The Art of Strengths Coaching

P is for The Positive Solutions Approach rather than The Paralysed By Problems Approach  

Different people take different approaches to tackling challenges. The approach they take can have consequences for both themselves and other people.

Some people focus on positive solutions. They are often aware of challenges but quickly move towards finding solutions. They focus on what they can control and aim to shape a positive future. They aim to spread encouragement rather than despair.

Some people focus only on problems. They complain about how bad life is and focus on what they can’t control. This would be okay if they moved to finding solutions. They often feel paralysed, however, and transmit this feeling to other people.

Looking back, can you think of a time when you chose to find positive solutions to a challenge? This could have been in your personal or professional life.

You may have taken this approach when managing a setback, dealing with a crisis, helping a person or tackling a problem. You may have done so when acting as a counsellor, mediator, leader, technical specialist or when playing another role.

What did you do right then? You may have chosen to buy time, gather information and clarify the real results to achieve. You may have explored the possible options and considered the consequences of each option.

You may have clarified the key strategies you could follow to achieve success. Committing yourself fully, you may have kept following good habits. You may then have done whatever was required to achieve success.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you focused on finding positive solutions to a challenge. 

Describe the specific things you did then to focus on finding positive solutions to the challenge. 

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

Different people choose different attitudes towards life. They are responsible for the attitude they choose but this can be influenced by various factors.

People who aim to find positive solutions are often positive realists. They have a positive attitude but are also good at reading reality. They also develop an internal locus of control rather than an external locus of control. This is a term coined by Julian Rotter in the 1950s.

A person with an internal locus of control believes they can play a large part in shaping their future. They believe that, whilst external events may bring challenges, they can take an internal decision regarding how they respond to such events.

People with an external locus of control believe that things happen to them. They often feel that their happiness depends on external events and how the world treats them.

Other people may try to help the person, but their suggestions fall on unreceptive ground. The person often finds a reason why the ideas won’t work. They keep saying:

“Yes, but …”

People who take responsibility often focus on the following themes when aiming to find solutions. Let’s explore how they may translate these into action.


People develop scripts in life. These are the things they say to themselves in certain situations. The messages they give themselves often affect the attitudes and behaviours they translate into action.

People can choose to develop positive scripting rather than negative scripting. They can choose to say the following.

“I can make things happen,” rather than, “Things happen to me.”

“I can tackle this challenge,” rather than, “This is too big a problem.”

“I can become the best I can be,” rather than, “I must always compare myself to others.”

The idea of scripting became popular in the 1960s. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, explained that individuals learn life scripts that act like an internal programme.

Parents and teachers play a strong part in the scripts that people internalise. Imagine you grew up in a family where the messages were either of the following. These could have a strong influence on how you deal with situations.

People can also choose to create their own script and aim to follow it in certain situations. One tennis player, for example, often got to the final of events but then fell apart. He had two contradictory messages going through his head. These were:

“I must try to win but I am bound to fail.”

Working with a sports psychologist, the player rewrote his script. During the matches he kept saying to himself:

“I am going to flow rather than fear.”

This message spread through his whole body. He became more relaxed and began winning tournaments.

A person who writes their own script can also shape their mental model – the way they perceive life. This affects the running commentary they have inside their head.

They may then keep repeating this as a form of affirmation or guidance. Faced by a difficult situation, for example, a person can choose to say:

“I will aim to do my personal best,” rather than, “I am bound to fail.”

Some people get to the point where they focus on the positive possibilities rather than become paralysed by fear. They are then more able to flow, focus and finish.

Different people develop their scripts in different ways. Some learn from people who embody the next theme.

Solutions Thinking

People learn from two kinds of positive models. The first are people we learn from in the family, education, work and society. They show us positive ways of behaving in our daily lives and work.

The second are positive models – such as positive frameworks – that help us to understand and navigate experiences. Such frameworks may also provide practical tools that help us to make things work successfully.

People can study success when exploring a particular field. They can study what works and how people have found solutions to challenges. This can involve asking the following questions

“Looking back, when have people tackled a similar challenge successfully? What did they do right then? What were the principles they followed? How did they translate these into action? What happened as a result? 

“Looking ahead, how can people follow these principles in their own ways? What other skills may they need to add? How can they do their best to achieve the desired results? What will be the benefits of achieving success?” 

This is a route I was advised to take in my own work. It involved learning from great workers in therapy, education, work, sports and other fields.

When I led therapeutic communities, for example, it was important to learn from similar places that had produced excellent results. The programmes that succeeded followed certain principles. They worked with clients who were prepared:

To take responsibility for shaping their futures and work towards achieving specific goals; 

To develop skills for achieving their aims without hurting themselves or other people;  

To develop resilience, find solutions to challenges and do their best to achieve their goals.

These themes were mirrored in approaches such as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. Wally Gingerich, Professor of Social Work at Case Western Reserve University, explains this approach in the following way.

“Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is a short-term goal-focused therapeutic approach which helps clients change by constructing solutions rather than dwelling on problems.  

“Elements of the desired solution often are already present in the client’s life, and become the basis for ongoing change.  

“The therapist intervenes only to the extent necessary, with treatment usually lasting for less than six sessions.” 

During the early 1970s I began working with teachers. Today there are concerns about schools, but we have known for years how to create schools that get positive results.

Looking around for schools that worked, I met and learned from Henry Pluckrose. He was remarkable teacher who inspired thousands of people around the world. Between 1968 and 1984 he was the head teacher of Prior Weston, a state primary school in London’s Barbican.

The school encouraged children to be creative. This was done through a curriculum which taught the key areas of literacy and numeracy, weaving them into every aspect of school life. The results were impressive. It attracted a waiting list of students and visitors from many countries.

I first heard about Prior Weston on the BBC radio programme The World At One. It was introduced as a school which ‘everybody liked’. Students and parents were so enthusiastic that the presenter pleaded:

“Please tell me one thing that is wrong with the school.”

Prior Weston enabled children to master social and educational skills. It also encouraged them to express their individuality through the arts – such as poetry, music and acting. Every year students went on scores of visits to local buildings, theatres, museums and workplaces.

The school’s approach to education proved successful with students, parents and even governments. Visitors to Prior Weston had to be limited to 4,000 a year and, on one occasion, included the Queen of Denmark. After writing his book Open School, Open Society, Henry was invited to advise decision makers from many regions of the world.

Prior Weston worked because it took an educational rather than engineering approach to helping children develop. Making learning relevant and rewarding, it encouraged children:

To be curious, gather knowledge and learn how to learn;

To build on their strengths, set specific goals and work to achieve success;  

To develop skills they could use to shape their futures.

The school embodied what employers now call the required Four Cs of 21st Century Skills. Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration and Communication. Prior Weston worked because it helped its students to develop these in the 1970s.

There are several variations regarding what people believe make up these Four Cs. Here are some themes that are mentioned.

During the 1980s I learned a lot from sports psychology and great workplaces. Both focused on how people could continue to deliver peak performances.

The sports psychology part involved working at several Scandinavian Sports Universities. They provided courses in which athletes learned how to build their strengths, find solutions to challenges and perform at their best.

The company work involved helping leaders and teams to do pacesetting work. It also involved working at the world’s first school for Intrapreneurship. This focused on how employees could continue to be creative and stay ahead of the game.

Today there are many organisations that focus on finding solutions to problems. Many social enterprises, for example, support people who are tackling the world’s biggest challenges.

These include organisations such as the Unreasonable Group, Echoing Green and the Ashoka Organization. They provide practical help that enables people to find positive solutions.

There has also been the rise in Solutions Journalism. The Solutions Journalism Network, for example, aims to report solutions that provide practical ways forward. Here is an excerpt from their website.

We train and connect journalists to cover what’s missing in today’s news: how people are responding to problems. We’re working to bring solutions journalism to every newsroom worldwide. 

Solutions Journalism

Can be character-driven, but focuses in-depth on a response to a problem and how the response works in meaningful detail;

Focuses on effectiveness, not good intentions, presenting available evidence of results; Discusses the limitations of the approach; Seeks to provide insight that others can use. 

This calls for going beyond good news stories. They are heart-warming but rarely get people to think about systemic change. 

By contrast, solutions stories are driven by the problem solving – and rely on independent evidence to solve it. Like any good story, they have interesting characters, action and tension, but they are constructed more like puzzles or mysteries than profiles or descriptive pieces. 

The tension is not grounded in an argument, but in the inherent difficulty of changing a system or making an idea come to life. If told well, what gets revealed is often a little treasure of understanding – an insight about how the world works. 

Axiom News is an organisation that highlights stories that focus on people’s strengths and provide a positive way forward. Here are some details about their work which are taken directly from their web site.

Axiom News – Why We’re Here

We believe there is great power in storytelling.  

It’s an enabler of strengths, a catalyst for change and a means to propel people and organizations to an inclusive, harmonious and prosperous future, a place where they have their greatest impact.

While storytelling is our skill and occupation, it’s driven by our hopes and aspirations for a better world.

With each organization we serve we take a step towards a better world, a thriving world. It’s our collective efforts to serve a purpose greater than ourselves that will affect The World We Want To See. 

Together, we can change the paradigm of what is possible. We can demonstrate through an abundance of personal, practical stories a better way, a strengths-based way to a brighter future. 

Our Mission

We are called to co-create a life-giving news network for a renewed and thriving world. We do this through the provision of Generative Journalism services to organizations.  

Generative Journalism is founded on the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based, capacity-building approach for propelling organizations towards their highest potential. 

How We Serve 

Through the writing and sharing of strength-based news stories we: 

Lift the voice of all stakeholders, whole communities, knowing that inclusive, interdependent, collaborative and co-created organizations hold the greatest potential for the future.

Mobilize individuals, organizations and their communities towards a thriving and prosperous future.

Inspire hope, encourage creativity and motivate people and organizations to discover and explore the full scope of possibilities before them.

Discover strengths and latent potential that often lie dormant in the hearts and minds of people in organizations. 

Bring awareness, understanding and appreciation of those leading change, taking initiative and making a meaningful contribution. 

Animate organizations with stories that paint in full colour how personal contributions and individual talents serve to inspire peer creativity and innovation.

Change the lens through which people and organizations view life and work by presenting liberating models and practices that honour people and optimize the impact on our world.

Solution-thinking plays in vital role in helping to build a better world. This leads to another theme that encourages people to find solutions to challenges.


People are more likely to focus on solutions if they believe these will work. People buy success rather than the theory of success.

Good educators, for example, often focus on enabling learners to achieve their chosen goals. One approach they use is to go through the stages of inspiration, implementation and integration.

This is also a path sometimes taken by therapists, coaches, mentors, trusted advisors and other people who pass on knowledge. Let’s explore how you may want to follow these steps in your own way.

Setting The Scene

Good educators start by creating an inspiring environment in which motivated people can learn. Whenever possible, they make the sessions enjoyable and effective. They then encourage, educate and enable people to achieve ongoing success.

Before running the actual educational session, however, they aim to set it up to succeed. You will have your own approach to making this happen, but here are some things it can be useful to do before running a session.

Clarifying the
goals for the session

Imagine that you are going to run an educational session for motivated people. This could be, for example, a workshop for an organisation. It will obviously be important to clarify the specific things that people want to take away from the session.

Clear contracting is crucial in any relationship, especially if you are supplying a service to other people. So it can be useful to talk with the key stakeholders beforehand and ask them some of the following questions.

“What are the goals for the session? What are the key themes it would be useful to focus on? What are the concrete things that you and other people would like to take away from the session?

“Who are the people who will be involved? What is happening in their world? What are some of the challenges they face? What are the specific results they want to deliver – or must deliver – in their work?

“What are their strengths? What are the specific areas in which people deliver As rather than Bs or Cs? How can they build on these strengths? What are the things they need to learn to manage the consequences of any weaknesses?

“What for you would make it a successful session? What are the specific things you would like people to be saying, thinking, feeling and doing after the session? What are the steps they could take towards achieving their picture of success?”

Bearing these answers in mind, play back your understanding regarding the goals for the session. Make sure everybody is agreed on the desired outcomes.

Clarifying the
roles for the session

Good educators aim to be both encouraging and ethical. This often involves explaining what they can and can’t offer to help people to reach their goals.

Some of my own work, for example, has involved mentoring performing artists. I can’t help them with the technical aspects of singing, acting or other areas of expertise. But I can provide them with practical tools they can use:

To clarify their picture of success; 

To build on their strengths whilst managing the consequences of any weaknesses;

To pursue practical strategies and perform superb work; 

To find solutions to challenges;

To do their best to achieve their picture of success.

Good educators make clear contracts at the start of the session about: a) The goals to achieve; b) Their own responsibilities and other people’s responsibilities in working towards achieving the goals.

Sharing these at the start of the session, they then ask people:

“Is there anything else you would like to add to the goals?”

If appropriate, they add these topics to the goals to achieve.


Good educators create an inspiring environment. They make sure all the physical and psychological things are in place to enable people to learn. They then launch into the first topic to explore.

Such educators often start by giving people the context and explaining the big picture. They then move between the concepts and the concrete. Bearing this in mind, they may say something like the following. 

“The first topic we are going to focus on is …

“The way this fits into the big picture regarding what we are aiming to do is … 

“The specific things we are going to cover are …


Different educators move from the concept to the concrete in different ways. One approach they use is to follow each idea they introduce by saying:

For example: …

This immediately forces them to give a specific example that brings the idea to life. They aim to communicate this in a way that resonates with people.

Good educators demonstrate their enthusiasm in different ways. Several years ago I worked with the head coach of a football club who loved his job. Before our one-to-one session he invited me to watch him lead a training session.

There were only six players taking part – because many were away on international duty – but he made the 90 minute session enjoyable and effective. He was positive, encouraging and continually introduced fresh ideas to keep the players on their toes.

After the session I asked him how he motivated himself with so few players. He said:

“I think about what I want them feeling and saying afterwards. I want them to say:

‘That was a good session. It was enjoyable and I learned things that helped me to be a better player.’ 

“I am the coach and set the tone. If I am not enthusiastic, nobody will be, so I have to lead by example.”

Good educators also tap into the inspiration within people. They often follow the organic approach to development. This is based on following beliefs.

People already have within them the seeds of development;

People already have strengths and successful patterns that they have used in the past to achieve their goals;

People can be helped to build on these strengths and successful patterns – plus add other skills – to develop and achieve their goals. 

Good educators help people to build on these inner resources. This encourages people to believe they already have some of the answers within them. They can continue to develop and – by adding to their repertoires – can achieve their picture of success.


Good educators provide implementation tools that work. They are able to go from the philosophical to the practical, from the conceptual to the concrete. They provide knowledge, models and tools that people can use in their daily lives and work.

How do they gather this information? They study what works, simplify what works – but in a profound way – and share what works. They then pass on this information in a way that enables people to achieve their goals.

As mentioned earlier, such educators study success. They watch people, teams and organisations in action – or study examples of their work – and see what they do to succeed. They often take the following steps when studying and simplifying knowledge in a particular field.

They focus on what people do right – the principles they follow – to succeed;

They translate these principles into positive models that people can follow to succeed;

They provide practical tools that people can use to follow these principles in their own ways to succeed.

Good sports coaches, for example, share this information in a way that the person can use to reach their goals. They start by watching the person in action or studying examples of their work. Before sharing any knowledge, they ask themselves:

“What are the person’s goals? What are the real results they want to achieve? What is their picture of success?

“What are they doing well? How can they do more of these things in the future? What can they do better in the future and how? What are the specific things they can do to reach their goals?

“What are the key messages I want to give the person? What are the positive models and practical tools I can share? How can I pass on this knowledge in a way the person can accept and use to achieve their goals?”

The next stage is to invite people to test the tools in reality, just to make sure they work. If so, the tools are added to the repertoire of options that people can use to reach their goals.


Good educators help people to integrate the learning in their own ways. They encourage, educate and enable them to achieve ongoing success.

A person needs to own the knowledge. They need to make it part of their own way of working towards achieving success. This applies whether they are developing skills in computing, cookery, creativity, dancing, engineering, economics, football or whatever.

Imagine that you want to help somebody to integrate a piece of learning. How can you take this step? One approach is to go through the following stages.

Invite the person to focus on applying a
particular strategy or skill in a specific situation

Invite them to focus on a specific situation in which they want to succeed. Looking at the situation, invite them:

To be crystal clear on the real results they want to achieve;

To clarify the key strategies they can follow to do their best to achieve these results;

To mentally rehearse going into the situation and pursuing the strategies – plus dealing with any specific challenges – on the way to achieving the desired results.

The person goes into the situation, applies the strategy or skill and aims to achieve the desired results. Then comes the next step.

Invite the person to evaluate
their own performance

Give the person time to reflect on how they performed in the situation. When they are ready, invite them to work through the following framework.

Building On Strengths

The specific things I did well were:




The specific things I can do to follow
these principles more in the future are:




Tackling Areas For Improvement 

 The specific things I can do better
in the future – and how – are:



Encourage the person to share their self-evaluation. Explore how they can continue build on their strengths and, where appropriate, manage the consequences of any weaknesses.

You can then, if you wish, pass on knowledge that they can use to achieve their goals. If appropriate, you can ask them.

“Is it okay for me to share some ideas you can use in your own way?”

The person will say that is okay, but it is important to make this psychological contract. You can then share positive models and practical tools the person can use to achieve success. Again, you can do this in a way the person can accept and use to achieve their goals.

Invite the person to clarify their
learning and also plan ahead

When appropriate, give the person time to both reflect and look ahead. Invite them to make an action plan.

My Action Plan

The specific things I can do to keep building on my
strengths and tackle the areas for improvement are:




The specific benefits of
doing these things will be:




How do you know when somebody has integrated an idea? They use their own language and methods to explain what they are doing to make things happen.

Good educators often take people through the stages of inspiration, implementation and integration. This is also a path sometimes taken by good therapists, coaches, mentors and trusted advisors. You will, of course, do this in your own way.

Success Comes
In Different Forms

People who pursue solutions like to see success, but this can mean different things to different people. Some may aim to solve a particular problem. Some may aim to solve a conflict and live in peace.

Some may aim to regain a sense of control, overcome setbacks and refocus on their life goals. Some may aim to be healthy and happy. Some may aim to do satisfying work that pays a salary.

Some may aim to encourage other people. Some may aim to win prizes. Some may aim to follow their principles and, as a consequence, sometimes win prizes. Some may aim to leave a positive legacy.

During my early career I learned from somebody who left such a legacy. George Lyward was a charismatic educationalist who lived between 1894 and 1973. He was best known for achieving outstanding results at Finchden Manor, a therapeutic community for troubled boys.

Many of the youngsters found solace at Finchden. It gave them a place to heal and decide what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of them went on to become well-known, including musicians such as Alexis Korner and Tom Robinson.

Hundreds of social workers travelled to Tenterden in Kent to seek the secret of Finchden’s success. Walking around the ramshackle huts, they saw boys playing guitars, kicking footballs, tending gardens or engaged in study.

Finally the visitors crammed into the large hall and bombarded George with questions. Curious about what they had seen, they asked him:

“What is the therapy programme? What is the staff’s role, because they seem to do little except watch the boys?”

George thought for a moment and then replied along the following lines.

“You are right about the staff. They are watching the boys. Watching is one of the hardest things to do in life.

“Our staff watch the boys painting, mending cars, playing music, helping each other or doing other activities. They look for when the boy comes alive.

“The staff then encourage the boy and, when appropriate, nurture their talent. They help the boy to learn how to shape their future life.”

George’s work reached a wider audience with the publication of Michael Burn’s book, Mr Lyward’s Answer. This led to even more people visiting the community.

They saw the physical chaos, but also something deeper. Some called it poetry. George – affectionately known to all as the ‘Chief’ – created an environment in which troubled boys were able to heal themselves.

Almost 50% of the boys managed to steer clear of future state care. These were excellent results, considering the deep seated nature of some of their problems. On the other hand, however, there were those who continued to get into trouble

Modern society spends enormous amounts of money caring for the perpetrators and victims of crime and family breakdown. Finchden may have been unorthodox but it produced financial benefits, such as society not having to pay for a lifetime of care for some people.

George believed that the youngsters got into trouble because they had not been given love and were fighting the world. Finchden gave them the chance to live, learn and begin to shape their futures. He said:

“We give young people the chance to have their childhoods. We let them do all the things they want to do as children. If they don’t do these now, they’ll do much worse things later.”

George invited me to spend a couple of days at Finchden. During our conversations his words were often spiritual and he talked about a person’s essence. Watching him in action, however, he was also extremely practical.

He immediately connected with troubled boys and encouraged them to be their true selves; 

He created a stimulating sanctuary in which the boys could lose time, explore possibilities and shape their futures; 

He educated his staff to look for when somebody came alive. They could then help the boy to develop these talents and gain a sense of success.

During their time at Finchden the boys were encouraged to pursue many creative activities. These included performing plays and reviews that were staged at the local village hall.

One review included a sketch that depicted life at the community. One boy played the role of George whilst another took the role of a troubled boy who wanted to come to Finchden.

The dialogue written and performed by the boys captured the approach taken by George. Here is an extract from the dialogue that was performed by the boys.

People can choose to focus on finding positive solutions or become paralysed by problems. There is a well-known rule the demonstrates the importance of solutions-thinking. This is:

“What we focus on we become.”

We can choose how we channel our energy. If we focus on finding solutions, we are more likely to find them. If we only focus on problems, we are more likely become depressed.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situations when you may want to find positive solutions to a challenge. This can be in your personal or professional life.

How can you buy time to think, gather information and clarify the real results to achieve? How can you explore what you believe works in such situations?

How can you consider the options for going forwards together with the pluses and minuses of each option? How can you then take time to consider any other creative solutions?

How can you settle on your chosen option? How translate this into a concrete action play? How can you get some quick successes? How can you clarify: a) What is working; b) What you can do better and how? How can you then do your best to achieve the picture of success?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to find positive solutions to a challenge. 

Describe the specific things you can do to find positive solutions and then tackle the challenge. 

Describe the specific things that may happen a result of taking these steps.

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