A few years ago a friend of mine, who trained with Martin Seligman and went on to develop San Francisco State University’s certificate program in positive psychology, asked me if I'd be interested in teaching a class on coaching skills for well being. She told me I would have free reign to design the course as I saw fit. I was honest with her, at the time I had heard of positive psychology but I was not very conversant with its tenants. On the other hand I received my professional coaching certification in 2000 and had been on the adjunct faculty of the school* where I had trained. She told me I could monitor her class and she recommended some books to get me up to speed on postivie psychology. Based on many long conversation she assured me that my coaching knowledge was up to the task. I readily agreed, not realizing how much time and effort would go into designing and delivering 24 hours of cirriculum. Thus was born a course I called, Coaching Skills for Well Being.
In doing my due diligence and researching positive psychology, I discovered an elegant model for coaching in Seligman's book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well Being. It was here that I encountered PERMA, an acronym to help you remember the elements that, when properly addressed and balanced, support us in functioning at our best.
P is for Positive emotions and thinking. This is cultivating the ability to reliably experience positive mind states and emotions and moods such as happiness, wonder, ambition and joy. It also deals with being able to shift ourselves out of challenging moods and emotions such as anger, resentment, and resignation so we can regain our equilbrium when we are knocked out of our center.
E is for Engagement and flow. This is finding the areas of life where you can apply your skills so that you feel alive and uplifted.
R is for Relationships. Here we focus on learning how to create and sustain relationships that are nourishing and rewarding.
M is for Meaning. Perhaps the best way to sum this up is to learn what it is that makes you feel connected to something larger than yourself.
A is for Accomplishment. It’s not enough to simply feel good, to experience high-levels of well being we need to be able to test ourselves against challenges and earn the recognition of our peers. This is not the kind of bragging that comes from an inflated ego, but the solidity of self-worth that arises when we know we have achieved what we set out to do. To quote the poet Rilke, “Miracle becomes miracle in the clear light of achievement that is earned in the world."
There is an additional aspect of postive psychology that ties into and rounds out PERMA as a robust coaching approach. I add an S, for Strengths. One of the core tenants of both positive psychology and appreciative inquiry is that it’s more conducive to creating a sense of well being to spend time working with our strengths than it is to spend time trying to improve our weaknesses. To be clear, there is nothing the matter with working to improve an area where we aren’t doing as well as we would like. However, positive psychology’s focus on strengths recognizes that we each have certain skills and talents that come more easily than others. If we work with our top strengths we find we our progress is rapid and rewarding, whereas constantly trying correct a perceived weakness can be much harder and lead to feelings of defeat. There is a lot to be said for learning to appreciate what we are good at, and a lot of old baggage to be let go of when it comes to developmental areas that are going to be hard for us no matter what we do. Like so much else in life, it's a matter of striking the right balance.
Applying the lessons of positive psychology to the practice of coaching allows us to bring a high degree of rigor to our work with clients. It also provides a terrific basis for keeping a coherent focus on the areas that will likely help our clients to thrive and flourish.
*I completed a year long certification program through New Ventures West in San Francisco.