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Harnessing the Power of Positive Psychology in Health Coaching – with Robert Biswas-Diener


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Positive psychology coaching plays a critical role in the health coaching context. Today we talk with ADAPT Health Coach Training Program faculty member Robert Biswas-Diener, author of Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, The Courage Quotient, and The Upside of Your Dark Side. We discuss the important skills and competencies one needs to be successful as a health coach and how effective health coaching can help stem the rising tide of chronic disease.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:  

  • Robert Biswas-Diener’s journey from psychologist to coach
  • What is positive psychology?
  • Combining positive psychology and coaching
  • The fundamentals of health coaching
  • How health coaching differs from an expert or authority approach
  • How asking powerful questions shifts the dialogue
  • Framework for coaches just getting started
  • What an aspiring health coach should look for in a training program

Show Notes:

Chris Kresser:  Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. Today I am very excited to welcome Robert Biswas-Diener as a guest. Robert is the foremost authority on positive psychology coaching and has consulted with a wide range of international organizations on performance management and talent development. He conducts trainings on coaching, strengths, positivity, courage, and appreciative inquiry with organizations and businesses around the world and through his own coaching school, Positive Acorn.

Robert has trained professionals in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and the Middle East. He has a doctorate in social psychology and a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is an ICF Professional Certified Coach. He’s the author of Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, The Courage Quotient, and The Upside of Your Dark Side, among other books. Robert is also on the faculty of the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, which is launching in June, where he has created and is going to be delivering the content on developing core coaching skills.

So I’m really excited to talk to Robert about positive psychology and especially its application in a health coaching context—why it’s so important, what the most important skills and competencies somebody needs to be successful as a health coach are, and how effective health coaching can help stem the rising tide of chronic disease. So let’s dive in. Robert, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

Robert Biswas-Diener’s Journey from Psychologist to Coach

Chris Kresser:  So let’s start by talking a little bit about your background, like, how you came to this work, how you came to positive psychology, and then how you ended up working primarily as a coach. Because you have a background in psychology and you chose, at least from my understanding, not to work as a clinical psychologist. So I’m just curious to hear more about your journey.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Certainly. Yeah, it’s a good question. I think, like most people, I come from a family entirely populated by psychologists. Both my parents are psychologists, my older sisters, who are twins, are psychologists, so I was the fifth person in my family to get a degree in psychology. Our parents were very liberal and understanding and open-minded. They said, “You can go into any subfield of psychology you want.”

Health coaching isn’t just providing information or advice, it’s about becoming a “change agent”—helping your clients to discover their own motivation and strategies for change. Positive psychology is a powerful tool in this process. 

Chris Kresser:  It’s amazing that you’re so normal, Robert, with all those psychologists around.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Well I don’t make any claims about my normalcy. But I can definitely tell you that psychology was the air we breathed growing up. My father had all these sort of psychometric and psychological measurement devices around. We had a little sort of stuffed bunny that we pet, but it had a meter attached to it to measure how aggressively you were petting it. That’s the kind of thing you were exposed to as his kids. I know this makes my father sound a bit like a sadist, but he would have my sisters and I clean his office as quickly as possible. And whichever of us did the best job could have the thumb of our non-dominant hand shocked in a shock machine.

Chris Kresser:  Totally normal, totally normal childhood.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Absolutely. See, we just grew up thinking that people and the study of people is totally fascinating. And more interesting still, my father is one of the people who pioneered happiness studies. So it wasn’t just looking at depression or the darker elements of human nature, but we grew up thinking happiness is something worth studying, something you can define and measure. And that’s really what attracted me to psychology in general. I, as you mentioned, pursued a doctorate in clinical psychology.

But I knew by the time I got my master’s that I didn’t want to be a full-time therapist. I think therapy is great, noble work, but I just knew it wasn’t for me, sitting across from one individual helping one person at a time. And I made the tough choice to leave and go study, do research with my father, and I spent about five years traveling the world and studying happiness, which was a pretty blissful five years of my life. And I had the opportunities to visit some pretty extraordinary places, work with extraordinary people. But I did, while doing research, missed that one-on-one connection, that sense that I was doing more than creating knowledge. I wanted to help people make a difference in individual lives. That’s when I discovered coaching. This was sort of right around 2002. And I was able to leverage my expertise in positive psychology and my training and coaching into a decent career that allowed me both to continue researching and satisfy my quest for knowledge, while also helping people, to satisfy that aspect of my mission.

Chris Kresser:  So what was it about coaching that you decided that you didn’t want to work as a clinical psychologist in that one-on-one capacity? But what was it about coaching that drew you to it where the practice of clinical psychology did not?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  There a few things. And again, I certainly like clinical psychology, but my sister, my mother, they’re both clinical psychologists and good people. But there’s something weighty about it. The sense of responsibility you have when you sit across from someone who’s in psychological distress, that you have to keep your heart pretty open to them, you have to be empathic, compassionate to them, and you’re often dealing with trauma, with suicidality, with pretty high-stakes concerns. I’m glad that there are people doing that, but the risk for burnout is high in that function.

Chris Kresser:  Right

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And coaching, by contrast, just really to me seemed somehow more playful, a little bit more goal focused, that we could be light about it, take it less seriously. People were coming to me because they’d always wanted to write a novel and they’d put it on the back burner their whole life, and they just hit midlife, had their crisis, and they finally wanted to get going with it or they wanted just to establish better work/life balance. Or they wanted to improve their health or they wanted to be a better manager. They had just gotten promoted and they felt like an imposter. And these are not clinical concerns, and it just felt like, wow, this is a bit … the stakes are high here, but they’re not life-or-death stakes. And we can kind of have fun, the people who came in felt healthy and resourceful. It didn’t drag me down at the end of the day, I guess.

What Is Positive Psychology?

Chris Kresser:  Right, and perhaps more compatible with your interests in happiness and positive psychology, which I want to talk to you a little bit more about. Because some of our listeners are probably not that familiar with positive psychology, and it was really, at least from my perspective looking in from the outside, fairly radical. Psychology historically was more focused on the past and what’s wrong, perhaps. And here comes a new way of approaching it that is really more focused on what’s right and the present. So I’m just curious to hear more about, you know, how you got involved in positive psychology. It sounds like through your family, but tell us a little bit more about the evolution of this approach. Because I think that’s an interesting story in itself.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. So sort of the nutshell version of the history of psychology is a long time ago psychologists were either philosophers or medical doctors. And they were just trying to puzzle out, why are people doing the things they’re doing? And the medical doctors were doing things like, how does the nervous system work? How does the brain work? And the philosophers were asking questions like, what is morality? What is our duty? What’s our best potential? And for a long time, even up until sort of the year 1900, psychology did have a lot of emphasis on positive topics like morality, companionship, friendship, support, and athletic performance, even. Winning. And it was really only after World War II and at least in the United States with the creation of the Veterans Administration, that there was a pivot towards a clinical focus. Because clinical issues are pressing, and folks coming back from war time were experiencing what then was called shell shock, we now know as PTSD. And rates of depression and later on anxiety were growing at epidemic rates.

So about half of the psychologists in the United States now are clinicians, and that’s a pretty overwhelming amount. But around the turn of the century, that is 1980 or 1998, 99, 2000, there was sort of this reinvigoration that, yeah, it’s okay to focus on these pressing psychological ills, but that really it’s only half, or one portion, of human nature. What about people who are generous? What about people who are funny? What about people who are great learners or great teachers? Shouldn’t we also be looking at those types of topics? Optimism, savoring, and happiness. And so a group of researchers and practitioners got together and sort of established this new approach. It was an old way of thinking, but it came under a new umbrella called positive psychology.

Chris Kresser:  And when positive psychology first was introduced, was it well received amongst conventional psychologists? Was it controversial? What happened?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, it’s a really great question and I think that anyone who has probably opened a blog in the last five years has probably come across at least some study suggesting that X makes you happy, whether that’s a glass of wine or a little workout or a piece of chocolate or spending more time with friends, whatever it is. So it is part of the zeitgeist, I guess, that just sort of this idea that happiness research is out there, I think, is widely accepted now. But really, there are a lot of stereotypes about positive psychology. There are many skeptics, many critics of it.

Many of the most common sort of complaints, if you will, are folks who think that positive psychology is pollyanna, it’s just this naïve science where we only focus on the positive and we would never talk about anxiety or depression or divorce or child abuse or any of these social ills. And say, “Ah but we should all be happy all the time anyway.” And that’s not true, actually. There are no researchers that actually believe that. We’re just trying to say, “Hey, let’s study all of human experience, not just the darker half. And then some folks also criticize it a little bit as sort of a middle-class movement. They say, “Hey, there’s folks living in poverty, there’s real injustice going on, and you’ve got these middle-class people attending happiness seminars.” There might be a seed of truth to that, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily wrong for middle-class people to want to be happier. And nor do I think it’s exclusive to the middle class. I think that upper-class and lower-class people, I think across the economic spectrum, folks are interested in happiness.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, so I mean that pollyanna critique is one that I’ve heard, and I’ve seen people conflate positive psychology with things like affirmations. Just repeating the outcome that you want to see or the beliefs or thoughts about yourself, over and over again. But there’s really actually quite a bit of research supporting positive psychology, isn’t there?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, at the heart, really, it is a robust science. It’s largely happening in universities you’ve heard of. Places like Stanford and Harvard, as well as others. Very solid researchers using sophisticated statistics, sophisticated measurements and methods, and it’s a lot less New Age-y, I guess, than many people might assume. It’s not, let’s just reframe every bad thing like, “Oh, I’m so happy I got cancer because this is going to be an extraordinary lesson for me.”

Chris Kresser:  Look at the bright side.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, that’s really not what this is about. Really, we’re interested in saying things like, like, just take a concept like savoring that is taking a positive or pleasant moment and extending it mentally. So it’s sort of like, who does this? Are women, are men more likely to do it? Young people or old people? When do they do it? Are they more likely to do it when they are together or when they’re alone? Do we do it in different ways? For example, when you get together with your buddies and you tell these kinda good times that happened to you collectively long ago—that’s a form of savoring. You’re taking that pleasant moment from the past and dragging it into the present. When you talk about a meal as you sit across from someone and say, “Oh you should try this. It’s really good,” that’s a form of savoring. And so we’re really just kind of interested in kind of describing like, what’s going on with these fascinating phenomena.

Chris Kresser:  So there’s the application of positive psychology in a psychotherapeutic context, like in a clinical context where a client is coming to see a psychologist for anxiety or depression, or any number of other complaints. But then there’s how positive psychology is applied in a coaching context where the focus is more on behavior change. And that might include things like focusing on strengths and leveraging those strengths instead of trying to fix things that are broken or not working as well. So tell us a little bit more about that, how you’ve combined positive psychology and coaching practice.

Combining Positive Psychology and Coaching

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Okay, so, so it’s interesting. Some people who have just a passing familiarity with positive psychology will recognize some of these sort of artificial interventions that are often trumpeted as happiness-producing. There are things like, you should write down three things for which you’re grateful each day, and if you do that, that will yield good happiness dividends for you. In positive psychology coaching, we don’t really do that because coaching isn’t prescriptive. I’m, as a coach, not going to say here’s what you should do. I’m not giving a lot of advice. A lot of the positive psychology and positive psychology coaching is invisible to the client. And just to give you a couple examples of this.

One, you already mentioned, is strengths, that we’re interested in clients identifying their strengths, seeing those strengths as actually being strengths, not just dismissing them as ordinary, and using them optimally. So that might be “use your strengths more,” but it might also be “use your strengths less,” or “use them more judiciously” with a certain type of person for whom the strength doesn’t make sense. So imagine someone who’s great at humor, they might want to use humor with some people but not others. And the coaching process would be reflecting on when this strength, when does this strength of humor go well? How should you best employ it? And through that process, you would be more effective at using your strength.

And another thing we would do in positive psychology coaching would be just to invite people to focus on solutions rather than problems. And I think this is kind of an artful way of thinking because it’s a little bit tough. Because people want to complain, and you can’t invalidate them by saying no, no, no, let’s not talk about your complaints, right? So you let them talk about their complaints, you just don’t invite them to do so more than they normally would. Instead, you invite them to focus on solutions. The simple question is, “Wow, that complaint sounds awful. What would you prefer instead?” And it’s so, so much of the positive psychology in the coaching is very subtle and it just comes out in the form of very natural questions.

Chris Kresser:  So let’s talk a little bit more about coaching because this, as I’ve, we’ve been preparing to launch our ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, have been talking to a lot of people about coaching, both people who identify as coaches and people who are wanting to learn to become coaches, people who are experts in the coaching world. And it turns out there are a lot of different definitions of coaching and a lot of different conceptions of what a coach should do. I mean, certainly for some who might not be very familiar with health coaching or life coaching or executive coaching, they might think about, like, a sport coach, you know, like someone with a whistle around their neck, blowing it and yelling at them. And that’s what they think of as coaching. But what is coaching from your perspective? What defines coaching?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Sure, it’s a great question and I think you’re right, there are a lot of stereotypes around it, right? Sort of this New Age life coaching kinda stereotype, just like, “Hey, if we could look at your past lives, which of those would you want to use?” And I think that there is some of that in coaching, and there’s folks that do coaching that have no training in it, and I think that’s a little bit dangerous. This is a profession. It’s not just something that you can kinda shoot from the hip. So I believe that coaching fundamentally is a professional relationship where the coach acts as a facilitator. And in the capacity as a facilitator, they work with their client to help the client achieve personally important goals, and they do so primarily through some broad mechanisms.

One, they support the client and they act as a yes-man or yes-woman, kind of saying like, “Yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah, what would it take for you to try that?” They also provide accountability. “So you want to make this big behavioral change. Great. I’m going to hold you to that. You’re gonna let me know exactly the progress you’re making and I’m going to hold your feet to the fire if you fall short of that.” They also do a lot of exploration. That makes up the, sort of the lion’s share of a coaching session. And that just comes in the form of questions where you probe the client’s life. You have them take stock of his or her identity and resources, challenges, hopes, help them articulate goals. And then the last thing, I think, is just a little bit of challenge too. You mentioned the sports coach with a whistle, and while I wouldn’t whistle or yell at my clients, I don’t mind occasionally needling them or prodding them, or doing a little bit of that just to improve motivation as well.

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The Fundamentals of Health Coaching

Chris Kresser:  Right. We’ll come back to that, because I think it’s important to emphasize that there are different styles of coaching and not necessarily a right or wrong way to do it. And I know you’re a big believer in authenticity in coaching. So I do want to cover that. But before we dive in there, let’s shift our focus a little bit toward health coaching because that’s something that I’m interested in. And something that I’ve noticed as I’ve gone around having these conversations is that some people have the impression that a health coach is someone who requires a lot of expertise and information about things like nutrition and lifestyle, like sleep and exercise. And then their primary role is to deliver that information and expertise to the clients that come to them. What is the problem with that understanding?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  The problem with that understanding is that it’s not what health coaching is fundamentally. That is like being an educator, that’s a health educator or health consultant, perhaps. That’s saying, “Look, I’ve got the solution for you. I know it’s gonna work. And if only you follow my plan, magically, things are going to go right for you.” But again, going back to that kind of sports analogy, the sports coach doesn’t run out on the field and grab the ball away from the players and try and score with it. That is, they’re not playing the game. They recognize the players play the game and they’re just there to motivate, encourage, help them see the big picture, help them improve their strategy, help them train. And that’s really a better model for a health coach.

So the health coach can go in with a client that wants to make some type of health change, anything from “I want to quit smoking,” to “I need to get into the gym.” And they help the client tease out his or her own solutions that make sense in the context of his or her own life. Because I think we all understand X amount of exercise is pretty good for people and that you can look at exercise in terms of mobility and strength building and flexibility and all these sort of subcomponents of it. But what about the client in front of you? What about this single mom who’s stressed out, has a preteen, and a teen kid, is trying to balance work and home life, doesn’t have a huge amount of time or money for a gym membership? What’s the solution for that person?

And that person gets to be the expert in their own life and a health coach’s job is to help them explore what makes sense for them given their circumstances. And certainly a little bit of expertise in diet, nutrition, and so forth might help the coach to ask better questions. But ultimately it’s asking and not advising.

How health coaching differs from an expert or authority approach

Chris Kresser:  Right. Such an important distinction. And now I’ve talked about this in other contexts, but there are statistics like the CDC has estimated that only about 6 percent of Americans engaged in the top five health behaviors, like maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough sleep, and not drinking too much, not smoking, etc. And as you suggested, it’s when people are not maintaining these behaviors, it’s not because they don’t understand that they’re beneficial, right? It’s that there’s some obstacle to change or some ambivalence.

And let’s talk a little bit more about how a coaching approach is different than the maybe what we could call the “expert” or the “authority” approach in resolving that ambivalence or making progress in terms of behavior change. Because from my perspective, just doing more of the same thing, which is recruiting more experts, more people who can tell patients or just individuals what to do. Which is kind of the approach that we’re still taking both in conventional medicine and I would even say in conventional health coach training programs. Why will that fail?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Well, it potentially could fail for many reasons. I think it’s interesting you go in to a conventional doctor, and of course they’re varied, and there’s wonderful doctors and there’s lazy doctors and there’s all kinds of doctors. But let’s say you’re overweight and the doctor cares about that and they bring it up to you, and they say, “Oh, it would be a good idea for you to lose a little weight and maybe here’s a pamphlet about weight or about diet.” I think we can probably agree that much of the information contained there is probably outdated in its approach.

It would be things maybe like caloric restriction or things that really are not widely accepted anymore, but the real problem there is that they haven’t looked at the client’s motivation, they haven’t looked at the client’s readiness for change, they haven’t explored who supports or potentially sabotages the client’s diet. They don’t understand anything about the client’s pattern of eating, their shopping or cooking behaviors, are they emotional eaters, do they have a sweet tooth, is alcohol a crutch for them in terms of managing stress. How are their sleep habits factoring into their weight? And really that necessitates an in-depth and exclusive sort of coaching-like interview with the client to help tease out really a strategy or a plan that’s going to be effective given all those factors for that specific individual in front of you.

Chris Kresser:  I know you’re a big believer in asking powerful questions, and it seems to me that one of the main differences in the approaches we’re talking about now, this expert or authority approach and a coaching approach, is just that. Asking questions rather than providing answers. We know that the average amount of time a patient gets to speak before they are interrupted by their doctor is just 12 seconds.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I’ve never heard that before. That’s great.

How Asking Powerful Questions Shifts the Dialogue

Chris Kresser:  It’s true. That’s a statistic peer-reviewed study that found where they went around and observed these interactions. And even with observation, that was true. So yeah like, why is asking powerful questions so powerful? I mean how does that shift the dialogue and the outcomes?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Certainly. So let me just preface my answer by giving just a quick example of what a powerful question is. We all understand what a question is, but if I ask you what’s your birthday, that’s not a particularly powerful question. It’s very easy for you to answer that. It takes almost no thought whatsoever for you to provide an answer.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  But if I say, “These days, what’s most important to you in life,” that requires a little bit of reflection, a little bit of thought. It forces you to make choices and to articulate something that feels weighty. And that’s an example of a powerful question. So if you have someone coming in, I’m just going to go back to the idea of optimal weight as an issue. If you ask questions like how important is it to you to change your weight. What do you believe is standing in the way of weight change? When in the past have you had success in this particular issue? Who supports you in this? When you lose a little bit of weight, how does make you feel?

Those are the types of questions that get the client to take stock of her resources, she can take stock of how important this is, what she’s willing to sacrifice to make this change, the potential path to getting there. You can set up lots of little experiments. You can say, “Let’s just try this and see. We don’t know if it will succeed.” And certainly that’s really important and something like behavioral change around health habits because people often backslide. And when they backslide they end up feeling very badly about themselves. They feel like failures.

But if you just set it up, set client expectations from the get-go, as in, “Hey, behavioral change is hard, sometimes you’re on vacation, sometimes it’s the holidays. Circumstances are always changing. So we’re always going to be modifying our plan. We don’t expect it to be perfect. We’re really just doing these experiments and getting feedback,” that can make the change process a lot more empowering to the client.

Chris Kresser:  And I think more effective, certainly. I mean, one of the things that I’m often hearing … I was just at a conference last weekend and a very common topic of conversation amongst nutritionists and also health coaches who I think have not actually been trained in these core coaching skills that we’re talking about is something along the lines of this. Like I was actually asked this, not this year, but last year I was approached by a coach who said, “Where can I find more motivated clients? I’m having a hard time getting people to follow my program.” And she asked me because her perception was that I had the most motivated patients, which is probably true. My patients are generally much more motivated than others because of all the hoops they have to jump through just to get to see me. And she was wondering where she could, how she could hook up with some more motivated people who would follow her programs. And I don’t say this to be critical of her at all and or anyone who has the same question. Because it can be really frustrating when you feel like you have a lot of knowledge and expertise that could help your clients, or your friends and family members, but they’re not acting on it.

So where do these core coaching skills come in, in dealing with this? And maybe you could talk a little bit about ambivalence and what it is, and how coaching can help coaches, practitioners, and clients, patients that find themselves in the stuck place.

Robert Biswas-Diener: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the great elements of coaching is just this fundamental attitude that you have about your clients. That whether your client walks in overweight, or with diabetes or with any number of things that society might judge them for, it’s important for coaches to just kind of keep, I guess, an open heart or an attitude of acceptance towards their clients. And so you don’t start seeing your clients as resistant or unmotivated. Instead you’re curious and you try and figure out what’s standing in the way of your motivation. What would boost your motivation? What’s one small change we could make that might sort of shift you a half step up in motivation?

I’ll give you just a very quick example of this. I was speaking with a health coach yesterday and we were talking about a single mother. This is the example I gave before, who gives sugary cereal to her children. And it was sort of driving the health coach crazy because everyone in the world knows that you shouldn’t load up a bunch of milk on sugar cereal, give it to kids, and expect them to learn for the day. And really what the single mother was saying is, “Yeah, you know that and I know that. Everyone knows that. But I have a million battles that I have to fight throughout the day. I have a million things on my plate. I’m trying to balance my own health, fitness, and well-being with a heavy workload at my job, with raising these children with no support from my ex-husband, and sugar cereal is not the battle I choose to fight. And I just need help prioritizing which are the battles that are perhaps the ones that are better to invest in.”

And I think that’s where this kind of open-hearted attitude … You don’t say, “Oh, this client doesn’t get it. They’re resistant to my anti-sugar cereal protocol and they’re not following my guidelines.” But instead they’re reaching out and they’re smart and resourceful, and willing to make change. They just want your help figuring out how best to do that and it’s probably not during breakfast. It might be something else. They might prioritize dinner or grocery shopping, or figuring out ways to have the kids contribute to the meal prep, or any number of solutions. But we don’t know what that solution is. Only the client ultimately understands what’s in their context.

Chris Kresser:  And when the client discovers their own solution with maybe the support of the coach, what do we know about how likely that is to be successful over the long term versus a solution that comes from the coach or somebody else?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Here’s what I think about it. I would guess that you want me to say, “Well, when the client comes up with her own solution, she’s going to be more successful at it.”

Chris Kresser:  No, I’m just asking you a powerful question, Robert.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah okay, good, good. Because that is not my answer. I think that when clients come up with their own solutions and they’re willing to commit to them and try them, I think their motivation is up. I think they’re more likely to follow through on the behavior change. Ultimately, we don’t know if that’s going to lead to more success. Because maybe the idea wasn’t a good one. Or maybe the kids don’t accept the change, to use this recent example. Or maybe just bad luck and it just fails.

Like, we don’t guarantee success, but what we do know is that the client feels better about it. They feel empowered, they feel motivated, they’re more likely to follow through. They’re probably more likely to persevere, even if it doesn’t go well the first time. And those things might be related to more success overall downstream, but I think even those things like motivation and perseverance are major wins in and of themselves.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. So we have a number of people who are in our audience who are health coaches, or seeking to become a health coach. And I know another thing that I’ve heard, especially for new health coaches or people who are just learning about this, is it’s a lot. They’re studying positive psychology and character strengths and things like motivational interviewing and the transtheoretical model and stages of change and building trust and rapport and empathic forms of communication, etc. I mean, it can be a little bit overwhelming. So I know from our previous conversations that you have a, what I think is a really great framework for coaches that are getting started, like what they should focus on first as they begin to get experience with clients.

Framework for Coaches Just Getting Started

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. And I think you’re right. There is sort of an overwhelming amount of skill and knowledge to be learned. And everyone thinks all of it’s equally important and it all needs to be frontloaded. It’s just, it can be a real burden for a new student of coaching. I believe that if you could just sort of, like, really strip down coaching to its barest bones, kind of like if you had a car that just had wheels, an engine, and the steering wheel, like just its basic bits, it didn’t even need lights or seats or anything to still work, that for coaching that would be what I would consider the bookends of coaching—that is, how do you start and stop a coaching session?

And you start by setting a really sophisticated agenda. Just kind of shoot from the hip and say, “Hey, what do you want to talk about today?” Because that’s a little bit like taking off in an airplane but having no destination in mind. It might be an enjoyable flight, but how do you know when it’s over? Is it just when you run out of gas? So I really think that setting an agenda, it’s quite masterful. People often say, “Oh, it seemed so easy, and then I started trying it, and it was really difficult to master.” So making sure that the agenda is really specific, really pointed, that it’s something that can be accomplished, something that the clients bought into.

And then the other bookend is setting up accountability, extracting some type of behavioral promise related to a goal from the client and creating a plan by which they are accountable to that. And then basically the stuff in the middle, the third skill, is just asking those powerful exploratory questions. There are loads of other skills that you can season a coaching session with, but I think those are sort of the core elements.

Chris Kresser:  So I want to talk a little bit about what an aspiring health coach should look for in a training program. You train coaches, we’re setting up to train coaches, and you and I have talked a lot about what should be present in a training program. You’ve been in education for a long time yourself, and I know you have a lot of thoughts about that. So I’d love to hear what would be the most, what are the most important things from your perspective?

What an Aspiring Health Coach Should Look for in a Training Program

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think you could find a difference of opinion on this. But I have some pretty strong opinions. First, I think that an emphasis on effective pedagogy, that is, how is the program delivered, is really crucial, and I actually think that it’s a fairly overlooked element of most coaching programs. Most coaching programs operate like, “Hey, why don’t you fly into our city for the weekend? We’ll just load you up in the quickest time possible with tons of practice, we’ll write you a certificate at the end,” and that’s highly appealing to people because they can get a lot of information in a very short amount of time. Unfortunately, it’s not really good for learning. You can’t cram information like that, and it’s a terrible way to learn skill, because to learn skill effectively, you need to space out, practice over time, and to get feedback on it.  

So I think really high-quality coaching programs occur over periods of time, not over periods of weekends. They really think about effective communication. So they’re balancing a little bit of lecture with lots of demonstration, practice opportunities, feedback, discussion groups, so that you’re really getting the information from multiple channels. And to some extent, I think that that’s almost more important than what the content is itself. So I would definitely look for that. I think that the programs that have some type of official affiliation, that is, they could provide you with some kind of institutional affiliation and say, “And look, there’s an ethics code that goes with this. And even we have oversight in what we, there’s oversight on our program. Someone is checking in to make sure that our program is high quality.” I think that’s a great thing because I think there’s a lot of sort of coaching programs popping up, just, you know, “Acme Gold Standard Coaching Program” that’s just some guy in his basement that decided to offer something online.

And I also, like, I’ll just say this as one last consideration. I really like what I think of as a generalist model. I’m deeply skeptical when a coaching program has their own sort of proprietary model. “Come to our Interchange Academy where you can learn the interchange method that includes six levels of listening and seven levels of leadership and eight levels of change.” And you only get taught our model and exactly our formulaic steps, and they’re taught as if they’re the laws of nature. And that doesn’t describe every coaching program. Some coaching programs are like, “Hey, whether you’re doing executive coaching or life coaching or health coaching, really kind of just here are some general skills that work. Here are some ethics that you should build on as a foundation. Here are some practice opportunities and some feedback.” So I really like the generalist approach rather than trying to get you to buy into, like, a particular orientation or philosophy.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s really helpful, and I know you and I have talked about the learning theory and pedagogy in the past. And I really scratched my head over that one because I talked, I’ve written and talked a lot over the years about the disconnect between the most recent nutrition research and medical research and what the standard of care is in the conventional model. How disparate, how much of a gap there is between what the research shows now and what’s actually being done in conventional settings. But I think that gap is even bigger when it comes to learning theory.

There’s so much research on how humans learn most effectively. And it’s really, at least from my perspective, doesn’t seem to be very controversial at this point. And yet the way that the vast majority of not just health coach training programs, but any educational programs are structured, even medical training programs, is completely at odds with this modern learning theory.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Absolutely, yeah.

Chris Kresser:  It seems to shoot these programs in the foot from the beginning. I hear from so many people. Actually, I just got an email yesterday from someone who’s, I’m not going to name the program specifically, but a highly regarded integrative medicine training program, he actually sent me a video of what is inside of the training portal, and seriously, it looks like it was designed in 1978. It’s just all text, no case studies. It’s just like a textbook kind of barfed out online, right?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  And he said it’s just all 100 percent passive learning. They’re just meant to read the slides, all the slides just have text on them, and he’s miserable. And he paid a lot of money for this program.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Absolutely. Well one of the things that’s happened sort of broadly in the training space is a lot of it is market driven, and that is, customers are asking for more passive learning opportunities for chunked learning. Give it to me just in a weekend. But it turns out that these same consumers, that’s convenient for them, but they have never studied effective pedagogy. And oftentimes they don’t even realize how much that by demanding this type of product, they are shortchanging their own ability to truly absorb information and master skill.

As a quick example, I was just in Manila in the Philippines last week and I was training psychologists and executive coaches. And I was just training them in one particular skill in a day. And I said, “I won’t be using PowerPoint today.” And exactly, that was the collective gasp. They said, “No one has ever tried to stand in front of a group in a hotel ballroom of more than 100 people for a day without PowerPoint.” They were like, how could that be possible? And people came up to me afterwards and they were surprised. They said, “Wow, you held our interest despite not having PowerPoint.” And I think it’s just interesting.

Chris Kresser:  I would say almost because of not having PowerPoint you were able to hold their interest.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Well, exactly. Like, yeah, let me guess, you weren’t looking at the screen and you are now focusing on the presenter.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly, yeah.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  But it is that they’re not bad people for being used to PowerPoint; they just have never studied this or had opportunities to engage with high-quality training modalities.

Chris Kresser:  So we’ve covered a lot of ground today. It’s been really fascinating conversation and I would love to just hear … We talked about some of the things that you would look for in a training program for coaching. What are some of the pitfalls or things to watch out for, for someone who’s thinking about becoming a coach, or what’s your kind of top-of-mind best advice that you would give someone, if someone came to you like a family member perhaps, and said, “Robert, I’m thinking about becoming a coach”? What would you say to that person?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  The first thing I would say is listen to your instinct. If you have a conversation with someone at a coaching program or you’re looking at a coaching program, and there’s just some kind of yellow flag, treat it like a red flag. If there’s something about the way they’re self-promoting or talking about their success that just sort of rubs you the wrong way, I say absolutely listen to that because that’s not just the pitch, that is who they are.

So really look for a fit with something that just feels good for you. I know some of the people that come to me, they say, “Oh, you don’t mind challenging us. You don’t demand that we agree with you, but you’re also going to say things that other people aren’t saying. And that’s going to sound fresh and challenging, and we’re going to have to wrestle with it.” And for people who have that orientation, that’s going to be a great fit for them. The other thing that I worry about, and I did kind of allude to this before, sometimes when someone has just too glossy a package, when they say, “This is our perfectly copyrighted material and it’s the seven steps or the three ways, and you’re going to do it in this very formulaic way,” it doesn’t feel very natural to me. It’s sort of a one-size-fits-all solution. And I am generally skeptical of that.

And then the last thing I would say, just be on the lookout for people who may not themselves have obvious research expertise, but who are touting the research. And they’re saying things like “this study proves that,” and so first of all, studies don’t prove things. They just offer a bit of evidence for things. And a single study is just a single study. You get 10 or 20 studies together, and it starts pointing towards a reliable conclusion. And people with true expertise speak in those more measured terms. They say, “We have mounting evidence for.” And when you start hearing these sort of grand research claims, I would also treat that a bit like a yellow flag.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Cool. So where can people learn more about your work, Robert? You’ve written several books, a couple which I’ve read for coaches. Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching is a fantastic book. You’ve also written The Courage Quotient, The Upside of Your Dark Side, and then a book on happiness. I think that was with your dad, right? That one. So yeah, tell us a little bit more about this and where people can learn more about your work.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah. I think The Upside of Your Dark Side is my most recent book. That’s the one I would recommend to people. It basically looks at, hey, good stuff is good, the happiness is pleasant, it’s associated with all sorts of benefits. But it’s also okay to occasionally be angry or guilty or sad. Let yourself off the hook for that. Mindfulness is terrific; occasional mindlessness has some benefit as well.

So it’s just looking more holistically, if you don’t mind the word, in trying to sew back a little bit of that shadow onto the Peter Pan positivity. And people can also find me at RobertDiener.com. It’s my website. It has some of my published academic articles on it. Or you could just really just find me out there on Google. I write blogs and there’s all sorts of stuff out there. I’m not hidden.

Chris Kresser:  That is D-i-e-n-e-r, RobertDiener.com. You can also find Robert in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program because he is, I’m very excited to say, that he has created the core coaching skills content for the program. And not only did he create that content, he’ll also, true to our focus on pedagogy and continuous learning and the importance of experiential and practical learning, he will be also providing support, demonstrations, and feedback in a live seminar format with that content as coaches move through the course.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Of all the programs that I’ve worked on and all the projects I’ve worked on in the last year, I’ve got to tell you that it’s this that I’m most excited about, to be honest. I’m thrilled to be doing it.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, I’m so … I’m flattered and happy to hear that. I’m excited about it too, and I think we have an incredible team. We’re going to be talking with Ken Kraybill from t3 about motivational interviewing in the next podcast, which is another, essentially, a way of asking powerful questions. A specific kind of approach to that, and I can’t wait to get going with this because I think the, with the rising rates of chronic disease and what we talked about, doctors are not, and more experts are not what we need. We need people who can actually facilitate behavior change. And that’s what this is all about.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Absolutely.

Chris Kresser:  Thank you so much, Robert, for being with us today. And again, RobertDiener.com. Check it out. Upside of Your Dark Side his most recent book. And for those of you who are joining us in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program in June, you will be seeing and hearing more from Robert in that program. So thanks for listening, everybody. Keep sending your questions into ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time. All right.

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  1. Hi Chris,
    Great article! I’m 25 and going back to graduate school and deciding between psychology and nutrition. Do you have more articles that would help me get a better idea? If I chose nutrition, one thing that I’ve noticed that concerns me is that there are so many nutrition books written by MDs now that I’m concerned that having the nutritionist degree/license isn’t enough. I feel like MDs who swit into nutrition dominate over the voice/works of nutritionists. What are your thoughts?

  2. “First of all, studies don’t prove things. They just offer a bit of evidence for things. And a single study is just a single study. You get 10 or 20 studies together, and it starts pointing towards a reliable conclusion. ”

    Wise words. Good to see.