck, & T. Bachkirova (Eds.), The complete handbook of coaching (3rd ed., pp. 153–166). Sage.
Boniwell, I., & Tunariu, A. D. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. Open University Press.
Close, P. (2013). Developing political astuteness: A leadership coaching journey. School Leadership & Management, 33(2), 178–196.
Cox, E., Clutterbuck, D. A., & Bachkirova, T. (2018). The complete handbook of coaching. Sage.
Deurzen, V. E. (2002). Existential counselling & psychotherapy in practice. Sage.
Drake, D. (2018). Narrative coaching. In E. Cox, D. A. Clutterbuck, & T. Bachkirova (Eds.), The complete handbook of coaching (3rd ed., pp. 109–123). Sage.
Fusco, T., O’Riordan, S., & Palmer, S. (2015). An existential approach to authentic leadership development: A review of the existential coaching literature and its relationship to authentic leadership. The Coaching Psychologist, 11(2), 61–71.
Grant, A. M., & Cavanagh, M. J. (2018). The solution-focused approach to coaching. In E. Cox, D. A. Clutterbuck, & T. Bachkirova (Eds.), The complete handbook of coaching (3rd ed., pp. 35–51). Sage.
King, G., Schwellnus, H., Servais, M., & Baldwin, P. (2017). Solution-focused coaching in pediatric rehabilitation: Investigating transformative experiences and outcomes for families. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 39(1), 16–32.
Passmore, J., & Tee, D. (2021). Coaching researched: A coaching psychology reader. John Wiley & Sons.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and wellbeing and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey.
Spinelli, E. (2018). Existential coaching. In E. Cox, D. A. Clutterbuck, & T. Bachkirova (Eds.), The complete handbook of coaching (3rd ed., pp. 81–94). Sage.
Strong, T., & Pyle, N. R. (2009). Constructing a conversational “miracle”: Examining the “miracle question” as it is used in therapeutic dialogue. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 22(4), 328–353.
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.
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