Coaching as a Science, an Art, and a Discipline
BOOK REVIEW: Positive Psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for Your Clients. by Robert Biswas-Diener and Ben Dean (John Wiley, 2007).
This book is about a powerful body of theoretical and scientific knowledge that can be applied to coaching. It takes the reader through the basic concepts and philosophical approaches in the field and introduces much of the research in helpful and practical ways. There’s a particular emphasis on strengths – but not to the exclusion of other relevant and interesting concepts such as time orientation, expectation theory, thinking and explanatory style, and positive emotions.
It wasn’t until I’d read the first couple of chapters that I realized that this wasn’t like most books on coaching. It wasn’t so much about the process. There weren’t so many models, acronyms, steps, and two-by-two diagrams.
And that’s OK.
What I really liked about this book, though, was the integrative way in which the science is presented. Integrative in the sense that the coach is encouraged to consider how these various concepts play out in relation to others. How do the individual’s strengths and their preferred time orientation inter-relate? It’s also integrative in a different way. Biswas-Diener and Dean link this new field to existing tools of the trade – Belbin, Covey, MBTI, and the like. This sends a strong signal (which is also explicit in the book) that Positive Psychology builds on the work that coaches are already doing.
But does this book have something new to say? Is this a book we should go and buy? Far be it from me to be responsible for anyone’s purchasing decisions, but my answer would be a qualified yes. If Positive Psychology is a relatively new field to you then this book acts as a good introduction, and then takes you further into the ways you can use it as a coach. If you already have some knowledge of the field, then this book brings together some new concepts (the role of culture and social context, for instance), and blends some existing ones in ways which might add to your understanding of the field.
Should one be critical of a Positive Psychology book on a Positive Psychology website? I think so. The caveat would be the acknowledgement that we are all our own experts in this field, and our expertise is informed, in part, by our own human experience and values – what works for us. So with that caveat there are things in the book that didn’t quite work for me – the focus on positive thinking, for instance. I would have been happier with an emphasis on accurate and flexible thinking. But you see the problem – there will be many of you who will disagree with me, for others it will be a matter of definition.
Another example would be my perception of ambiguity in the book as to the goal of Positive Psychology coaching. At times it seemed the authors were suggesting that we should be trying to answer the “million dollar question” of how to be happy, at others there was an acknowledgement that “happiness” in the conventional sense may not be the most valuable outcome. Are we facilitating greater happiness for our clients, a more meaningful and purposeful life, success in a particular domain or performance on the job? The truth is that good coaches work across all of these outcomes, and more besides, often in parallel, and perhaps this book just reflects this reality.
Criticism done – overall Positive Psychology Coaching gives a balanced, comprehensive perspective and doesn’t expound a particular “school of thought” which might have distracted the reader from hearing the really useful stuff written within.
So getting the most out of this book is, in part, about your expectations, It isn’t so much about the discipline, or engineering of coaching. It won’t ‘boil down’ the science of Positive Psychology into 10 rules for life or 7 steps to happiness. This isn’t meant to imply that the book isn’t practical. There are practical tips on how to apply the ideas throughout and an appendix at the end suggesting some specific techniques. But it does leave the art of coaching to you, the coach.
Biswas-Diener, R. & Dean, B. (2007). Positive Psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for Your Clients. New York: John Wiley & Sons.