Positive Psychology with Christian van Nieuwerburgh (Lab report # 27)

Last week we’ve had the privilege to witness one of the greats of our coaching industry, Prof. Christian van Nieuwerburgh, do a full session with a client using an approach called “positive psychology for alignment”. It felt like a challenging session with a client who felt really really stuck and some of us felt we saw the limits of what positive psychology can offer, while others felt that important seeds were sown through the application of positive psychology science and coaching. 

Curious to know more? Have a peek at this month’s Lab Report below or consider membership to access the recording of this and many more exciting coaching sessions (including a 45min debrief and Q&A with coach and client).

Yannick’s Coaching Lab #27 —Christian van Nieuwerburgh
Lab Report by Daniel Lev Shkolnik


Christian is a leading academic and thought-leader in the field of coaching. He is regarded as an international authority in the field and is the global director at Growth Coaching International. His client was struggling to get back her sense of direction and alignment after the pandemic. Christian drew on positive psychology and used the Alignment Wheel (see below), but ran up against roadblocks as the client kept drawing blanks in response to questions aimed at creating positive steps forward. Our debrief revealed the value of the session beyond creating a clear action plan.

Key Insights

When could it be helpful to be vulnerable with your client? — Typically, the spotlight in coaching remains on the client. But there may be times when vulnerability on the part of the coach can serve to bring down walls and grant tacit permission for the client to be vulnerable as well. The client struggled with a feeling that she, as a coach and positive psychologist, should not have been affected by the pandemic as much as others. Hearing that Christian also had a difficult time gave her permission to acknowledge and be more OK with her own struggle.

Expectations – friend or foe? — Even though Christian was careful not to place any pressure on the client to come to a breakthrough, the client voiced that she had placed a lot of pressure on herself to do so. She wanted to answer Christian’s final question (what would be one step to create more joy in your life?) in a “deep and meaningful” way but that very expectation to perform well (“people please” as the client said later) led her to draw a blank. It seems that expectations of progress may sometimes prevent progress.

What are the limits of a positive psychology approach? — Christian coaches from a positive psychology framework and focused specifically on strengths, joy and self-compassion, telling the group during our debrief: “The client knows the negatives. I don’t want to give them air-time.” Some coaches in the audience wondered whether these challenging emotions may have been preventing the client from moving forward, and whether giving them airtime may have been valuable in this session. 

The most uncomfortable question — One of the most uncomfortable questions the client said she had to answer was “What are your strengths?” She said she routinely asks her clients that same question, but having it flipped on her was “super uncomfortable” and gave her a new perspective on that line of questioning.

The outcome imperative fallacy — Christian was calm and relaxed in the face of perceived mounting pressure to create a result as part of the session. As so often happens in coaching, client and coach lay seeds so that insights and shifts can happen as a result of the session, rather than during the time of the meeting. Despite the lack of any specific and precise action steps, the client left with great appreciation for the time spent, an acknowledgment that she is not alone in her experience, and with a few avenues to advance her thinking on the issue she’s brought to the session. 


Christian immediately saw the “sparks” within the client, even as she described how she’d lost that spark. Although the client repeatedly drew blanks when Christian asked her to come up with a path forward for herself, Christian emphasised that a coach needn’t be overly focused on arriving at a breakthrough. However, one positive vision that shined through the session was the client’s vision of herself as a candle that lights other candles. She remained committed to regaining her spark and returning to that work.

Source: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/mono/10.4324/9780429473043-8/alignment-wheel-christian-van-nieuwerburgh-raja-yousif-allaho?context=ubx

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