Positive Psychology Coaching and Life Coaching: What’s the Difference?

Positive Psychology Coaching and Life CoachingAs coaches, we know how transformative the experience can be for clients.

Many people who seek coaching usually have some idea of an area of life they want help with, but it’s through coaching that they begin to gain a deeper understanding of all the different areas in life and how they are all connected.

Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.

Pete Carroll

One of the main challenges for everyone involved in the coaching journey is choosing the right coaching model to follow. In most instances, multiple models and various resources are used to create a coaching experience that’s highly tailored and suited to the individual.

Positive Psychology Coaching and Life Coaching are two such models. While it’s easy to assume that the two are the same, there are some fundamental differences.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will 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.

You can download the free PDF here.

Coaching: A Definition

Before we dive into exploring these two models in more detail, it’s helpful to have a more general understanding and formalized definition of coaching.

Coaching has primarily been associated with sports, and we’re all used to hearing the term ‘Coach’ used in this industry. But coaches and coaching have a significant role to play in other areas of our communities too.

Coaching is essentially a partnership between the coach and their client, working together to help the client achieve their goals – whether in sport, business, their career, or other areas of life.

A couple of popular definitions of coaching include:

  1. ‘It is helping them learn rather than teaching them.’ (Gallwey, 1986).
  2. ‘Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their performance.’ (Whitmore, 2002).

Three things coaching is:

  1. Help and guidance for a person seeking a change in the way they wish and supporting them to go in the direction they want.
  2. Supporting a person to become who they want to be at every level.
  3. Constructively building personal awareness to empower choice and lead to positive change.

Three things coaching is not:

  1. A diagnosis or ‘labeling’ process for mental or emotional health disorders.
  2. One person (the coach) telling another person (the client) what to do, how to do it, or how they should live their life.
  3. A prescription based or ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality, not allowing room for points of difference and individual experience.

 

What is the Difference Between Coaching and Therapy?

Clients come to therapy or coaching wanting to change, and both professions assume that significant change will occur over time.

Hayden & Whitworth (1998).

When considering coaching, it is important to be aware that it is very separate from therapy and counseling.

Although there are a lot of similarities and crossovers, they are very distinct forms of support. Both have the ultimate goal to support their client to overcome barriers and move towards core goals and authentic living, but key differences include:

  • A Clinical Therapist or Counselor requires professional degrees, qualifications, and accreditations. You must also obtain registration with professional bodies and relevant professional licenses to practice. It is a more highly-skilled profession, compared with coaching (not to say that coaching isn’t equally valuable to the right individual).

  • Therapy tends to reflect on past experiences and how they influence the present. Coaching is more focused on the ‘here and now’ and supporting events and behaviors occurring in the present to generate positive change for the future (Robbins, 2019).

  • Therapy can be less outcomes-focused, with an emphasis on ‘inner’ subconscious and conscious personal development, to support the client overcome challenges and barriers in life (Stephens, 2018). Coaching tends to focus on more attainable and measurable goals within the coaching process, so clients are working towards tangible outcomes.

  • Therapy can take place over many years, for as long as the individual feels they require it or for as long as the relationship is helping them. Coaching tends to be shorter-term due to the outcomes focus of the relationship (Stephens, 2018).

Knowing these core differences is essential as it allows us to make fundamental decisions about which pathway of support is the best for us, or the clients we might work with.

Being able to provide clients with the advice that therapy, counseling, or even merely mentoring might be a more beneficial route for support is a vital part of providing quality coaching guidance.

 

7 Benefits of Coaching

Coaching allows individuals the time and commitment to tackle areas of life they feel they need help with, in structured and proactive ways (Moore, Jackson, & Tschannen-Moren, 2016). Often, we can’t do this alone, and having someone else equipped with the right tools and exercises to help us get there can lead to great results.

Coaching also offers clients the opportunity to work from a structure, or framework, which can help them stay focused, on track, and build the commitment they need to persevere towards end objectives. Having a reliable coach to help keep you on track is also highly beneficial.

Below are seven coaching benefits that have been associated with coaching:

  1. Improvement in Desired Performance and Goals
  2. Increased Openness to Personal Development
  3. Developed Ability to Identify Positive Solutions
  4. A Greater Sense of Ownership Over Self
  5. Improved Self-Awareness for Strengths and Weaknesses
  6. Improvement in a Specific Area of Life or Set of Behaviours
  7. Greater Clarity Over Desired Goals and Objectives

 

What is Positive Psychology Coaching?

positive psychology coaching exercisesPositive Psychology, as a whole, aims to remove the positive versus negative question from the picture and instead explore and identify the what, where, how, and why of positivity for individual success in order to flourish.

It doesn’t seek to remove the negative from life but instead aims to bring balance between the two concepts and help individuals understand how negativity can serve a purpose in helping us to flourish.

Positive Psychology is backed by a considerable body of professional research, meaning that a coaching model based on Positive Psychology concepts, can offer a more structured and reliable approach to supporting individuals achieve their goals.

A popular definition of Positive Psychology Coaching:

Positive Psychology Coaching (PPC) is a scientifically-rooted approach to helping clients increase well-being, enhance and apply strengths, improve performance, and achieve valued goals. At the core of PPC is a belief in the power of science to elucidate the best [methods for development].

Kauffman, Boniwell, and Silberman (2010).

Within Positive Psychology, there is a multitude of assessments, resources, tools, and feedback models that can help a coach to build a highly tailored, structured coaching journey that is ultimately backed up with measurable evidence.

As mentioned, exploring negativity is a core component of Positive Psychology. Developing an understanding of negative thoughts and behaviors versus positive thoughts and behaviors, and understanding which is needed to achieve goals and objectives is at the heart of Positive Psychology Coaching.

Positive Psychology as a model offers coaches in this field the insights and tools to help their clients identify what’s needed – more positivity or more negativity, and the ‘right’ forms of each.

Positive Psychology Coaching also assists clients to explore their values, strengths, and weaknesses, their resilience, and resourcefulness. Once more, backed with the tools and resources developed through Positive Psychology, coaching that utilizes this model can quickly and accurately help clients to achieve results.

This is simply by being able to offer more precision around specific goals and their related areas to help clients become more focused around what changes they might need to make to achieve desired objectives.

 

3 Positive Psychology Coaching Resources

Coaching resources supplement the coaching relationship and encourage conversations that help move the client to raise their awareness, reflect on their values, and work towards their goals. These resources can be used in one-to-one sessions, group workshops, or as self-led homework.

Below are three Positive Psychology Coaching tools or resources that a coach might use to help a client further explore their goals, values, strengths, and weaknesses.

 

1. The Positivity Ratio

The Positivity Ratio (Fredrickson, 2005) is a simple measurement tool aimed at measuring an individual’s positivity and negativity ratios, so they can learn what adjustments are needed to flourish. The equation looks as follows:

3P (3 * Positivity) / N (1 * Negativity) = Flourishing

What this means is, for an individual to flourish, they need to think and feel positive at least three times as much as they feel negative, regularly.

The Positivity Ratio has been researched thoroughly, and although it is not without its criticisms, it is still a great reflection tool to use with clients in Positive Psychology Coaching to encourage discussions and consider their feelings of positive versus negative.

 

2. Active Constructive Responding

We all have different ways of responding within different scenarios, especially when it comes to responding to good news from other people in our lives.

Research has shown that couples who were able to respond in a particular way to each other’s good news and offer proactive support in the face of positive things, as well as negative challenges, had stronger relationships overall (Gable, Reiss, and Downey, 2003). The researchers called this Active Constructive Responding (ACR).

ACR is a fantastic resource for Positive Psychology coaches, as it’s a way to help clients strengthen their personal relationships, and deepen their sense of positive social connections. ACR can also be used to talk about the self, so instead of dismissing good things when they happen and getting stuck focusing on the bad, utilizing ACR can create a more positive framework for individuals to think about themselves as well as others.

ACR involves engaging with the other person sharing their news to capitalize on the experience by:

  • Sharing their excitement and happiness: “I’m so glad you told me about this, I’m very excited for you.
  • Asking questions to encourage further discussion about the news: “When did this happen?” and “How did you feel when you first heard the news?
  • Reaffirming you feel positive and happy for them: “You’ve been waiting for this for a while, so I feel really happy it has happened for you.

 

3. Best Possible Future Self Exercise

The ‘Best Possible Future Self’ (Sheldon and Lyubomirsky, 2006) is a popular exercise used within Positive Psychology Coaching, and it can be especially beneficial with clients who feel a little vague about how they want to improve or change to start leading a more authentic or flourishing life.

This exercise engages clients to visualize and write about what they envision the very best version of who they are looks like. It is a writing exercise, and participants are encouraged to reflect on:

  • A version of their best possible self in a way that is very pleasing and that they are interested in meeting and being.
  • Imagining vivid details that they have succeeded in accomplishing their life goals. This needs to be realistic, positive, and attainable. What does this look like? How do they feel? Who else shares this experience with them?
  • The specific character strengths that this best future self embodies.
  • The specific character strengths required to begin moving towards becoming that best possible future self.

Building on from several research studies, this exercise has been proven to help individuals enhance their self-regulation as it creates an opportunity for them to learn and understand what drives them, their emotional reactions, and the structure of their priorities (Omodei & Wearing, 1990).

Within Positive Psychology Coaching, this exercise can be utilized throughout a coaching journey for the client to add to as they further develop clarity over their goals and what their best future self might look like.

 

What is Life Coaching?

Throughout our lives, we often turn to those closest to us to ask for their advice and guidance with any number of challenges, decisions, or questions we might have about life and how to live it. You might even go so far as to call this Life Coaching, and in a more formalized way, that’s mostly what a Life Coach does.

Life coaching aims to offer support and guidance to those who feel they are at a crossroads and in need of some extra help to move their life forward in positive and constructive ways. This could be for professional or personal reasons.

Although our friends and relatives can be excellent resources of support, sometimes they are not equipped enough to support us objectively and may lack the resources necessary to help push us in a new direction.

A Life Coach is someone who can offer proactive, professional support outside the remit of your social circle. Life Coaching as a model draws from numerous other approaches, including psychology, counseling, and sociology, as well as business leadership where appropriate.

Life Coaching seeks to help individuals break negative cycles of behavior, become more decisive, and ultimately go after the things they feel they want in life. Life Coaches can be more generalist, offering support to a range of clients with different goals, or they might be more specialized, and you will often find Life Coaches who focus primarily on one topic such as business, relationships, career progression, family connections, motivation or creativity.

 

3 Life Coaching Resources

what is coaching positive psychology coachingLife Coaching resources typically take the form of worksheets, activities, or exercises which are provided to clients to help them learn something new, raise their awareness, and take decisive action to achieve their goals.

Each resource focuses on a specific topic that can then be matched to clients’ circumstances or desired goals. Below are three commonly used resources:

 

1. Personal Discovery Questions

A compelling resource for any coaching relationship, discovery questions are a great tool in Life Coaching, especially when first getting to know and understand a client, and encouraging them to reflect on their self-awareness.

Personal Discovery Questions are in-depth and open-ended questions that help clients to explore specific topics – both personal and professional – in order to develop self-learning and maximize information gathering for the coach to help them make further decisions about the coaching/client relationship.

Some examples of Personal Discovery Questions include:

  • What are my most important values?
  • How am I living or not living those values?
  • What are my most important needs?
  • How are my current circumstances meeting or not meeting those needs?
  • How do I feel about my life’s purpose?
  • What am I doing that makes me feel I am meeting my purpose?
  • What current behaviors, thoughts, or activities prevent me from my life’s purpose?
  • What three words do I feel describe me best?
  • How do I feel about the pace of my life?
  • What things do I feel I should have achieved by now?

 

2. Gratitude Journaling

Journaling is another excellent resource within Life Coaching. It encourages clients to reflect regularly, and it can create new conversational points in one-to-one or group sessions.

Journaling works best when clients are given a focus for the journal, rather than writing free-form about just anything. Creating a focus can help clients feel more productive and understand what the journal is aiming to achieve. One key area of focus many Life Coaches use journaling for is Gratitude Journaling.

A simple writing exercise can be to ask clients to spend 10-20 minutes at the end of each day, reflecting on three things they feel grateful for that day. Reflection questions on these can be:

  • What happened to make you feel grateful?
  • Why did this make you feel grateful?
  • How often does this happen?
  • What can you do to create more instances of this in your life?

 

3. Positive Reframing Exercise

Many clients experience limiting beliefs – ideas they have about themselves that don’t serve them to achieve their full potential, and that can act as barriers to achieving their desired goals.

Positive Reframing is a way of exploring these ideas and switching them up to see how different aspects of ourselves can help to serve us in new ways, or how limiting beliefs need to be let go of.

Some examples of Positive Reframing in Life Coaching include:

Turning a Problem into an Opportunity: Using open questions, a coach can ask a client to explore how a perceived problem could be an opportunity for growth. This could include asking questions such as ‘When has this problem arisen before and what happened?’, ‘What does the best version of you do when faced with this problem?’ or ‘Where could this problem become an opportunity?’.

Fall in Love With Your Weakness: Some clients understand they have weaknesses but often feel powerless about them, wishing they could change them or that they didn’t have them at all. By reframing weaknesses as something to be appreciated or celebrated, clients can begin to see a perceived weakness in a more positive light.

For example, if a client feels they are too quiet and fail to speak up, a coach could help them reflect how this means they are a good listener. By being quiet, they can hear what others in the room are saying and develop a deeper understanding of situations or challenges which can be used to present solutions.

Are You Sitting (Un)Comfortably: This reframing encourages clients to see instances of discomfort in a new way as an opportunity for growth. When we feel uncomfortable about something, it is usually because our beliefs, ideas, skills, and identity are being challenged in some way. Instead of focusing only on the discomfort, encourage clients to explore what exactly has caused them to feel this way and how they can use this for personal or professional growth.

 

Positive Psychology Coaching and Life Coaching: Comparing the Two

It’s likely from reading through the above two descriptions of Positive Psychology Coaching and Life Coaching that you think there’s a lot of similarity between the two and the resources they utilize. Which is entirely accurate – there are a lot of crossovers.

Let’s first take a closer look at how the models are similar:

Both operate on the belief that people want to change: As coaching models, both of these work on the same core foundation that the client seeking them out has decided to change, is motivated to learn and grow, and open to the feedback and new experiences that coaching will offer them.

Neither attempts to fill the role of therapy: Coaching works best with individuals who have enough emotional resilience to handle being challenged and ready to embrace change. Clients with underlying emotional or mental health conditions might benefit more positively from therapy, and both of these models acknowledge this.

Both embrace the value of negative emotions: In both models, negative emotions are seen as something to be embraced, accepted, and reframed to help the individual progress towards desired change and goals.

Both emphasize empowering individuals to take control: The focus of all tools, exercises, and activities within both of these coaching practices is to help clients go more in-depth and further develop their self-awareness in order to make informed, positive choices, and work towards the life they want.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the ways the models are different from each other:

Positive Psychology Coaching takes its directive from Positive Psychology research and principles. Life Coaching does not: This is not to say that Life Coaching doesn’t tap into some of the theories and principles of positive psychology, but as a model for coaching, it is not wholely governed or reliant on them. Positive Psychology Coaching, on the other hand, focuses on these as the core for the coaching journey.

Life Coaching can be more explorative and focused on natural, internal resources. Positive Psychology Coaching tends to focus more on measurable attributes and outcomes: Because Positive Psychology Coaching has so much research to hand, it can tend to let this lead the coaching journey, offering measurable guidance and focusing on utilizing these resources to develop clients. Life Coaching can seem a little less structured, with a focus more on ‘feeling’ and innate development.

Positive Psychology Coaching interventions tend to be more ‘proven’ and some people prefer knowing the work they are doing in coaching is backed by evidence: Again, because of the amount of research backing positive psychology concepts, coaching that is based off these can offer more reassurance to clients who want to know the work they do will achieve the results they want. It makes it easier for clients to visualize where they are going from the outset. Life Coaching can rarely offer the same certainties, although it does still have a long history of success for many people.

Life Coaching can offer a greater amount of flexibility, as it draws from a much wider remit of tools, resources, and principles: Because Life Coaching is not governed by any leading principle or school of thought, it can offer more flexibility to both clients and coaches. Coaches can spend time getting to know their clients and their motivations first before making any decisions or assumptions on how the coaching journey will look. The same amount of flexibility might not be found in Positive Psychology Coaching, which is wedded to the principles of positive psychology.

All coaching seeks to provide a framework which clients can work from in order to work towards their desired goals. The exercises, tools, resources, and principles used to do this are the biggest differences between each coaching model.

Coaching is strongest when it offers the client a framework that is tailored around their individual needs, goals, and experiences. Both Life Coaching and Positive Psychology Coaching offer this, and when used together, they can create a rewarding experience for all involved.

Which Method of Coaching Should You Use?

difference between positive psychology coaching and life coachingDeciding on which method or model of coaching to use can seem tricky at first, but it’s imperative to know that there is no one size fits all.

Almost everyone can benefit from coaching, whether more generally or in a specific area of life. There are no ‘wrong,’ ‘right,’ or ‘better’ methods – only the one/s that work best for you as an individual.

As a coach, you should spend some time exploring several different approaches and making a choice over the ones that you feel most connected with and confident in utilizing when working with clients.

As an individual seeking coaching, it’s a good idea to do some exploration and pick a coach you feel most closely aligned with the methods you’re attracted to. Keep in mind, you don’t have to stick with something if it doesn’t work for you.

The sign of a great coach is someone who will offer you honest and sincere feedback if they feel your relationship isn’t quite working and make recommendations for alternative ways for you to get the most out of a coaching relationship.

 

5 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Coach

Finding the right coach – no matter what model or approach they use – is a vital part of a successful coaching journey. If you’re considering whether this is the right path for you, reflecting on the following questions could help you to make some decisions about what you would like this to look like for you:

  1. Why am I seeking a coach, and why now?
  2. What background would I like my coach to have? Do I expect them to be a generalist or a specialist?
  3. How do I feel about potentially being challenged on ideas that might be holding me back and keeping me safe?
  4. What do I want feedback to look like from my coach?
  5. How prepared am I to do the work required?

These questions will no doubt open up other questions, some that you can answer or some that only your potential coach can answer. This is an excellent way to have authentic conversations when meeting a potential coach for the first time.

 

A Take-Home Message

I hope after reading this article, you’ve developed a more robust understanding of Positive Psychology Coaching and Life Coaching, as well as how the two compare.

I think it’s really important to emphasize that there is no such thing as a ‘better’ method when it comes to coaching – it’s all about finding the right models that work for you as a coach, that you feel connected with, and those that are right for the individual clients you work with.

It might mean taking a blended approach, utilizing a wide variety of tools and resources, and taking on board a few different models to provide the tailored, quality support that many clients seek when approaching a coach for help.

I’m interested to hear about your personal experiences with coaching – either as a coach or a client. What approaches or models did you use? How did it work for you? If you’re currently studying to become a coach, what models have you come across that you feel most drawn towards, and why?

Leave your comments below.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

  • Fredricksen, B. L. (2005). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio that Will Change Your Life. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
  • Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., & Downey, G. (2003). He said, she said: A quasi–signal detection analysis of spouses’ perceptions of everyday interactions. Psychological Science, 14, 100–105.
  • Gallwey, T. (1986). The Inner Game of Tennis. Pan MacMillan. London: United Kingdom.
  • Hayden, C. J. & Whitworth, L. (1998). Distinctions Between Coaching and Therapy. Retrieved from: https://www.ellengcoaching.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/coaching-therapy.pdf
  • Kauffman, C., Boniwell, I., & Silberman, J. (2010). The Positive Psychology Approach to Coaching. In E. Cox, T. Back-Kirova, D. Clutterbuck (eds), Sage Handbook of Coaching. London: Sage Publications.
  • Omodei, M. M., & Wearing, A. J. (1990). Need satisfaction and involvement in personal projects: Toward an integrative model of subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(4), 762–769.
  • Robbins, T. (2019). Life Coach vs. Therapist. Retrieved from; https://www.tonyrobbins.com/coaching/life-coach-vs-therapist/
  • Stephens, D. (2018). 6 Differences Between Coaching and Therapy. Retrieved from: https://www.coachilla.co/blog/6-differences-between-coaching-and-therapy
  • Sheldon, K. M. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73–82.
  • Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance, 3rd Edition. Nicolas Brealey Publishing. Boston, MA.

About the Author

Elaine Mead, BSc. Dual Honours, is a counselor, passionate educator, writer, and learner. Since completing her degree in psychology, she has been fascinated by the different ways we learn - both socially and academically - and the ways in which we utilize our experiences to become more authentic versions of our selves. She is currently completing her diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Coaching & Mentoring.

Comments

  1. Paulo Silva

    And where is the academic/scientific qualification to be a coach? I tell you: none. You do a 1 week course and become a coach … and then you will deal with psychological and behavioural themes … Pathetic.

    Reply
    • Jennifer James

      Some programs, yes I’d agree with your sentiment. Others take 1.5 – 2 years to get through. I’d be careful dumping an entire profession in the trash all in one judgmental bucket. The study of Psychology started somewhere and when it began there wasn’t a degree making the studies valid, but look at the amazing progress and value that comes from the field. Maybe finding a way to challenge, encourage, see the value and hold accountable would be a better approach.

      Reply

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