Positive Psychology in Times of Crisis and Transformation

Author : Yannick Jacob

22nd May 2020

Times of crisis affect us and our clients in various ways. While some see opportunity, others struggle to keep their lives from falling apart. Some seem unaffected emotionally and just “deal with it”, while others despair. Some of us “accept the challenge” and find meaning in the suffering, others crumble under the weight of the uncertainty or find themselves paralysed by fear and unable to act.

The questions I want to illuminate in this article are:

Is coaching the right approach for a client that is in crisis?

In the motivational speaking world there’s this notion that the Chinese word for crisis is written as a combination of “danger” and “opportunity” and this misinterpretation is often used to encourage those in crisis to look for the positive in any seemingly horrendous situation.

As someone who entered the world of coaching over a decade ago looking for training that would combine elements of coaching and therapy, out of a desire to work with people across the whole spectrum of what life might throw at them, I think it’s crucially important to start any article on coaching people in or through crisis with a serious and honest exploration of what you (and I mean you, the coach who is reading this right now) can and cannot help your clients with.

Ask yourself right now: “To what extent am I willing and able to help this client who finds themselves in crisis?” and please take a few minutes to consider this question thoughtfully given the specific context of who has approached you, what state they are in psychologically and what specific outcomes they are looking to achieve as a result. There is no one right answer. You’ll have to ask yourself a series of questions to make sure your client is in capable hands and working with the right kind of practitioner.

It is certainly true that change and transformation is often a (necessary) consequence of going through a crisis. Things change, systems change, attitudes change, relationships change, people change. Having a transformational coach by your side during times of crisis and transformation seems like an obvious wise choice. However, some clients will be in better hands talking to a grief counsellor, a business consultant, a spiritual teacher or an accountant.

Yannick-coaching-image (1)

I strongly believe that reaching out to a professional for help is something that everybody will benefit from, regardless of where they’re at, but I want to acknowledge that not everybody is going to benefit from (my/your style of) coaching when they find themselves in crisis. So before you try to apply any intervention from your toolbox, ask yourself:

Are you a good fit for this client during this time?

Are you willing and able to provide the kind of help that they need right now?

I’ve long been interested in the question “How far can coaches go?” considering traditional boundaries of what a coach should and shouldn’t do and I have explored the boundaries of our notoriously unregulated profession in depth and believe it’s largely an ethical question. If you’d like to go a little further, I invite you to watch this webinar I recorded in 2019 based on both my MA coaching dissertation as well as a piece of research I’ve supervised which interviewed a number of ICF MCCs (Master Certified Coaches). I encourage you to take the question seriously and, if you decide to go ahead, make sure that you are appropriately supervised. 

interested in bringing Positive Psychology into your coaching?

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What can the science of positive psychology contribute in times of crisis?

Positive psychology (PP) is a branch of science that emerged in 1999, when newly elected president of the American Psychological Association, Martin E. P. Seligman announced that as scientists we’re failing to study what’s right with people and that we’re overly focused on fixing problems (a bit like what we’re trying to achieve with coaching compared to therapy). In 2002, he wrote:

“The message of the positive psychology movement is to remind our field that it has been deformed. Psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, and damage; it also is the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is wrong; it also is building what is right. Psychology is not just about illness or health; it is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play. And in this quest for what is best, positive psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, self-deception or hand-waving; instead it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents in all its complexity.”

Martin E. P. Seligman

This is not to say (yet often interpreted as such) that PP is only useful when things are already going well (just as coaching is not only sought out by people who are already well and just want to learn more or develop further). Indeed, some of the most prominent researchers in PP, such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try pronouncing that!) have taken their inspiration from wondering why some people adjusted more quickly to adverse events or even flourished as a result. 

One of the cornerstones of PP are the wellbeing theories that have contributed to our understanding of happiness, which arguably is what every client is ultimately working towards in some form or another. But the field has a lot more to offer through the theories and interventions that have emerged based on 20 years of research.

Many of the areas of study within PP are directly relevant to times of crisis and adversity, such as resilience, post-traumatic growth, optimism, hope, mindfulness and meditation (as a means to find peace amidst chaos) as well as positive emotions as a remedy against negative ones. Some of these reach into what we might call “positive thinking”, but it’s way more sophisticated than simply inducing happy thoughts or positive affirmations. We’re working with mindsets, cognitive-behavioural techniques and explanatory style.

However, in a short article such as this one we can only ever scratch the surface of what’s on offer. If you’re interested in diving deeper into the subject matter I’d point you to my Animas lecture from 2019, the associated Certificate in Positive Psychology for Coaches and to the resources at the bottom of this page.

In what follows I want to give you but a snapshot of valuable, practically applicable and evidence-based ways to apply some of the research with clients in crisis, one for each aspect of psychological wellbeing that’s been highlighted by the research so far. I’ve used my own Integrative Theory of Wellbeing as a guide:

Positive psychology interventions in times of crisis

Positive Emotions

Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions demonstrated that positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire and creativity and build a whole range of positive resources. This not only means that clients who experience positive emotions are more creative in finding ways forward when facing obstacles, they also build important physical, intellectual, psychological, and social resources as well as undoing negative emotions.

An easy way to induce positive emotions is to create a crisis photo album on your phone full of images that trigger happy memories, things that make you laugh or anything else that you know will induce positive emotions. Or you could try contagious laughing.

Engagement

The more engaged we are with a task, the less mental capacity we have to worry about things. Flow states are times when we are completely absorbed in what we’re doing so that, no matter what’s going on right now, we’re fully focused on the task at hand. To play around with increasing engagement, pick a boring task and make it more engaging using flow theory. The most effective is to increase the level of challenge to match your existing skills. E.g. when cleaning the house, set yourself a time limit, limit the tools you’re allowed to use, try matching your movements to the rhythm of the music you’re listening to or recite a poem backwards saying one word per hand movement. Next time your client wants to feel more engaged or less bored, help them to adjust their level of skills or the challenge at hand.

Experiencing flow states is good for the body and mind and the easiest way to get into them is to pick activities that we are intrinsically motivated to do (meaning you’d do them for their own sake, because they’re enjoyable to you). Have your client make a list of all the activities that absorb them (from sports to work) and work with them to make it more likely to achieve flow states more often.

Relationships

Across all theories of wellbeing, having positive relationships is one of the most important pillars. In times of crisis the people we have good relationships with can literally be life saving. But even simple activities like having a good chat with someone we feel close to, will have a boosting effect on resilience, hope, optimism, meaning and positive emotions.

A simple intervention is to reach out to a friend, perhaps someone you haven’t heard from in a while, to see how they’re doing. Lockdown during a pandemic is a time where everybody has a good reason to check in with people they haven’t spoken to in a while (not that we’d need a reason to check in with friends, but it seems to make it easier for many). In more serious personal crises, where your client may be suffering greatly, think about the people who are there for them, people who care about them. Usually there are more people who care than we might think. And often those people are more than happy to help if we only reach out to them and ask. Helping makes people feel good. Kindness has been well-researched in positive psychology. So from simply having a conversation to reaching out to ask for help, fostering relationships is a good intervention.

Meaning

We could talk about meaning for hours. It’s a multi-faceted construct and there are many ways in which we can affect ours and our client’s sense of meaning. One simple way that I’ve found to be effective in helping clients recognise meaning in their lives is to ask them to take a photo of something meaningful (to them) and discuss it in the next session. This can be something small like their cup of coffee in the morning or something big like a picture of their partner. What’s important is that you explore the story that’s attached to the image and listen to the meanings that emerge. It helps to have an understanding of the different types of meaning in order to add more depth to the coaching conversation that follows.

Personal Growth & Achievement 

A sense of accomplishment, achievement or perceived positive change or personal growth is another important part of wellbeing and happiness. Everybody who’s ever achieved a goal that they set for themselves will attest to the feeling. It feels good to arrive. Now these don’t have to be big in order to affect our clients positively. We can work with micro goals and achievement during times of crisis, as long as they’re approached consciously. E.g. We learn new skills almost every day but we take this for granted and often don’t notice.

To hone in on a sense of accomplishment, set out to learn something new and set yourself a SMART goal (Specific, measurable, Achievable, Relevant to your values and beliefs and Time-bound – with a deadline). Pick something small like cleaning a specific area of the house to a well-defined standard in a particular time frame (if that is something you care about, that is).

Or perhaps you learn how to type with 10 fingers and follow a course that sets little goals for each day. It’s easily measurable how quickly you can type 100 words and I can almost guarantee you that you’ll get faster each day if you practice. Every time you type something on your computer you’ll feel the sense of accomplishment if you allow yourself to acknowledge it.

Health

The 4 pillars of health and wellbeing are 1) a healthy diet, 2) an appropriate amount of sleep (7-9 hours for most of us), 3) regular exercise and 4) some form of meditation practice. I can’t recommend enough to build daily habits around these. And yes, I know how hard this can be. I’ve certainly been slacking on a few of these. Regardless of your own level of discipline and habits, explore with your client where they stand on these 4 aspects of healthy living, then have them commit to one that is currently non-existent or low and invite them to commit to one small but consistent change, to build one new habit over the course of the next 6 weeks.

If it’s exercise, commit to a minimum of 1(!) minute of exercise daily. The idea is not to overwhelm the client but to make sure that they never miss a day. That’s what’s building the habit. If it’s flossing your teeth, floss one tooth. Sounds ridiculous but it’s much more effective than doing all your teeth for a week and then dropping the habit. Plus, even the busiest of executives have 1 minute per day. And gradually they’ll increase the time as they feed off the positive effects. A great book on building habits is this one.

 

Autonomy

A sense of autonomy is central to wellbeing for human beings. The worst forms of punishment we’ve established are death and, as a preferred 2nd in our time, to take people’s autonomy away by locking them up and telling them when they’re allowed to do what. In times of crisis it can feel as if we have no freedom, especially during times when we’re locked down, can’t leave the house or do the things we usually do (work, play, move our bodies, talk to the people we want to be close to).

Victor Frankl, in his powerful little book Man’s Search for Meaning, talks about how even in the worst of conditions (in his case a Nazi concentration camp) we can find autonomy and freedom in our minds. In order to foster a sense of autonomy, ringfence 5 minutes each day this week during which you do whatever you want, regardless of what other people might expect from you: take a nap, play a computer game, waste your time or read something interesting.

Remember: time is never wasted if it’s something you feel like doing. Yes, you might be on lockdown (due to a global pandemic or due to feeling stuck in a job, relationship or other life circumstances) but there’s always freedom, at the very least in your mind if you choose to acknowledge it.

Competence/Environmental Mastery

Another essential pillar of psychological wellbeing is to possess the necessary skills to deal with your environment. We need a different skill set depending on where we live, what jobs we do, the number and kind of people that surround us, etc. If we struggle to cope with what we’re facing, we’ll struggle to be happy. In times of crisis it’s often the case that we lack the necessary skills to deal with the new challenges and it can seem as if we’re failing at life. There are two ways of dealing with this:

For an extra boost, invite them to complete the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to find out what they’re naturally good at. We tend not to recognise our strengths as we take them for granted, but they’re deeply energising when we utilise them. You might want to work with your client to find creative ways to use their signature strengths more often in their daily lives.

Self-Acceptance

Self-acceptance is the foundation for any change. First we need to acknowledge where or who we are before it is possible to move. And contrary to what some may think, accepting how we are doesn’t mean that we’re okay with staying that way. It simply means that you accept the current reality as it is, yourself as a product of your past as well as your past decisions, and to move forward from here with the best intentions. You can’t change the past, but you can choose how to move forward.

The first step in this journey of change is to accept that right now things are as they are and to accept this reality instead of denying it. Denial may be more comfortable in the short-term but it prevents you from growing, learning and changing. So cut yourself some slack, give yourself some love, take a short break to acknowledge who you are, and then move forward. A fantastic way to do this is to practice Loving-Kindness Meditation. You can find many other ways to foster self-acceptance in this excellent blog post.

Gratitude

The research on gratitude is mind-blowing. From one time interventions to regular habits, engaging with gratitude is a powerful intervention. Be careful how you present this to a client as you don’t want to come across as lacking empathy for their crisis by suggesting to simply count their blessings as a solution to their predicament. However, tuning into gratitude does powerfully shift our state and mindset. It doesn’t mean that the crisis will disappear and it doesn’t mean that it’s not useful to focus energy on problem solving or crisis management, but it can make everything a bit easier.

The most powerful one-off gratitude exercise that I know of is the Gratitude Letter. It comes in different shapes or forms and (as with all the other exercises) I’d encourage you to try out different versions and to discuss the effects with other PP practitioners before you present this to a client so that you can speak from experience and with conviction.

A simpler but regular activity is to keep a daily gratitude diary, in which you write about “3 good things” that you’ve encountered over the past 24 hours. These may be small (such as the sunrise, a cup of tea or a smile from a stranger) or large (such as getting praise for a project at work or meeting a new friend). You simply list these things but for increased effect you’d write down a few sentences or bullet points as to why these things were good and how you contributed to these things being in your life. Do this every day for a week and, if you like the effect, keep them going as a regular or sporadic habit. Whenever you tune into gratitude it’s good for your mind and body.

Awareness

We’ve briefly mentioned meditation above. I believe meditation develops the number one most important skill that any human being can possibly acquire: The ability to be present with what’s going on in the moment and thereby being able to choose where your attention goes. It’s a skill we can learn. It takes time, but it’s like a muscle: every time we practice we get a little better at it.

At the beginning your monkey mind takes you away all the time without you even noticing. You follow a train of thought and, before you know it, you’re far away. This intervention is an exercise to ground you in the present, to take you back home when you find your mind far away thinking about this or that. It’s the first step in any meditation practice: to turn your awareness to the present moment instead of your mind taking your attention away to the past, future or some other thought exercise such as worrying or planning.

To ground yourself in the present, take just one mindful breath. By mindful breath I mean to inhale deeply and really notice how the air enters your body, to take a moment to notice what you’re hearing, smelling, sensing, feeling. Don’t judge it, interpret it, make sense of it or think about it, just notice it. Exhale letting all the air out of your lungs. If you’ve got a few more moments, or perhaps even a few minutes, keep this going. You’ll find some inspiration in this guided breathing meditation.

Nature

Spending time in nature has been shown to affect wellbeing and happiness. Even in cities it’s easy to connect with nature, either by going to a park or, worst case scenario and you can’t leave your house, looking at nature or envisioning yourself in nature (for example by listening to nature sounds like forest atmosphere or waves on YouTube and imagining you’re there).

yannick-image-nature-2 (1)

Clarity of Goals

This should be an easy one for you coaches so I won’t get into more details. Just help your client plan for something they want to do after the crisis. It gives us something to look forward to, even if we can’t take immediate action to get there. 

How can we integrate positive psychology interventions (PPIs) into our coaching practice?

Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are designed to work for most people most of the time. The aim of empirical research is to find common patterns and universal themes so that we can predict the effect of an intervention with some degree of confidence. That said, and as coaches you will appreciate this, there cannot be a one-size-fits all solution to happiness and wellbeing. It is of crucial importance therefore to consider what Lyubomirsky called the “person-activity fit”. The art lies in having a variety of PPIs in your toolbox and then, together with the client, agree on which ones are most likely going to be effective, and then apply them in a way that will work for your client.

In my experience, working with a coach can multiply the effect that an intervention has on a person, not only because they can inform the process of picking the right one, but also due to the elements of accountability, placing any intervention within the framework of structured coaching sessions, setting appropriate goals and monitoring progress or dealing with obstacles effectively. Having someone in your corner when experimenting with or working through a set of PPIs is likely to supercharge the results compared to working through a set of instructions from a book or the internet.

Keep one thing in mind though: “Who you are is how you coach”. I say this to students often and it’s important.

There is no one right way of using PP in your coaching. It’s important that you let the science inform your existing style and integrate what you think will add value into your coaching practice. This may take many forms and, again, there is no right and wrong in coaching with PP.

You may use the PPIs as homework or growth actions between sessions and work with a lot of accountability. You might walk a client through how they work or let them do their own research, possibly point them towards a few valuable sources (such as Authentic Happiness, Greater Good Magazine, or the Positive Psychology site).

You may simply use an understanding of positive psychology to have better conversations about happiness and what a “good life” might look like for them or you might use scientific measures and psychometric tests to monitor their progress or uncover new possibilities to improve their wellbeing.

You might share some knowledge with your clients, a relevant piece of research, a theory, concept or story. Indeed, Suzy Green, one of the best known positive psychology coaches, talks about how we have an obligation to share what we’ve learned and what we know with our clients, so they may make better choices about their happiness and wellbeing.

Maybe you’ll create a 6-session playbook or a group coaching programme that covers various PP topics and increases your clients’ chances to live a happier life. Or you might use any of the interventions or tools during your coaching sessions such as working with strengths cards, guiding a client through a meditation, or following a specific line of questioning to arrive at their “best possible self” using your coaching skills to dig deeper into your client’s dreams and aspirations, something which they may not have done when writing about it on their own.

The possibilities are endless and the choice how to best utilise the science is yours.

I’d recommend you get a practice client today and start experimenting! Make sure that the client isn’t in any vulnerable state or currently in crisis or wants to fix anything, but someone who would like to improve their levels of happiness. After you’re comfortable and familiar with what PP can offer to your practice, you can start applying them with clients who are facing hardship. You’ll be surprised how effective some of them can be when applied at the right time with the right client. It’s also been shown that people who are happier to start with are more resilient, bounce back quicker and hence navigate times of crisis with more ease.

If you are reading this then I want to express my gratitude to you. Because it tells me you’re the kind of coach who continues to learn and is eager to make a positive difference to your clients’ wellbeing. I hope you’ve found something in this article that inspired you to try it out and I’d love to hear about your experiences. If you’re an Animas student or alumni you can download my book “Positive Psychology for Coaches” for free from the Animas Resource Hub. For everybody else I’m sure you’ll find the resources below helpful and informative. And if you’ve decided to learn more then I’m wishing you well on your journey into the wonderful world of positive psychology.

great articles/resources

Yannick Jacob

Yannick Jacob

Yannick is an Existential Coach (MA), Positive Psychologist (MSc), Coach Trainer & Supervisor, Mediator (conflict resolution) and the former Programme Leader of the MSc Coaching Psychology at the University of East London.

Find out more about Yannick

interested in bringing Positive Psychology into your coaching?

Book a spot on our Accredited Certificate in Positive Psychology in Coaching now.
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