Thursday, August 18, 2011

Discover and Use Your Character Strengths for a Happier Life

Recently I attended a life transforming course on "Applied Positive Psychology" at Boston University, taught by Professor Amy Baltzell, author of "The Sweet Spot." My most affirming, and hopefully enduring, take away from this course was exposure to Martin Seligman's (the founder of Positive Psychology), model of signature character strengths, masterfully presented in his, and Christopher Petersen’s: Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.

Since then, I have used my own strengths, which I discovered by taking Seligman's VIA (Values in Action) Signature Character Strength Questionnaire (free at as a road map to a happier and more meaningful a life. Also, these signature strengths and interventions have led me away from the negativity and doomsday scenarios of our aversive age. An occurrence I never imagined possible, even a short time ago.

Integrating the results and interventions from Seligman’s questionnaire into my own life, and passing on this wisdom to my coaching clients and other people close to me, has led to a flourishing of creativity and a personal commitment to happiness and harmony. Moreover, using my strengths in tandem with a daily meditation practice, which is a cornerstone of Positive Psychology’s research and practice, has proven to be a particularly potent combination for me.

I also gained enjoyment and enlightenment related to these principles and practices from an excellent work called “Positive Psychology at the Movies” by Ryan Niemiec and Daniel Wedding. This well researched reference, and theoretical guide book offers hundred of suggestions of films that offer compelling visual representations of Seligman’s strengths. There are many subtle, yet sublime, messages emanating from these movies. They provide positive, engaging, and meaningful experiences, which is the essence and purpose of Positive Psychology.

Another epochal aspect of both Seligman’s signature strengths and Positive Psychology, in general, is that it combines the ancient wisdom of such philosophers as Aristotle (particularly his “Nicomachean Ethics”) and an emphasis on empirically based scientific research. Moreover, the scientifically validated signature strengths are based on virtues espoused by many ancient thinkers, such as wisdom, courage, justice, gratitude, and self regulation.

Now, some may think this is just too abstract and idealistic to make a concrete difference in one’s life. For these skeptics, I first recommend exploring the very accessible strengths based interventions presented in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.”

In our often cynical, superficial, and terror ridden time, living in concordance with Positive Psychology’s practices and Seligman’s strengths model can lead to a reaffirmation of all that is good, noble and inspirational in the human condition. Perhaps this conciliatory mindset, engendered by Positive Psychology, will lead eventually to a cultural transformation; moving many from greed and gloom to happiness and hope. Finally, for those of you who have the perseverance to progress on the path to positivity, the results will be well worth your effort.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Suggestions for More Successful and Satisfying Communications

In our daily lives, as in life coaching, communications can either solidify or damage important interpersonal relationships. There is an essential connection between our communications styles and strategies, in our personal and professional lives, and life satisfaction and success. A disconnect between what we say and think or feel can prove disastrous, and a reconnection, which is a major intention here, can be exhilarating and empowering. Here, I will present a short list of communications methods, and underlying intentions, that that can build and maintain better relationships and even a better world. It is my opinion to even to be able to use a few of these methods on a regular basis can improve the quality and results of our communications immensely.

DESCRIBE: While descriptions of a person, place, or thing may vary and occasionally fuel conflict, they can also create pathways to understanding and appreciating others perspectives and perceptions. The best descriptions can build and broaden our knowledge of others and ourselves as well. However, descriptive judgments should generally be avoided because they can lead to distancing, or even, invalidation of another. Describing to someone the wonder of a butterfly resting on a flower may be closer to the point.

REFLECT: In some schools life coaching psychology, reflecting back one’s words to another can be a powerful and enlightening tool. However, we can use reflection too. This doesn’t mean acting like a parrot, but rather paraphrasing back key words from the speaker that one is hearing is the most effective strategy. This can be tremendously affirmative in that the speaker both feels he/she is being valued and understood, and in hearing these reflections can facilitate insight, appreciation, and rapport.

OPEN ENDED QUESTIONS: These are the hallmark of certain coaching methods and are very effective in establishing trust, deepening rapport, and allowing significant self disclosure and personal growth. The most effective questions generally begin with what, when, where, who, how because these questions allow the responder time and space to articulate a meaningful response. However, asking why questions, or particularly yes or no questions, could be too intrusive and place a roadblock in the flow of awareness elevating and descriptive.

START WITH “I:” To some this may sound counter-intuitive. Aren’t we trying to build bridges to better communications, rather than being concerned with oneself? Of course, and sometimes using you is appropriate. But at a certain level, all we possibly can know are our own thoughts and feelings. To use “you” can be assumptive, accusatory and boundary busting. Also, in situations relating to conflict resolution and/or assertiveness, using “I” is generally significantly less threatening and more conciliatory

ACKNOWLEDGE: Again, a favorite word of coaches, acknowledgements consist of heartfelt compliments and encouragements. We acknowledge the courage and commitment of another person’s confronting, and overcoming, obstacles that block their path to a better life. If sincere and used is the right context, acknowledgments are a great way to build rapport, respect, confidence, and deepen relationships with a person who may be struggling to make gains in their life. Acknowledgments are, as my coaching client pointed out, superior to superficial “atta-boys.”

GRATITUDE: Taking things for granted is all too common. Thinking someone owes us something or, in particular, feeling they are entitled can be a real put off. However, having an “attitude of gratitude,” and communicating that to a friend, benefactor, or client is important in maintaining authentic relationships. Expressing thanks, affirming abundance, giving back, or extolling the virtues of the selfless generosity of another, breaks down the walls of insincerity and isolation and fortifies the construction of a better self.

SILENCE: How can suspending the speech process assist communications? Being attuned to what one says as much as to what one leaves out can lead to a further understanding of the inner world of another. Allowing “pregnant pauses” to come to term in the temporary suspension of the endless flow of words can enable significant insight, compassion, and closeness. When used sensitively and judiciously, silence can sometimes be the most important communication method of all.

I hope this brief list of communications suggestions and strategies may be helpful to you. Often how we say, or phrase, something is as important as what we say, and being an effective listener is essential. Of course, no-one can make describing, reflecting, open-ended questioning, starting with I, acknowledging, gratitude and silence all part of their day to day communications repertoire; but even using a few can make a big difference. Furthermore, sometimes you need to use “you” in your communications, or even ask a yes or no question or be very direct. Changing long held communications patterns can prove very challenging, but definitely worth the time and the effort. Moreover, feeling understood and appreciated is the bottom-line for achieving and maintaining better relationships and any of these approaches can begin to accomplish that for you.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A New Years Wish For a Better Self and World

As we reach the finish line of another wild, crazy, contentious, depressing and marginally hopeful year, which ominously manipulated the mass imagination once again; let’s hope we can individually and collectively make a resolution to try and be our own, best selves. Maybe, we might be in a failing empire; where the rich get much richer and the crumbs for the rest continue to crumble, and where much of the rest of the world perceives us as either arrogant or ignorant, or a bit of both. Empowered by the words from the eloquently, written final stanza of, “The Waste Land” by poet, T. S. Eliot, “Shall I at least set my own lands in order?” Can we not passionately, yet patiently begin to ‘set our own lands in order’, as well?

A little kindness here, a little listening there and a little caring everywhere, can usher in what singer songwriter, Mary Chapin Carpenter recently referred to in her lyrics from, “The Age of Miracles.”

“It seems we're just standing still
One day we'll get up that hill
In the age of miracles
There’s one on the way”

Now, this new age doesn’t necessarily require divine intervention, or even The Law of Attraction, but I’m not saying it might not benefit from either. The point is: If we can just begin to let go of our increasingly, negative self-fulfilling prophecies for only one day, or even a week, or best of all, throughout the New Year, we just might see our better self start to re-emerge.

Personally, I’m sick and tired of living in a time similar to the age that poet, WB Yeats referred to in his iconic poem, “The Second Coming,”

“The best lack all conviction, and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

Such divisiveness breeds sickness, conflict and despair, and unfortunately real leaders and healers are in short supply these days. This doesn’t mean that by striving to be our best and most committed selves, we can't learn to lead and heal ourselves in a world we can begin to cherish as we once did.

If, we become truly resolute, it can happen. But, we must have clear intentions, persevere, as realistic idealists and act from our hearts at least as much as we do from our heads. We need deep acceptance of difference and otherness, rather than a tepid tolerance, which can easily snap into tyranny.

In some ways we may well be unique, but in others we are very much connected. The problem is we have lost sight of this connectedness and the notion of a greater good that transcends the ultimately alienating notion of enlightened self interest. To be our best, our most committed and compassionate selves, we need to tear down walls that divide us and regain the openness and optimism that will restore our hope and happiness.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Pilgrim’s Path and the Coach’s Quest: Thanksgiving 2010

Perhaps for a day, or maybe much longer, pilgrims of purpose can bring peace to our beleaguered planet. A Pilgrims purpose is much more than a pilgrim’s progress, for progress without purpose is like a head without heart.. The following passage from T, S. Eliot’s “East Coker” epitomizes the essence of the pilgrim’s path

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The waves cry, the wind cry,
In my end is my beginning.

Since our concern here is the coaching experience, it leads us to the question: how can a pilgrim, often a seeker of wisdom and spiritual rebirth, journey be compared to the co-creative process embarked upon the coach and his/her client

Most coaching engagements never reach the state of purposeful intention and collective unity that the positive purposed pilgrimage reaches. However, when accomplished correctly the coaching alliance becomes a journey, a flow-like pilgrimage as it were, to a more enlightened and balanced self for the client and the coach as well. Unlike in the pilgrims ‘journey to a spiritual, or other significant, physical place, the coaching alliance seeks elevated awareness and action almost anytime or any place. But both processes seek permanent, and ongoing, transformations from within and without.

How can this happen? How can the coach and the client reach this unified state encountered during a pilgrim’s progress towards peace and purpose? Such methods as active listening, mirroring, guided imagery, re-visioning one’s life narrative to perceive one’s world from a more promising perspective can all certainly help. Also, assisting aligning the client’s thoughts and actions to reflect their core values and beliefs are significant signposts as well.

However the quintessential quality of the coaching alliance that ushers the pilgrim’s purpose may be found in the coaching relationship itself. Mindful presence in the moment, and an unwavering belief that one’s client is capable of realizing their articulated aspiration- let alone dreams they may never felt possible- is at the core of an effective coaching process. Concurrently, if the coaching client can accept the coach as a trusted guide and visionary co-creator, then the coaching alliance can, at times, achieve the magical aura and transcendent experience similar to that of the pilgrim.

So in some cases a coach, like a pilgrim, can empower a client to reach a sublime state of mental and spiritual clarity and commitment. However, as we can infer from Eliot’s wise words, this is not always a peaceful path, for the ambiguity of being simultaneously “still and still moving” and beginning and ending can have both an ecstatic yet exhaustive effect. Yet, in their totality, the pilgrimage and coaching processes can often activate an ineffable unifying quality, similar to a universal law of purposeful intention. In our troubled and terror ridden time, this may even engender a pilgrimage which forsakes a passive promised land in favor of an ongoing peaceful, coaching like, process with an uncertain but potentially optimistic never ending outcome.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's Not About You

Recently, I was speaking with my mentor-coach about my frustration and insecurity concerning my coaching clients. She reminded me about one of the cornerstones of effective, empathic coaching: It’s not about you; it’s about your client.

Also, she said what might be troubling me about my coaching clients often has nothing directly to do with me. Rather, my inferred interpersonal conflicts are reflective of how my clients usually interact with everyone they encounter. Again, it’s not about me.

Her coaching words of wisdom gave me much comfort about my coaching engagements and my social interactions, in general. This led me to ponder how this process unfolds, in a more universal sense. Below, is my poetic effort to illuminate my thoughts.

It's Not About You

When your clients bail
And drift away
And your practice is sunk
Because no one paid
It’s not about you

If all the notions you
Once held true
Danced in circles and
Ridiculed you
It’s not about you

If your world is wounded
And drenched in pain
You mourn your memories
Seeing them slain
It’s not about you

Your dreams are light
They glide on air
Then you pull the chord
The chute’s not there
It’s not about you

If your fortune comes
And goes in a day
Please unload your gun
And lock it away
It’s not about you

As a blind beggar steals
Your last dime
You’re frozen in fright
Sculpted in time
It’s not about you

Remember if your glory
Were to rise again
Your heart may retreat
My rebel friend
It’s not about you

If you discover you’re
Released at last
Forget your fondness
Of a fallow past
It’s not about you

Quitting your quest for
Wealth and fame
Deaf to followers who
Chant your name
It’s not about you

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Effecting a Coaching Culture of Collaboration

Most life related coaching is not about problem solving, per se, but an effective coaching relationship or initiative may indirectly resolve many problems. This may sound paradoxical. Guess what? It is and it isn’t. When one is seeking to directly solve personal, or even organizational and cultural problems; one or many can often make them worse. It’s like scratching an itch and making it itchier. Sometimes ignoring the itch and embarking on a more life affirming direction may not make the itch go away, but can certainly make it seem less annoying.

Assuming a more deliberate and positive mindset can lead to more significant forms of satisfaction than merely having an itch go away. Here the concern is not only to metaphorically scratch, or not to scratch, but rather to very briefly explore the efficacy of this macrocosmic coaching approach; versus the microcosmic approach of so-called rational problems solving. This discussion will be coupled with a glimpse at the accompanying implications for personal, and to a lesser degree, public health and socioeconomic well-being of these often oppositional points of view.

Of course, some crisis situations do require direct intervention. They are more like a life-threatening wound than an itch; where a surgeon’s scalpel, versus a coach’s compassion may be the only alternative. But in non-critical situations, the often critical and analytical mindset of problem solving can usher in a negative mindset, which can even lead to a negative, self fulfilling prophecy. When this happens, the negative mindset can become a bigger problem than the initial problem ever was. Moreover, like a virus, this negativity can rapidly spread; in some cases immobilizing the well being of the problem solver, the victim and the entire collective in the process.

Furthermore, the initiation and containment costs of this ever expanding problems solving approach, like in the spiraling costs of our healthcare system, entails a classic case of the law of diminishing returns of ill conceived, large capital outlays. This is not to say that advocating a return to a pre-scientific dark age is advisable either. Instead, finding a workable balance between the more simple and organic coaching and collaborative approaches and the state specific, sometimes myopic individualistic problem solving methodologies may provide optimum value.

The medical model of solving psychological problems often follows this course; as do overly reactive methods to control so-called financial panics and other instances of mass hysteria. Do these more traditional problems solving methods work? Sometimes yes, but often no. More troubling, such invasive measures usually offer only short term relief, focusing on symptoms, like scratching an itch, rather than underlying afflictions exemplified by psychopharmacological patients, with progressively debilitating side effects.

Conversely, coaching seeks to focus on possibilities rather than problems. Thus coaching embraces positivity rather than negativity, often focusing on dreams rather than nightmares with an emphasis on intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. Coaching embraces strength based initiatives, hopeful attitudes and health rather than disease. In the often atomistic worldview of the medical model, all too often an itch is an itch, is an itch, ad nauseam.

Does coaching always succeed? Of course it doesn’t. That would imply an unrealistic mindset denying the critical nature of some acute afflictions in one’s physical and mental health and elsewhere. Also, not being facetious, sometimes success can only be seen through the eyes of the succeeder and coaching currently possesses very few scientifically verified success stories.

However, coaching is more concerned with the active process of becoming, rather than a rational analysis of being. Moreover, in coaching the difference between problem solving and positivity is that coaching embodies a more all encompassing holistic and meta-mindset. In turn, this meta-mindset characterizes that the best coaching practices can engender a more self empowering and self correcting process than the problem solving approach.

Yet, some feel that everything that is worthwhile requires struggle. However, these “no pain—no gain” approaches can take a toll on one’s physical and mental well being, and eventually for the survival of the “un-fittest”, as well as encourage dependencies and perpetuate chronic conditions.

Thus, my recommendation is to at least explore, and if advisable, follow the more positive path that coaching affords to realize your goals; rather than seeking out problem solving practitioners or philosophies. As I asserted initially, the pursuit of positive goals thru coaching often indirectly solves, or lessens the impact, of these problems as my itch analogy indicate.

Finally, a question that this brief discussion begs: In the long run, is the relative sustainability of a coaching culture of collaboration more effective, versus a rational culture built on top of the notion of rugged individualism?