Author Archive

The Art of Coaching (Case Study #1): Old and Depressed

Case Study #1:  Old and Depressed by David Colarossi, Ph.D.

“What’s next?” With this simple question, Adam Johnson had me stumped. At 58 years of age, the pharmaceutical sales director believed he had climbed every mountain in life, and none felt worth it. “I have spent my whole life looking at the horizon. Thinking, ‘If I accomplish this, or that, I will finally feel satisfied.’ Now, looking at my life, I realize that I am sliding to the grave and have nothing to look forward to, nothing to feel proud of, and nothing to enjoy.”

Adam was no slouch.

The first of three children born to a single mother, Adam’s life was difficult at the start. His mother tried to support the family, working two jobs, but was never quite able to make ends meet. As a child, Adam vividly remembers regularly caring for his siblings while his mother worked but failed to earn enough to put food on the table. As a child, Adam learned to sneak food from school and steal from the local grocery store to provide for his siblings. At age 16, Adam made the decision to live on his own. He dropped out of high school and supported himself by working at a nearby golf course. At the age of 18, Adam earned his GED and started working as a commission-only salesman at a large department store. Adam remembers being extremely driven by the fantasy of having the wealth of the store’s regular customers. Adam felt like a “loser” with no skills and no power.

Adam was extremely proactive about resolving his sense of inferiority. He worked tirelessly to learn the fashion industry and sales techniques. His efforts quickly paid off as Adam developed into a very skilled sales professional, with outstanding relationships with each of his top customers. Year after year, Adam’s sales numbers grew. At age 27, Adam was earning approximately 150K annually. While this financial status initially felt freeing, it quickly became unremarkable. Adam continued to struggle with a sense of worthlessness and inferiority.

Believing his emotional distress would be diminished with a more impressive professional life and a full romantic life, Adam pursued both intensely. He quit his sales job and joined an ex-customer in the start-up of a small software company. He also intentionally advanced his dating life. Adam passionately pursed a range of women. Within two years of co-founding the software company, Adam was earning 500K annually and was married with a child. With a thriving business and a growing family, Adam had everything he’d ever wanted. But yet again, he felt insignificant and useless.

This pattern repeated itself over and over again.

Adam could not seem to deal with his internal distress in any other way. At the age of 58, he had transitioned through six jobs, suffered through two divorces, didn’t talk to his siblings, and had almost no relationship with his child. As always, Adam felt worthless and alone. In his late fifties, Adam began struggling with an awareness of his progressing age. He had worked tirelessly to achieve at a high level throughout his life. And yet, at age 58, none of it held any value.
At the time, Adam held a sales director position with a large pharmaceutical company. He was very successful in his role until he became demoralized by his persistent sense of worthlessness. For the first time in his life, Adam’s psychological well-being had a negative impact on his performance at work. He stopped pushing, trying, and developing. His direct employees noticed, market share in his territory dropped dramatically, and underserviced physicians made complaints. In a last-ditch effort to get Adam’s work performance back on track, his employer bought Adam a six-month executive coaching program….

I started my work with Adam wondering what it would have been like to leave home at the age of 16. Because Adam’s mother was unable to support the family, Adam felt responsible for his siblings at a young age. Then, at the age of 16, he made the decision to go out on his own, effectively abandoning the children he supported. Adam was not responsible for his siblings, but I believed a child in Adam’s position would feel a major sense of obligation.

I wondered what it would have been like to make that decision. Did he do it for them? Were they better off with one less mouth to feed, etc.? Was Adam happy with the decision long term? Did he regret the choice? Did he miss his family?  When conceptualizing Adam, I believed his decision to strike out on his own was very important.  Instead of paying attention to the distress caused by his emotional ties to home, he learned to focus on achieving tangible markers of success.  From the age of 16 he was rewarded for pushing his emotion and his vulnerabilities aside.  Goal accomplishments became the most important and temporarily rewarding aspect of his life.  Instead of worrying about his next meal, Adam was making more money than 96% of the U.S. population.

The negative impact of this attitude was Adam’s inability or unwillingness to truly connect with another person. I believe he approached his personal relationships as strategic tasks, just as he approached his job duties. In his late 50’s, when Adam and I began our work together, he had no ability to truly connect with me.

Based on my conceptualization, I focused the first stages of our coaching on relationship development. Specifically, I focused on my relationship with him. This meant spending much of our time discussing my experience of him, in the moment, in our meetings. I worked to model true relationship development and true vulnerability. I believed that if I could help him find purpose and meaning in our relationship, I could help him find purpose and meaning in his external relationships, past accomplishments, and current job duties.

As his coach, how would you work with Adam?  What would you do differently?


The Resilient Leader: Building Strength Through Adversity

We are offering an exciting specialty course in Social + Emotional Awareness starting May 6th entitled The Resilient Leader:  Building Strength Through Adversity and would love for you to join us!

In today’s world, fundamental change occurs in seconds, whereas twenty years ago it took months.  Resilient leaders are now a necessity and the demand for them is exploding.  Human capital challenges were the #1 CEO concern in 2013 and most are associated with employee and manager capabilities.  Companies are searching for ways to lower employee stress and stop the accompanying decline in individual performance.  This is our “new normal.”

Be on the leading edge and be able to develop your own proprietary model for Resilience Coaching.  The course content for The Resilient Leader:  Building Strength Through Adversity is founded upon the works of Drs. Seligman, Reivich, Schatte, and Seigler, and the U.S. Army’s extensive work with the University of Pennsylvania.

Here’s how this course differs from others you have taken elsewhere:

  • There is abundant theory matched with both application and the opportunity to practice in a learning environment
  • You will create your own “Resiliency Coaching Framework” and have the chance to employ it
  • If you put your “all” into this program you will finish with a high degree of confidence in your ability to help clients build their resilience
  • You will have the tools and the resources to grow in this critical coaching focus area
John MooreThis exciting class will be facilitated by Colonel (Retired) John Moore, CEO of Moore Strength Executive Leadership and Business Advisors.  John is an ICF Credentialed Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and an ACTP Certified Executive Leadership, Business, and Marketing Coach (John Moore Bio).   The cost for the class is $795 and you can earn 6 CCEUs from ICF or 6 re-certification credits from HRCI.
Register today for The Resilient Leader:  Building Strength Through Adversity
Tuesdays, May 6-June 10, 3 PM ET  
We hope to ‘see’ you in class!


“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  –Winston Churchill

No one gets through life without hardships, setbacks, troubles, difficulties and sometimes even tragedy.  Resilience is the ability to bounce back from life’s challenges, to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and carry on.

It’s the ability to rise above adversity, sometimes terrible adversity such as violence, war, the loss of a loved one, loss of income, loss of household due to hurricane or flooding, or ill-health.

A key emotional intelligence skill, resilience can be learned and cultivated.  It builds on a number of other emotional intelligence and self-management skills, including personal power, optimism, agility, and having a bias for action.

Resilient people don’t let adversity define who they are.  Research on resilient people indicates they share certain qualities.  Here are 10.  They:

  1. Maintain a strong support system (friends, family and others), and are willing to accept help from others.  Others in a strong support system want to help.
  2. Practice extreme self-care.  Get enough sleep, eat healthfully, and take time for exercise and mindfulness.
  3. Define themselves from the inside out, from a place of strength and inner personal power.  They believe in themselves, and define themselves as capable, competent, and strong.  They dismiss or disregard the inner critic and instead maintain a sense of positive self-regard.
  4. They reframe the situation.  They try to find the good, the positive, the silver lining if at all possible.  One person said to me recently, “One thing I learned from all this is what an incredible array of friends I have, and how much they truly care about me.”  Sometimes they learn something about themselves and find they have grown in response to the adversity.
  5. They have the ability to manage their responses to strong emotions and impulses, and do so in a healthy manner (and not through drugs and alcohol).
  6. They are “school of life” learners, skilled communicators and problem-solvers.
  7. They view adversity as a temporary challenge, as something they will get through and come out on the other end stronger than when they went in.
  8. Similarly, they keep things in perspective.  They take the long view, the big-picture view, of life and are able to avoid thinking traps such as personalizing others’ behaviors, jumping to conclusions, or magnifying surmountable problems.
  9. Resilient people avoid seeing difficulties as insurmountable.  Rather they begin to set realistic plans and goals, and take small steps to move forward.  They have a “bias for action.”
  10. They accept change as the “new normal” – they know what is within their power to change, and what is not, and they actively work on what is.  They accept that change is part of life, and they are agile and flexible in response to change.

These are just a few tips regarding how we can support our clients in boosting their resilience.  If you would like to learn more, we are proud to announce a new course on Coaching Resilience, May 6 through June 10, 3PM ET, and proud also to introduce you to a new instructor who designed the course, Col. John Moore (Retired).

John MooreColonel (Retired) John Moore, CEO of Moore Strength Executive Leadership and Business Advisors.  John is an ICF Credentialed Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and an ACTP Certified Executive Leadership, Business, and Marketing Coach.   

As a West Point graduate, Army Officer, and Airborne-Ranger John has been leading successful organizations and developing leaders for over 30 years.

He holds a Master of Arts in Leadership Development from the US Military Academy at West Point, a Master of Arts in Strategy Studies from the US Army War College, and a Bachelor of Science from the US Military Academy where he was a distinguished graduate in the top 5% of his class.

John’s leadership in key positions within organizations ranging from 30 to 180,000 people was marked by courage and a commitment to excellence in performance and character.  He has combat experience at every level and was the operational Chief of Staff during the surge in Iraq in 2007-2008.

Upon retiring from the Army John founded Moore Strength Executive Leadership and Business Advisors where he has created models for developing exceptional leaders throughout organizations, creating positive organizational climates, and building steady business growth.

John’s broad leadership and operational experience in complex and demanding environments, leadership education, tenures as a leadership educator; trainer; and coach; and his challenging and accountable coaching approach uniquely contribute to client success and achievement.

He is trained and certified in Social and Emotional Intelligence through the ISEI and will soon be credentialed as a PCC.  He is a highly sought-after speaker and seminar leader on topics ranging from strategic planning, strategic communications, building high performance cultures, business growth, personal and organizational resilience, change management, and inspirational leadership.

The Resilient Leader:  Coaching Resilience Course Objectives

You will learn how to teach your executive coaching clients:

  • What managerial/leadership coaching is, and why and how it works
  • The tools and skills they need to develop to take a coach approach to leadership and management
  • How to conduct a coaching conversation
  • An overview of the leadership coaching process (including gathering data on performance, how to discuss and provide feedback on recent performance, how to develop an action plan for moving forward, how to implement the development / action plan and how to evaluate continued progress and performance)
  • How they can support and challenge their best performers to greater levels of success
  • How they can integrate coaching seamlessly into their everyday interactions with their direct reports
  • How they can shift their mindset from supervisor to coach

You can contact John at or by calling (913)217-5276.

Social & Emotional Intelligence: The Key to Optimizing Decision-Making

Article Contributed by Guest Author Gloria Zamora

Fact based management has proven to be a very beneficial tool to arriving at sound decisions.  Overwhelmingly, data and logic are the main currency of business.  To ignore the facts is to refuse to face reality and learn from past successes and failures.  At the same time, sales professionals know that every decision has some element of emotion.

So how does social and emotional intelligence complement left brain logical decision-making?

David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone in their Harvard Business Review article, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” postulate that there are simple decisions that have clear cause and effect relationships, as well as complicated decisions that have discoverable but not immediately apparent answers.  These types of problems in what they call a fairly ordered world lend themselves to linear, logical, sequential thought processes to arrive at the right answer.

On the other hand, complex problems have many competing ideas, unpredictability and unknown unknowns.  These conundrums in a more unordered world are best solved with pattern-based assessments.  Creative solutions can be buried in linear thinking.  Social and emotional intelligence and big picture thinking to connect the dots are required to arrive at the best outcome.

Without right brain thinking, which Daniel Pink would call a “Symphony aptitude”, emerging patterns would be missed.  Understanding group dynamics and the unspoken language of other players in the equation provides invaluable insights into the many factors impacting the circumstances.  What is being conveyed, yet not being openly discussed? Those oblivious to social awareness cues are at a distinct disadvantage.

At the same time, not understanding our own and others’ emotions can lead to perilous endings.  Warren Buffett talks about his $200 billion blunder that he made when he was 34 years old.   When he invested in Berkshire Hathaway, a textile company, he felt he had been misled by Seabury Stanton, the CEO.  Buffett was upset about the unfair dealings he had experienced, so he proceeded to buy majority control of the company and  then fired the CEO.  Unfortunately, his sweet revenge was ill fated.  Berkshire Hathaway had been a poor investment.  He recognizes now that to “seek revenge at any cost” can cost you dearly.  He estimates that had he invested in the insurance industry, his company would have been worth almost twice as much today.  Allowing negative emotions to cloud your judgment will never result in optimum solutions.

That is the lesson of Social and Emotional intelligence.

Have you found a correlation between the complexity of a problem and the heightened need for social and emotional intelligent right brain thinking?

Assessment Skills – One Key to Effective Leadership

Article Contributed by Guest Author John Drury

As someone involved in people development, you probably know that leaders need to have well-developed assessment skills.

They have to know how to assess an environment, talent, people, products, the market and more. It’s no longer OK to guess. There is too much information available today to wing it. Leaders have to know what’s going on and when to move.

They have to know how to make decisions and what criteria to use. They have to be able to sift through the noise and get to the heart of the matter – and the only way to do this is to learn how to assess.

Assessing is often the big gap in leadership. No one ever teaches you, yet it’s an expected skill. No one hires for it, yet they expect you to be good at it. Being really good at assessing is a must if you’re a leader.

Leaders who have developed their Social + Emotional Intelligence will become good at assessing everything around them, starting with people. The truth is that the better they get at it the further they are likely to go.

Learning Assessment Skills starts with honest self assessment. Usually those who have an accurate assessment of themselves are also those who have become secure enough to invite constructive feedback. And then act on that feedback by making appropriate adjustments to their behavior. This inevitably leads to becoming more adept at building real and open relationships.

Social + Emotional Intelligence development will impact positively on your capacity to accurately assess yourself, your relationships and your environment. In this way, S+EI will make you a more effective leader.


Becoming Victoria

Article Contributed by Guest Author Patrick B. McLaughlin M.A., M.Ed.

Argentina is finally coming to terms with the atrocious events that occurred during the late seventies and early eighties, known as the “Dirty Wars.”

In addition to torturing and murdering so-called “dissidents” – often by dumping them from a helicopter into the ocean or Rio del Plato – officials of the junta also removed babies from their parents, falsified birth certificates and gave the babies up for “adoption.” These babies were often appropriated to those associated with the military regime.

Among the estimated 500 babies who lost their identity was one named Victoria Montenegro. All her life she knew herself as Maria Sol, the name given to her by her adoptive parents, Colonel Tetzlaff and his wife. Victoria was four months old at the time of her appropriation.

Due in great part to efforts by one of the world’s most renowned human rights groups, known as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Maria Sol’s true identity was finally revealed to her; while those who had carried out so many atrocities were ultimately brought to trial. Not only did she choose to revert to the name Victoria Montenegro, which her vanished parents had given her, she faced reconstructing an identity within her legitimate family of origin whose very existence had been unknown to her.

Every unforeseen event in our lives – the loss of a job, the death of a family member, the devastating termination of a friendship, a vicious divorce, or the shock of discovering that one’s future has been shattered by serious illness – will require the life-affirming strengths of resilience and personal power. The ability to call on these strengths within ourselves when we need them can mean the difference between adapting successfully and finding ourselves stuck or unable to cope.

We can only imagine the blend of inner strengths that Maria Sol/ Victoria Montenegro drew upon when, to her horror, she discovered she was not the person she thought she was. She had to face the devastating truth that her military father had been instrumental in the elimination of those who had been so cruelly deprived of the joy of raising their child. And they had been eliminated because they questioned a particular political view.

On the journey of creating a new identity, Victoria also showed extreme competence in empathy when she made the choice to care for her dying “father” despite the circumstances. Her quality of personal agility has clearly been essential in her continued success at adapting to remarkable challenges.

Should you wish to hear this documentary, go to Radio Canada, The Current. Click Episodes and you will find “Becoming Victoria; Argentina’s Dirty War.”

Coaching for Emotional Intelligence

Bright, talented 20-something employee at an international consulting firm. Exceptional analytical and writing skills. Less-than-exceptional people skills.

REASON FOR SEEKING COACHING: After a disastrous performance at her first and only client meeting—according to her supervisor, she interrupted, invalidated, lectured and demonstrated a lack of respect—Jan’s been benched. She knows her career options will be limited if she continues to be relegated to data analysis and report-writing, so she’s sought coaching voluntarily.

VP of manufacturing for a global satellite television company, charged with overseeing plants around the world. Able to get work done on time and under budget while still ensuring high quality. Unable to communicate respectfully to his supervisees.

REASON FOR SEEKING COACHING: Steve’s supervisees have described him as hot-headed, hostile, demanding, dictatorial, abrasive, rough around the edges and even toxic. Several talented employees have left the company because of his management style, and disengagement is a problem among his remaining supervisees. His company has asked him to work with a Leadership Coach to become more respectful of others.

Business analyst and liaison to the IT department in an insurance company. Known as “the nicest guy at the office.” Also known as “the guy who never says no.”

REASON FOR SEEKING COACHING: With so much on his plate, Richard ends up working nights and weekends to finish the tasks he’s taken on, and assignments still go uncompleted. He feels like he can never get ahead, and sometimes feels like an impostor. Plagued by self-criticism and indecision, he’s enlisted a coach as he decides whether to stay in his position or seek work elsewhere.

Q: What do Jan, Steve and Richard have in common?
A: They all lack social and emotional intelligence.

Defining S+EI
Social and emotional intelligence (S+EI) is the ability to be aware of our emotions and the emotions and concerns of others and to use that information to manage ourselves and our relationships, both in the moment and over the long term.

Early emotional intelligence (EI; sometimes written as EQ) researchers and theorists included Peter Salovey, John Mayer, David Caruso and Howard Gardner, aka the father of the concept of multiple intelligences. The concept of EI entered the public consciousness in 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his best-selling book, “Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman, then a science writer for the “New York Times,” took the concept of EI out of the realm of academia and made it accessible to a general audience. In addition to piquing the public’s interest in EI, Goleman’s book sparked substantial research; as a result, we now know that EI is a better indicator of personal and professional success than cognitive intelligence (IQ).

More recently, the conversation surrounding EI has broadened to include social intelligence; i.e., relationship management and the outward manifestation of EI’s internal component. Perhaps the best way to think about the concept is through the Four-quadrant Model (shown below), based on Daniel Goleman’s work.

Self Other
Awareness Self Awareness Other Awareness
Management Self Management Relationship Management

S+EI and Coaching
Having strong S+EI supports masterful coaching. By being aware of the emotions coming up for us in the coaching interaction, as well as attuning ourselves to the client’s emotional state, we can better manage the coaching relationship. We’re able to pick up not only on what’s being said, but also what isn’t being said, and we’re able to better understand and support the client’s growth and development.

Incorporating S+EI work into coaching also provides a common language—an emotional vocabulary—that can make it easier for the coach and client to have difficult conversations. This is particularly important for clients who feel overwhelmed by their emotions, as well as for clients who have been taught to repress or discount their emotional responses. Finally, the work of cultivating S+EI adds skills to our coaching tool kits that make us far more effective. As coaches, our primary interest is in helping our clients achieve success. Given the demonstrated importance of S+EI in shaping future success, it follows that coaches skilled in S+EI coaching are better able to support their clients.

Intelligence in Practice
The ICF Core Competencies call on coaches to help our clients create awareness—of themselves, of others and of the situations they encounter. Awareness is also the foundation of S+EI, with self-awareness as the starting point. After all, we can’t be aware of the emotions others might be experiencing if we don’t have the ability to be aware of what we are experiencing; we also can’t manage our emotional responses without this awareness and understanding.

In their daily lives, all three of the clients introduced at the beginning of this article displayed a lack of self-awareness; as such, this needed to be the first area of coaching intervention. One way to increase clients’ self-awareness is by showing them how they’re seen by others. Soliciting direct feedback is one way to gather this information; this is how Jan learned about clients’ negative perceptions. A 360-degree-feedback assessment can also be used to collect this information. This approach proved useful for Steve, yielding feedback that helped him see how his frequent blowups impacted his subordinates, peers and supervisors.

One activity recommended across the board for fostering emotional self-awareness is emotional tracking. The coach can provide clients with a comprehensive list of emotions and request that they track what they’re feeling throughout each day for a week. This kind of steady, sustained self-reflection helps clients become more aware of what they’re experiencing in the moment. It also expands their emotional vocabulary, giving them a better understanding of and language for the nuances of what they’re feeling. For example, are they feeling anxious, or apprehensive? There’s a difference. Are they feeling enthusiastic or exhilarated? Again, there’s a difference.

Jan and Steve initially pushed back on the idea of tracking their emotions, saying they were too busy, but with encouragement each gave it a try. Not surprisingly, Richard said yes immediately when presented with the idea.

Jan came to her next coaching session, spreadsheet in hand, saying she was surprised by the exercise. “I didn’t think I even had emotions!” she exclaimed. The exercise helped her identify moments when she’d become defensive (when a client questioned her data analysis, for example), and her interpersonal communication skills improved as she tuned in to this reaction. Over time, she developed the ability to read her clients, and discovered that what she heard as criticism was in fact clients’ confusion about details of her reports. She became better able to respond in a helpful manner and a pleasant tone of voice to their lack of understanding when she realized it was about them, not her.

Although Steve wasn’t as thorough as Jan, he completed the exercise with enough frequency to discover a pattern to his anxiety and frustration—those moments and situations when he was most likely to blow up at the people around him. Steve’s coach asked him to think about these emotional triggers and consider his usual reaction, as well as the impact this reaction had on people around him. (The 360 assessment provided useful context here.) Steve observed that his frustration first showed up in his body, with a tensing of the shoulders followed by a clenching of fists, and he was able to come up with several new, more constructive ways of responding to his triggers.

Richard tracked his emotions on an hour-by-hour basis over the course of the week. Like Steve, he identified some patterns to his emotional responses, and came to the session feeling that his self-awareness was significantly heightened. He realized he felt resentful when people asked him to do things outside his job description, manipulated when asked to tackle low-priority tasks and paralyzed when asked to take on other people’s responsibilities. Richard and his coach brainstormed together to explore new responses to these requests and design new actions, such as setting boundaries and priorities. He even began to experiment with saying “no.”

S+EI is squarely in the public consciousness and offers a promising area of growth for coaches. With literally hundreds of tools for assessing and developing S+EI at our disposal, coaches can ensure that our own S+EI competencies are well-developed, while also working toward a theoretically sound coaching practice that empowers our clients’ own S+EI growth and development.

According to a case study by Six Seconds Consulting’s Joshua Freedman, Sheraton Hotels saw a 24-percent increase in market share in those markets where they introduced S+EI training and coaching.

In a 1998 article for the journal “Psychological Science,” David C. McClelland reveals that PepsiCo generated 10 percent more productivity and experienced a whopping 87-percent decrease in turnover by recruiting and developing managers with high levels of EI.

According to a case study published by the organizational consulting firm Genos, S+EI programs at IBM are driving significantly higher employee engagement levels.

In a 2007 case study published in the journal “Organisations & People,” Sue Jennings and Dr. Benjamin R. Palmer report that Sanofi-Aventis, a French pharmaceutical company, saw a $2 million-plus-per-month increase in sales after providing S+EI training and coaching to sales representatives in a development group as compared with sales reps in a control group which did not receive the training and coaching.

Salespeople at L’Oreal trained and coached in S+EI brought in $2.5 million more annually in sales than their counterparts in a control group that did not receive coaching, Lyle M. and Signe M. Spencer report in “Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance” (1993).

Copyright © 2013 Laura Belsten and ICF

Optimism: The Power of Negative Thinking

(This is the second in a series of blogs on Using Positive Psychology in Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence)

screaming womanThe Power of Negative Thinking?  What’s up?

Consider this scenario.  You’re coaching one of your favorite clients.  They have something really big they want to achieve and you are supporting them.  You’re pulling out all the stops.  You have them picture what their life will be like once they achieve their goals.  You ask them to visualize every detail.  Where are they sitting?  Who is with them?  What’s around them?  Are their toes in the warm sand?  Are their fingers wrapped around the leather steering wheel in that hot new car?  Can they just hear the applause and see the standing ovation after that big speech?  You ask them to imagine what it will feel like once they’ve accomplished this big goal – actually, even more than imagine what it will feel like, you ask them to try to really experience the feeling of it.   What are those feelings?  Will they feel proud?  Confident?  Elated?  Exhilarated?

Good emotional intelligence coaching, right?  You have them visualizing and actually feeling the emotional tug of accomplishing the big goal.   This positive imagery and the associated positive feelings will really help them feel motivated and inspired, right?

Well . . .   not so fast.  According to research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen at New York University, visualizing and even feeling what it will be like to achieve our big goals and dreams in life can actually backfire.


Well, the visualization and emotional pull can help at first, but over the long run, it can trick the mind into relaxing, as if all the hard work has already been done, and the emotional energy we stir up initially around achieving the goal can actually trickle away.  People can actually become complacent.

In one of Dr. Oettinger’s studies, students enrolled in a computer-programming knew they had to excel in mathematics in order to succeed in the program.  All the students had high hopes and a great determination to excel in math.

The students in the program were separated into three groups.   In the first group (the “indulging group”), the students were asked to name (and write down) four positive aspects associated with excelling in mathematics (e.g., feeling proud, getting a better, higher-paying job, getting more job offers to choose from, etc.).

In the second group, (the “mental contrasting group” – see below), the students were asked to name two positive aspects of excelling in math, and two obstacles to reaching their goal in alternating order (e.g., I’ll get a better,  higher-paying job, but I might get lazy and not do the work.  But I’ll get lots more job offers, but then again, I might get distracted).

The third group (the “dwelling group”) was asked to think through and write down four negative aspects of not excelling in math.  (e.g., I’m not smart enough, I don’t have the time to study, etc.)  Ugh.

The teachers in the program tracked the students’ performance for two weeks following this exercise and “graded” the students on how much effort each student had invested over the ensuing two weeks in excelling at mathematics.

Only in the second group, the “mental contrasting” group, where the students considered both the positive AND the negative aspects of achieving their goals, did the students earn the grades needed to achieve the goal of excelling in math.  Not only did they get the grades, they exerted the effort needed, and they also felt far more energized toward the goal compared with the students in the other two groups.

The students in the first group, the “indulging group” who were asked to imagine only the good aspects of success felt only moderately energized, demonstrated only moderate effort, and earned only moderate grades, despite their high expectations for success.  Same for the students in the third group, the “dwelling group” who were asked to think only of the negative.  They too felt only moderately energized, showed only moderate effort and earned only moderate grades.  Students in the first group actually felt de-energized after visualizing their success would come so easily.   Many became complacent.   And those poor students in the third group never felt energized from the start.

Many other studies confirm these findings, including studies on learning a second language, finding work/life balance, smoking cessation, and various other goals related to self-improvement.

Those who simply fantasize about their goals actually feel less energetic about them and end up achieving fewer goals.   One study of mid-level managers at four hospitals in Germany was particularly interesting.  One group of managers was trained in the mental contrasting technique (explained below) and one group was not.  Two weeks after the training, those who had been through the training achieved far more of their short-term goals than their colleagues who did not attend the training.  They also found it easier to make decisions about how to use their time – another benefit of mental contrasting:  by thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, we pick goals we are actually likely to achieve and avoid wasting time on projects that will not get us to our goals.

So what is this Self-Regulation Strategy of Mental Contrasting?

Mental contrasting requires two steps involving both “positive” and “negative” thinking and emotion.  We want to ask our clients (or ourselves) to:

1)     Imagine the attainment of the desired future or goal (“positive thinking”) in vivid detail, and then

2)     Reflect on current reality and the obstacles which may stand in the way (the aforementioned “power of negative thinking”)

This process helps people be realistic in determining whether they can achieve a goal or a desired future state, and whether they can make the commitment to do so.

When the feasibility or expectation of success is high, people commit strongly to attaining the goal; when feasibility is low, they are far less likely to form a commitment to a goal (their goal commitment is weak or simply non-existent).

Mental contrasting is therefore a useful tool in helping clients with realistic optimism, selecting goals that are attainable.   In the process, they reserve their energy and personal resources (time and money) for the goals they can achieve.

An additional benefit of mental contrasting is that it requires individuals to think of the obstacles (or the negative aspects) that could get in the way of goal attainment so they can plan in advance how they can remove those obstacles.

In sum, it helps to have an end goal in mind, and a clear vision or picture of what that goal will be.  Vision, purpose and direction are vital to our success.   They get us to our goals.  But we also need to engage in “mental contrasting” – realistically thinking of the negative and the obstacles that could get in the way so we can plan for them.  We need to think about where we want to be, and realistically where we are now.  Interestingly, this process ends up actually energizing us more toward goal attainment than simply fantasizing and solely engaging in positive thinking.

Optimism is more than hope and positive thinking.  I don’t wish to diminish hope.  Hope is important.  Without hope we have nothing.  But optimism is more than hope.  Optimism is about being realistic about the work involved, and about taking action, and about overcoming obstacles.  Optimism involves considering the negative as well as the positive.

So, give this mental contrasting technique a try for yourself.  Think about something big you would like to achieve and write down at least three benefits of success.  Then reflect on and write down at least three things that could get in the way.  Going through this process helps us direct our motivation and energy where it’s needed most, and also helps us determine whether a particular goal is truly feasible or simply not in the cards.

What are your thoughts?  Have you tried reaching a goal simply by visualizing success while not considering potential roadblocks?  Did it work for you?  Were you successful?  Have you ever tried mental contrasting?  How did that work?

Our new course, Using Positive Psychology in Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence starts this Thursday, March 7.  Positive Psychology is first and foremost a science.  While it’s “nice” to believe in the power of positive thinking, the science indicates more is needed.  Mental contrasting is just one of over a dozen evidence-based Positive Psychology techniques we will be reviewing to support our practice of Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence. Come join us this Thursday to learn more!  Register here

Is Optimism Really Good for You?

Choose to be optimistic.  It feels better.

– Dalai Lama XIV

This is the first in a series of blogs on Positive Psychology and how it supports our work in coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence.

Last Spring, I had the wonderful good fortune to take a class* from the late Dr. Chris Peterson.  Chris was one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology and a scholar and researcher with a long-standing interest in optimism (as well as health, character, and well-being).

Sadly, for all of us who studied with him, and for all the world, Chris passed away unexpectedly last October.  He was an inspiration to me and to many others in the world of Positive Psychology.  He taught me to strive to seek the positives in life, to “pursue the good life,”  to scientifically study what goes right in life, and to always remember that “other people matter.”  He is so missed, and one of my primary goals in teaching a new course (starting next week) on Using Positive Psychology in Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence is to pass along some of the many lessons Chris taught me.

Today, we will touch on some of his work related to optimism.  Prior to Chris Peterson’s research, optimism had developed something of a bad rap (believe it or not).  People equated optimism with Pollyanna, and the annoying Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide  (i.e., foolish, stupid, unrealistic optimism).

Positive Psychology is based, above all, on science, and Chris Peterson turned his attention to the scientific study of optimism.   In fact, studies of optimism preceded and helped usher in the field of Positive Psychology, which is why we will start here.

An enormous amount of empirical research over the decades (Peterson’s and others) has demonstrated that optimism is good for us.  Among the benefits, optimism can lead to:

  • Better health, bolstered immunity
  • More satisfying relationships (both friendships and intimate relationships)
  • Greater success in work, school and sports
  • Less stress
  • Lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure
  • Increased longevity (longer life)
  • Greater happiness
  • Enhanced resilience and coping skills
  • Greater productivity and motivation
  • More patience
  • Enhanced physiological and psychological well-being
  • More effective problem-solving
  • Greater self-confidence and positive self-regard
  • Improved social life and bonding between individuals
  • Greater focus
  • Improved communication and self-expression
  • Enhanced mental flexibility and creativity

Optimism and other positive emotions have a positive impact on virtually every bodily function and organ in the human body, including the brain, the heart, the vascular and immune systems, the hormonal system and on detoxification.

An optimistic expectation leads us to the belief that goals can be achieved.  Positive expectations can be self-fulfilling.  So how can we set optimistic expectations, both for ourselves and in support of our clients?  This will be the subject of a future blog post and will also be explored in our upcoming class (starting next week!) Using Positive Psychology to Coach Social + Emotional Intelligence. 

In this advanced class, we will be covering dozens of Positive Psychology exercises and interventions (related to optimism and many other topics that can add significant value to our practice of coaching social and emotional intelligence).  To register, click here


*While I have taken several courses in Positive Psychology over the past few years, I had the good fortune to take the Positive Psychology class with Dr. Chris Peterson through MentorCoach, LLC, a coach training school based out of Bethesda, Maryland.  Their foundational coaching training program is based on the principles of integrating evidence-based coaching and the science of Positive Psychology.  For anyone seeking an ICF-accredited program for your foundational coaching training, I highly recommend MentorCoach.  For information, contact Dr. Ben Dean at

Take a Positivity Break

This week’s article comes from Betty Mahalik, one of our own S+EI Certified Coaches.  This article deals with positive psychology and the tremendous positive impact this can have on coaching our clients and on ourselves.  In fact, this topic is so important, we have added an advanced course on positive psychology to the course line-up here at the The Institute for Social + Emotional Intelligence.  Betty’s blog post on this topic is definitely worth your time and an excellent article.

Last week I received one of those blog messages that I believe has changed my life. It was from Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author of a book I’m reading called Buddha’s Brain, that links current neuroscience research findings with ancient practices such as meditation. His message, backed by research was this: focusing on the positive really works to grow your brain, increase your emotional balance and generally make you a happier, healthier person.

I’ve always prided myself on being a positive person, but Rick’s article took the idea of positivity to a whole new level for me. You see it’s not enough to simply think positive thoughts or keep a gratitude journal or count your blessings. Those are fine as far as they go. But the real juice—that research is now validating as vital for improving your mood, attitude and your health–comes from internalizing those positive experiences at a deep level, using multi-sensory images to “burn” them into your brain. I recently explained it to a coaching client like this: using all of your faculties, reenact the positive experience and then imagine that the positive emotions being triggered are sinking down into your whole body like butter melting into a hot English muffin.

Want to try it? Start right now by recalling a positive moment from the past 24 hours. It might be something as simple as a trip through the produce department of the grocery store to something more emotionally meaningful like a loving conversation with a friend or family member. Now in vivid detail recall that experience with as much sensory memory as you can muster. What color were the fruits and veggies? What color was your friend or family member wearing? What else did you notice during the experience? What smells do you recall? Was there a particularly loving expression or a smile your loved one was wearing? What did you hear? Were there any particular sounds or words you want to recall from the experience?

Once you’ve reenacted the experience with as much imagery as possible, now imagine all of the positive emotions you experienced seeping down through your brain, spreading into your body, neck, back, shoulders and heart. Stay with the imagery and the sensations of love, peace and well-being for as long as you want. You can do this exercise in as little as 30 seconds or take a longer 2-3 minute positivity break. According to Hanson, the longer you can hold the images and feelings the stronger the beneficial effect on your brain: “The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in implicit memory.”

This practice not only sharpens your recall of the positive things in life, (something many of us have a hard time doing because of a built-in survival bias for noticing the negative), it actually builds more positive neural activity in the brain, which has a beneficial effect on everything from your productivity to your health, according to Hanson’s research. It also strengthens your ability to experience more positive emotions in the moment.

Keep paying attention to the positive and here’s what Hanson says begins to happen: “Over time you will fill up your cup, overcoming the negativity bias of your brain with a growing, inside-out sense of happiness, love, and peace.”

Don’t know about you, but I think our world and each of us as individuals could do with a growing, inside-out sense of happiness, love and peace.

I’ve noticed since I started consciously taking positivity breaks that I’m calmer, more centered, naturally more grateful and I’m paying attention to the little joy-filled moments of everyday rather than waiting for the “biggies” to happen and being disappointed when those so-called big moments don’t live up to my inflated expectations. I also notice that I’m replaying those negative memories and moments less frequently, another benefit to the positivity practice!

Every moment is a gift. This year I invite you to start engaging in regular positivity breaks. Train your brain to “take in the good” and develop the daily habit of reviewing those small but precious moments of happiness that often flit by unnoticed.

Okay I’ll take the lead and declare today a special occasion: National Positivity Day! Now it’s your turn to help create a groundswell of positive experiences and emotions. Go ahead and take a positivity break….take in the good….feel the love.

Have a positively wonderful day, week, month and year!

If you have an interest in learning more about positive psychology and how it can be used in coaching social + emotional intelligence,  our next class starts Thursday, March 7th.  You can view the entire schedule by visiting

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