PERMA Powered Conversation – Operationalizing PERMA constructs inside a coaching conversation


“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008) and coaching is a professional relationship that enhances and helps make people’s life most worth living.

Seligman in his book, Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing invited coaches to embrace positive psychology saying, “Coaching is a practice in search of a backbone. Two backbones, actually: A scientific, evidence-based backbone as well as a theoretical backbone. Positive Psychology can provide both”. Coaching is a positive practice, one that focuses on people’s strengths, positive emotions and beliefs about themselves.

However most positive psychology interventions begin as a strength based approach with a formal assessment of individual strengths. These then form the basis of a positive psychology coaching process.


For example the most popular strength based positive psychology interventions are:

  1. Realise 2, developed by Alex Linley and the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology, available at: http://www.cappeu.com.

  2. Values in Action (VIA) developed by Seligman himself and available free on his website: www.authentichappiness.com

  3. Strengths Finder developed by Buckingham and Clifton which is available via a code inside their book Now Discover your Strengths.

The positive psychology interventions that the founders of the concept and other prominent researchers have designed are self-administered, self-help tools that may not fully tap or enhance the interactive nature of a coaching session. There are two prominent criticism to using a strength based intervention in a coaching conversation as emphasised by Paolo Terni.

  1. The actual test which in a strength based coaching is the first step happens outside a coaching session.

  2. An inadvertent fixed mindset forms the basis of a coaching session when the coachee comes in with labelled strengths and weaknesses.


Moreover, in a positive coaching session, the actual coaching conversation, the movement from current state to the transformative state should be emphasised and the focus of creating the Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationship inside the coaching conversation need to be maintained.

Therefore, this paper is an attempt to

  1. Systematically identify positive psychology constructs, specifically Seligman’s PERMA constructs as they emerge in a client’s conversation and,

  2. To provide a framework that operationalises the PERMA constructs inside a coaching conversation, thereby making the coaching session itself a positive psychology intervention.

Identifying PERMA Constructs inside a Conversation

While there are many approaches to understand the constructs of positive psychology, Seligman’s revised model of well-being – PERMA is better suited for a coaching intervention. PERMA is a multidimensional model to assist individuals, Organizations and Companies to explore and enhance five key domains –

  • Positive Emotions – Plan, invest and participate in healthy positive experiences.

  • Engagement – Become immersed in worthwhile pursuits and the discovery and application of strengths.

  • Relationships – develop social and emotional skills to better connect and share with others

  • Meaning – Reflect and plan for ways to act with purpose, to think beyond themselves and contribute to higher pursuits.

  • Accomplishment – set and strive for meaningful goals, manage setbacks, maintain mental toughness and embody a growth mindset.

During a coaching session, positive psychology coaches create the awareness of positive emotions through questions focussing on best self and reflections on what went well.


Positive Psychology Coaches encourage identification of strengths and marshal them to enhance engagement and flow of transition. The coaching conversation thrives on the creation of a positive relationship and also to ensure the coachee reflects on their interpersonal skills and connects positively in their transition. Coaches then help explore ideal future positions and establish reconnection to meaning and lastly, coaches help set goals and accomplish this transformative future state.


In this process of using PERMA, coaches need to be aware that the PERMA domains are interrelated and while deconstructing a theoretical model can be done by separating the five constructs, in a coaching conversation however, the constructs cannot be oversimplified by using them individually. Coaching conversations tend to be non-linear and these constructs need to work holistically in the entire conversation.

Operationalizing PERMA constructs in a conversation

In my opinion, a coaching conversation is that momentous moment where the transformation occurs and the only tool available at that moment is the power of a positive conversation. Therefore a positive coaching conversation is one that stimulates positive emotions, engages and connects and helps explore future ideal states and accomplish them inside a conversation. Such a conversation draws its inspiration from the PERMA constructs but needs its own framework to operationalise in a coaching conversation. The following framework is proposed as a theoretical model to hold a positive coaching conversation.


The five step V.I.T.A.L model has three important elements to a conversation.

Intention

In any conversation, the intention of the people in the conversation is the most important aspect. Like the banks of a river, that holds and directs the flow of the water, intentions in a conversation hold and direct the flow of the conversation. In a Positive Coaching Conversation, the intention needs to be future oriented.

  1. Visualize Positive Future - The first step is to Visualise Positive Future-Looking goals. A Positive Coach internally needs to Visualise and be in the flow of this conversation and lead the coachee towards the desired future goal. When the direction of the conversation is a positive future, the coach can better help the coachee in setting goals.

  2. Invite Person & Problem - The intention of a coach is also to always work with the coachee and not solve his problem/situation. In a positive coaching conversation, a coachee approaches the conversation by inviting both the person and the problem/situation. By enhancing engagement and positive emotions, the coach expands the awareness of the coachee of his/her self as well as the relation with their problem/situation. When this step is done well, the coachee develops the abundance mindset to look at their situation without making it a simple problem to fix. He is able to look at both the outer game of goals and choices and the inner game of his mindset.

Dialogue

The intention however good, needs to be translated to dialogue for any transformation to occur in coaching. When coaches transition to the generative dialogue as a third step, they can see coachee transition as a discipled flow. In a generative coaching dialogue, congruent and resonant goals are set, the coachee is invested equally in identifying strengths and limiting beliefs and opening to a creative consciousness of possibilities.

  1. Transitioning to Generative Dialogue as a step allows the coach to challenge and explore with the coachee at a deeper level. Having already built a positive emotion and relationship, this stage in a coaching conversation will ensure the coachee is able to expand his awareness of his inner self and the relation to his situation, thereby entering a zone of possibility. Now the dialogue can easily address limiting beliefs without friction.

Action

Once the intention is set and a generative state is developed, the coachee is now ready to take action. Therefore in this step, the work of the coach is to ensure the coachee finds meaning in their plans and a sense of accomplishment. Two steps to achieve this part of the coaching conversation.


  1. Alignment of Action with Aspirations and Accountability – while the actual planning of the future steps happens in a coaching dialogue, the coachee needs to be made aware of how his action steps aligns with his visualized future aspirations. This creates the meaning in the goals and will ensure better performance. The next alignment is that of accountability to the action steps. It is here that the coach pushes the client to take the accountability to transition and helps them plug those spaces that they may slip up.

  2. Lessons in Reflection – A positive coaching conversation always starts with a desired future and identifying strengths. Therefore the lessons from earlier mistakes or reflection of past actions or even filling of gaps is left to the last step. This is because, in many cases when the limiting beliefs are lifted and generative dialogue develops, the gaps automatically gets identified. Yet this last step adds on to the accountability and emphasises the need for a positive approach.

Crafting V.I.T.A.L coaching questions

Sample Questions

V.I.T.A.L Model Stages

PERMA Constructs

Listen carefully to yourself and notice what is important to you in this

Visualize the end and figure out what the successful outcome will look like?

What energizes you now?

What are you looking forward to in future?

Visualize Positive Future

Positive Emotions

Engagement

Relationship

How are you feeling about all this?

What according to you triggers the reaction?

Are your goals and feelings on the same page?

How can we best invite them both to this table?

Invite person & problem

Positive Emotions

Engagement

Relationship

What if we could achieve that? What if we could do better? What would need to be in place for that to happen?

What resources will help you achieve this goal?

What have you tried so far?

When you perform XYZ task, what do you hope to learn from it?

Transition to Generative Dialogue

Engagement

Relationship

Meaning

What support will you need?

How is your feelings and goals aligning now?

What happens when you fail? In the past how have you succeeded?

Align Action, Aspiration with Accountability

Meaning

Accomplishment

What did you learn about yourself today?

If success was guaranteed, what bold steps might you choose?

What baby steps will you take right now to ensure your comfort in similar situations in future?

Lessons in Reflection

Positive Emotions

Meaning

Accomplishment


In conclusion, Positive Psychology Coaching and the PERMA constructs widely help coaches however they require a framework to operationalise these constructs inside a conversation. This theoretical framework with the five step V.I.T.A.L model hopefully will help in future coaching conversations.

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