An Interview with Ryan Niemiec
Our online coach training school has interviewed Dr. Ryan Niemiec, the Education Director at the VIA Institute on Character and an award-winning psychologist, certified coach, author, and annual instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and discussed with him about the value of positive psychology and character strengths in coaching.
What is positive psychology and how does it differ from traditional therapeutic models?
First, it’s important to know that positive psychology is not a therapy or therapeutic model per se. It is a field that brings research to positive life functioning. The science of strengths, positive emotions, positive relationships, and positive psychological well-being has long lagged behind the science of what’s wrong. Therefore, positive psychology (also called the science of well-being) attempts to be more complete. It was initiated to help balance things out – not to replace what’s wrong – in order for the full human experience to be studied.
Therefore, I think of positive psychology and character strengths approaches not as separate from other models and approaches, but as an “overlay” and value-add to any approach that a practitioner takes. One of my books, Character Strengths Interventions, goes into depth on this… Whether you are an executive coach, a psychologist, a manager, or a professor, and whether you are solution-focused, problem-focused, cognitive-behavioral, eclectic, or humanistic, this science of character strengths and well-being can be (and should be) woven in to help you and your client.
Why is a positive psychology approach so suitable for coaching?
Most coaching approaches emphasize a few parallel things – strengths, building the coaching relationship, and supporting the client toward their motivations and aspirations. Character strengths are central/pivotal to each of these. How does a coach build a relationship with a client without tapping into their own kindness, curiosity, social intelligence, and teamwork? If a coach calls themselves “strengths-based,” how can they say this authentically without asking about their client’s most central positive qualities (i.e., character strengths) and helping them build them? If a client tells their coach they have an aspiration or goal they want to achieve, how can the coach help them reach the goal without supporting the client on how their inner positive motivations (i.e., character strengths) are pathways toward reaching that goal?
What are character strengths and how did the concept develop?
Said simply, character strengths are what’s best in the person. A more detailed way I explain it is that character strengths are part of our positive personality and are capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that benefit ourselves and others. There are 3 main contributions of our character strengths: they reflect our personal identity (who we are); they help us and others reach positive outcomes (e.g., happiness, health, better relationships); and they contribute to the collective good.
This work emerged out of a 3-year project in the early-2000s in which scientists wanted to answer the question – what’s best about human beings? They reviewed the great works of virtue put forth over the last 2,600 years by the great philosophers, each of the world religions, and other leading thinkers. They traveled to the most remote areas on the planet to ask distant-cultures about their character strengths and they tested large numbers of people across the six populated continents.
The result: the VIA Classification of 24 character strengths was born. This came out in 2004 and represented the first time in history that “a common language of strengths” had emerged. It’s a universal, common language of what’s best about us as humans.(1)
This is the brainchild and work of the VIA Institute on Character. The VIA Institute is a non-profit organization in Cincinnati, founded by chairman Neal Mayerson, PhD, and positive psychology founder Martin Seligman, PhD. The VIA Institute’s mission is to advance the science and practice of character strengths.(2)
How are character strengths used in coaching clients?
It starts with the assessment of character strengths. We are fortunate there is a free, scientifically valid tool that anyone can use. Clients and coaches themselves can go to www.viacharacter.org to take the VIA Survey. It takes about 10 minutes. You will receive a rank-order from 1-24 of your character strengths. That is the beginning of the conversation and the beginning of understanding one’s character strengths.
Clients are encouraged to reflect on their results and their reaction to their top 5-10 strengths. They’re invited to examine each of those top strengths and ask themselves: Is this the real me? Is this strength natural and easy for me to use? Is it energizing and uplifting to use? Do my family and friends regularly see this strength in me? For those strengths that get the strongest (and most) “yes” responses, those might be viewed as the person’s signature strengths. These are the qualities that are most core to the person. Research studies have shown that the use of a signature strength in a new way each day can boost happiness and flourishing while decreasing depression for an extended period of time.(3)
The number of exploratory questions and goal-oriented activities coaches can then use with clients is virtually endless. Clients may choose to go toward exploring ways their character strengths can support them in managing stress, overcoming adversity in their life, or reframing a conflict in one of their relationships. Or, they may choose to map out ways their character strengths can help them engage more at work, find more joy in their close relationships, and/or create more meaning in their life. The science of character strengths shows benefits for all of these. The key is for clients to draw links between who they are and positive actions/behaviors they can take in small ways in their daily life.
Which 2-3 character strengths would you single out as indispensable when communicating with a client?
What seems to be most important is for the coach to unleash their own best signature strengths in the experience with a client. If I were to call out 2-3 strengths, I’d be doing a disservice to the many coaches who are not high on those strengths and would struggle to bring them forth in a session. In addition, there isn’t research to suggest that a handful of character strengths are more important than others in the context of coaching. The reality is that all 24 character strengths can be readily brought forth into client sessions, meetings, and communications. One coach might turn heavily toward their strength of humility by placing the attention on the client while another might weigh heavily on their curiosity in using a default approach of questioning and exploring. Meanwhile another coach naturally turns to creativity in each session to come up with unique discussion points and activities to help the client, while another coach is mindful about being disciplined, organized, strategically focused, and planful about every element of the session (e.g., self-regulation and prudence). There’s not – and shouldn’t be – one right way of conducting coaching.
It’s also important for coaches to realize that a (good) coach is using all 24 at some point with clients, but they might consider making the most effort to bring forth their most authentic, energizing, easy-to-use qualities (i.e., their signature strengths). The coach is also likely to be most versatile in using those strengths in a session.
How are character strengths used for a coach’s own growth?
The same points about helping clients use character strengths for the boosting of personal well-being and handling adversity would apply. In addition, there are many research-based tactics for using character strengths in coaching. One that we frequently discuss is called strengths priming(4). This approach invites the coach to think about their top 5 strengths immediately prior to the client meeting. They go through each strength one-by-one considering how they have previously used the strength with the client or how they could use the strength with the client in future. This will help them grow as a coach. Of course, they can also prime themselves to consider their client’s highest strengths, making note of what their client’s highest strengths are for a few minutes before meeting them. This latter strategy has been found to boost strengths activation, improve outcomes, and improve the relationship.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Those that are new to this work are always curious about next-step resources. The VIA Institute has spent more than 10 years developing resources to support coaches and other practitioners as well as the general public. The best starting point is to go to the www.viacharacter.org website and take the free VIA Survey to learn about one’s best strengths, and peruse the many topical articles, videos, and application tools. Many coaches decide to get more personalized character strengths reports to see their own or their client’s strengths from a variety of lenses and details. For example, the brand new VIA Total 24 Report delves into strengths of the heart and mind, relational and internal, strengths overuse and underuse, meta-approaches relating to virtues, and all they need to know about their signature strengths.
Other practitioners prefer the route of books as resources. Two of the most popular guide-books for coaches in the field of positive psychology happen to be books on character strengths – those are Character Strengths Interventions (the practitioner “how-to” book outlining over 100 scientific interventions and multiple advanced issues) and Mindfulness and Character Strengths (discusses the deep integration of these popular areas and includes the full manual for the evidence-based program, Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice).
The clients of coaches will enjoy the bestselling book on the what, the why, and the how of each character strength, called The Power of Character Strengths, as well as the book on using strengths for stress called The Strengths-Based Workbook for Stress Relief.
Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D. is a leading figure in the global education, research, and practice of character strengths that are found in all human beings. He’s the Education Director of the renowned VIA Institute on Character, a nonprofit organization in Cincinnati that leads the global advancement of the science of character strengths. Ryan is an award-winning psychologist, certified coach, annual instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of 10 books, 90+ academic papers, and several-hundred user-friendly articles. His books include the bestselling consumer book, The Power of Character Strengths, the popular stress workbook The Strengths-Based Workbook for Stress Relief, the 2020 workbook The Positivity Workbook for Teens, and Positive Psychology at the Movies. He’s also the author of two of the leading practitioner-focused books in positive psychology – Character Strengths Interventions and Mindfulness and Character Strengths. The latter book contains the evidenced-based program he founded, Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP), used by practitioners across the globe.
Ryan has been interviewed by a number of luminaries including the legendary Larry King in 2020. He’s given over 800 presentations on positive psychology topics, including a TEDx talk in 2017, a speaking tour of Australia, a keynote at a Harvard conference, and invited presentations across the globe. He is a Fellow of the International Positive Psychology Association and serves on their Council of Advisors.
Ryan lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three young, zestful children. His highest strengths are hope, love, honesty, fairness, spirituality, and appreciation of beauty.