Coaching Theory: Don’t put the cart before the horse

cart-before-the-horseCoaching is all about doing –having conversations, using tools, assessments, making plans, following up and evaluating performance.  It’s not about theory and models and research, right?  Unfortunately, this belief is all too common in coaching and has led many experts to question the validity of the coaching field.   When we put the cart before the horse, with the cart being practice and the horse being theory, we take a backward approach to coaching practice and do a disservice to our clients and also our profession.

So let’s take a careful look at the horse or the theory that drives coaching.  A great place to start is by reading Stober & Grant’s book Evidence Based Coaching.  Each chapter is devoted to the discussion of a different theory that drives coaching practice–from behaviorism to humanism to positive psychology–for a total of twelve theoretical discussions.

What’s my fav?  I am a big fan of positive psychology and feel that this relatively new theory lends itself to the practice of coaching.  In fact, I believe that coaching is the practical manifestation of this theoretical premise.  Here is a link to a Ted Talk by Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the movement. Remember, if you are viewing this in Blackboard, you’ll need to right-click the link to open a new tab.

What are your thoughts about positive psychology and coaching?  What other theories do you think lend themselves to coaching practice?  Why have you selected them?


  • There are similarities; however, they are very distinct forms of support. Both have the purpose to support a client to barriers and move toward goals and live authentically. In general, psychology is a big help to coach a customer because psychology provides the understanding about human behavior.

  • Jenny Lemens Seale

    Going into TRDV445 Coaching class, I had no idea that coaching could be an evidence-based practice. Like many people, I believed that coaching was kind of “junk science” and had no basis for validity. How wrong I was!

    I have really enjoyed reading the Stober and Grant text in class.

  • My thoughts on Positive Psychology and coaching is that the two of them go hand-in-hand. Positive psychology encourages individuals to discover and use their strengths to their advantage in achieving their goals. By allowing one to self-discover their strengths, it also holds them accountable for their own actions since it is intrinsically motivated versus them being told what to do. The results can also be more sustainable since the individual is able to self-actualize their potential; therefore, there is a higher likelihood for long-term success since they find their power from within. Cognitive coaching is another theory that can lend it’s hand in coaching primarily because it plays off of the same idea of guiding your client to self-discover things about themselves which is most likely to have long-term results. Overall, cognitive psychology combined with positive psychology can have a profound effect on how someone achieves their desired result from coaching.

  • Positive Emotions is very important in coaching. After reading the chapter it gave me a better understanding on how PE goes hand and hand with coaching. When I read the part about how it “broaden and build”. That’s so true because you broaden your outlook and start building on that. When you have positive emotions it gives you positive energy, (my opinion). When you have this positive energy you are less stress and it’s easier to be coached by someone and to coach someone. Positive Emotions can bring about a whole new dynamics to coaching.

  • After reading and studying more about positive psychology, I believe it is absolutely beneficial to make theory a priority in coaching. More specifically, I find positive psychology to be an ideal theory to practice in coaching. By focusing on the components that allow individuals to thrive is a great way to eradicate an issue. Having just recently being introduced to the concept of positive psychology, I must admit that my coaching focuses on conversations, assessments, planning, etc., but very little theory and research is involved. I now look forward to incorporating concepts centered on the principles of positive psychology. I also believe problem based learning is also a great theory to incorporate. Due to the fact the concepts are different, it may seem counter productive at the surface to utilize both in coaching. However, I believe incorporating both positive psychology and problem based learning will be quite effective.

  • Positive Psychology goes hand and hand with coaching, its essential to create a positive environment and utilize ways to help learners have an open mindset. Positive psychology can help a trainer get to know their learner and cultivate a way to help a learner reach their full potential using tools they’ve taught them. The Humanistic approach key concept: Growth Oriented View of the Person I think correlates well with the understanding of Positive Psychology, in which you help a person see the bright side of things beyond their assumed potential. Which connects to how positive psychology creates a setting with the learner.

  • First, I really enjoyed this article. It is so important to understand the various coaching theories in order to better serve your clients. Having this solid foundation on which to build a practice will serve both the coach and client well. Personally, I believe positive psychology go hand in hand. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, but by capitalizing on our individual strengths we can reach our goals. This is exactly the connection that coaches can utilize with their clients. It is learning to use our unique skills/strengths to be successful.

    Other theories that I am drawn is a humanistic perspective, which looks at the person as a whole – self, self-in relation and environment, as well as how each part is interconnected.

  • After reading the article and watching the Ted Talk on the Coaching Theory, Personally, I can identify with people wanting to run in the opposite direction when the possibility of being analyzed (as the recipient may view it) 

    The Happy life was a good way to introduce coaching in a setting. Unfortunately, there have been times when coaches or professionals may not have necessarily taken the opportunity to enhance their knowledge and therefore they are not always aware of lasting impacts negative inpartation’s could have on people. But the pursuit of pleasure like mentioned in the Ted Talk, pleasure usually doesn’t have a lasting positive impact on your life. But, that positive engagement has to be coupled with pleasure.
    My reason for selecting the Happy Life, was simply because people need to know what drives their happiness. The pursuit of a happy life has so many levels and so much depth that we need to explore it more.

  • What I found interesting here in regards to Coaching, is the field of Training. What brings me to this is the evaluation of performance. Thinking about the cart before the horse, I see way too often how theory, practice, and research aren’t always a top consideration. Although we are discussing coaching in this blog, training tends to fall in this picture as well. Working in the corporate setting for as long as I have, managers are always required to train all employees. Though some employees, require more training as they are being developed to move further up the ranks. These employees need to be coached and guided throughout the development; however, what I have noticed is that corporations want to just see the end goal: what is the overall performance of this player. The applications needed to get that end goal are irrelevant.

    Having a Psychology and Sociology undergraduate background, I understand that the human psyche component as well as social factors can play a part in an employee’s overall performance. As Stober and Grant (2006) discuss Humanistic Approaches and Development Pipelines for successful coaching practices, it is these theories, research, and applications that are ignored in most corporate settings. As when Stober and Grant, (2006) discuss their case study of Bonita, and briefly mention how Bonita’s boss did not see her as a great fit for her new role because she did not have an “assertive style”

    It is examples such as those, where the ideology is so narrow minded and lacking the ability to see outside the box; or in this case, Stober and Grant (2006) suggest using the GAPS Grid to assess the individual and help them be more productive to their growth and development, as well as to be a better coach. Though again, the GAPS Grid and Development Pipeline all derive from theory, practice, and research that most companies do not value nor implement into their training and coaching programs–at the end of the day, it is all about the dollar–not human understanding.

  • Even before formal study I found myself applying concepts of positive psychology with others whether it be in a coaching and professional setting or even a less formal more personal setting. I think positive psychology has numerous valuable applications towards coaching. I think a great starting point for many is the (VIA) Values in Action Survey (Side note, its pretty awesome they made this free and available for everyone to use). I think hope training is also critically important because you are instilling course-correction skills in your coachee, making them self-correcting and self-sustaining over time. The (AHC) Authentic Happiness Coaching Model and the 3 Pathways to Happiness (Pleasant Life, Engaged Life, Meaningful Life) and their summation (Full Life) gives an excellent framework for coaches to work with along with a long list of effective interventions to choose from to bring about positive change.

  • Far too often practice without theory occurs and can negatively impact an important field of work. Certainly, those coaches out in the world that are simply declaring themselves coaches without studying theory and effective practice models do a disservice to what caching can be! Positive Psychology is about building on strengths, capacity, and how we can help people thrive. On first blush it can seem a bit simplistic however that’s where the value of theory and research come in! From Seligman to Gable and Haight the scientific study and value of a positive psychology approach can be effective and instructive in coaching work.

  • The notion that coaching doesn’t require theory is a common misconception that impacts the field as a whole in a negative way. Not just anyone can be an effective coach. It takes time and talent.

    Positive psychology empowers people to live their best lives. Martin Seligman explains that this approach is often misunderstood and that a main aim of this theory is the notion that psychology should be as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness. It’s important to invest in making people happy and not look at psychology as making the miserable less miserable.

    Having an engaged and meaningful life is important to enhancing happiness. Another theory that shares this notion is the integrative goal-focused approach to coaching. This approach is about forward momentum and is more than building pleasure. it’s about making progress. Theory, the horse, should not be behind the cart, the practice. By putting these pieces in the proper order, coaching can have a profound impact on people’s lives and well being.

  • Kathy, I have to agree that unfortunately there are too many practitioners out there who start practicing before they have a deep understanding of the underlying theories. This affects the whole field negatively. For the longest time many considered coaching to be similar to therapy as something remedial only aimed at addressing pathologies. The advancement of Positive Psychology (PP) in the recent years has turned the tables and now coaching is seen as a tool to help others become the best version of what they can be, to build on strengths and create even better performance and a more fulfilled life. Of all the models in our text, the Authentic Happiness Coaching model resonates the most with me. I practice many techniques that came out of the PP research in my day-to-day life, and I am planning to incorporate AHC into the work I do as a coach.

  • Positive psychology in combination with cognitively coaching myself helped me to push to the background my as Seligman states that 50% of heritable outlook. (Here is another article scientifically supporting this interesting topic:

    I could write a a horrible book about the dysfunctional people and general attitudes of all of my family members. The book might be called something like “A Pocket Primer for an Imperfect Life” or maybe just “How I Found My Soul.” The purpose of the writing would be to share the hope that I found by not listening to a therapist whose only focus seemed to be on my past and to the prescription they could write that would “make me feel better.” The focus needs to be on the good; What is right?, Right now.

    I used to think of all psychology was just garbage – because as Seligman points out, the field used to focus entirely on this clinical classification of what is WRONG with imperfect or unhappy people. In the last 10-15 years there has been an enormous shift towards focusing on the betterment of a current state (even if that means less than happy – neutral is better than suicidally depressed.)

    The book mentioned in this blog post – Evidence Based Coaching by Sober and Grant, has a chapter about Cognitive Coaching that is a really great overview. I found two quotes later in the book that I strongly feel could have been introduced as key concepts to Cognitive Coaching. On p155…”high levels of self-awareness may be associated with psychopathological rumination and depression (Trapnell & Campbell, 1999). I kept reading and found on p157…’whereas a strong mental focus on one’s goals is associated with goal attainment and enhanced performance and enjoyment (Lee, Sheldon, & Turban, 2003). Bam! These two sentences sum up Cognitive Coaching for me. The goal is not to “ruminate” about your mental framework or the client’s which may be less malleable due to personal genetics…the focus needs to be on what goals could be set to improve performance and enjoyment.

    Martin Seligman takes the focus on enjoyment (happiness) to the underpinning factors that improve one’s mental measure of “happiness” – engagement and meaning. Choose goals that engage you. Find meaning in the creation of pleasure by simply choosing to be happy.

  • My understanding after reading the article is that coaching can be view from all kinds of aspect which is psychology. which leads into how positive views can play a great affect into coaching people and there mind set. Also listening to Ted Talk by Martin Seligman- and him given details on life and engagement and parenting can pay a great role of positive psychology and how it can affect people in negative or positive ways.

  • After reading the article and watching the TED talk’s video given by Martin Seigman, my thoughts on positive psychology and coaching are that, positive psychology focuses on the human nature and on inspiring growth and change in people. The three aims that Dr. Seigman addressed that really stuck out to me were that:

    1. The first is that psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness.

    2. It should be just as concerned with building strength as with repairing damage. It should be interested in the best things in life.

    3. And it should be just as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling, and with genius, with nurturing high talent.

    I believe that using positive psychology in coaching will make people more productive at work and more creative. The theory I think lends itself to coaching practice is the cognitive behavioral theory it integrates action and thinking

  • I think there are two items that are important to consider between positive psychology and coaching. First, the theory focuses on flourishing on multiple levels: biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life. As a coach it becomes important to empower your client to ensure alignment between these levels increasing the probability of sustained long term change. Second, when working with a client it might be better served defining the strengths of the client that may assist in their ability to sustain the long term change the coaching engagement is setting out to instill.

  • My thoughts regarding positive psychology is that it, as I understand it, approaches coaching from a positive perspective. It enables those favaroble connotations to be the focus and by removing negativity, the framework for success is almost certain. A colleague in my Executive Coaching course shared his ressearch regarding cognitive coacing and I find it facinating. It truly lends itself to powerfully impact the coaching practice. It also teaches the premise of favorable perspectives as the foundation of adapting a mindset to change our way of thinking.

  • .It creates an understanding of ones mental state. As a coach, it very important for me to try to understand how thinks or works, so they can be coached properly. Building strength and weakness. I deal with this at work with my employees.

Please post a comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s