A client comes to you with a common problem: he cannot find anything positive in his life. “My friends and family complain that my glass is always half empty. My negativity is getting me down. How can I get out of this negative space that seems to occupy my thought, my language and my attitude to everything?”

As the coach, what can you suggest to this client?

We all have perceptual filters, which we use for interpreting our world. However, if in the first session, it is apparent that the negativity of the client is severe, long lasting, interrupting his daily life, and it appears that he may be depressed; it is the coach’s responsibility to inform the client that he may be best referred to a specialist in the field.

If this is not the case, and it may well not be, in light of the fact that the client has been empowered to make the move to seek help, the coach can begin to set a positive atmosphere in the communication process. She might initially affirm the client for not only acknowledging their negative thought habit, but also for recognising that they have the power to change it and have actually made the first step towards doing so by coming to a coaching session. This will immediately empower the client.


Some open questions to develop rapport and to elicit positive emotions may be the starting point, such as:

  • What motivated you to come to the coaching session? And what do you expect from the experience?
  • When have you felt optimistic and positive? And what were the circumstances?
  • When have you done something you felt was praiseworthy? And what were the circumstances?
  • When have you felt happy or inspired? And what were the circumstances?
  • Your three greatest strengths? Expand with examples.
  • The three best things I have done in my life? Expand on each.

If this kind of questioning is too difficult and challenging for the client, then it might help to talk him through a positive visualisation, tapping into detailed body sensations and relaxation. At this early stage, it may be worth asking the client to mark on a scale of 0 to 10 how positive or negative he feels as this tool can then be used to monitor progress in the coaching sessions.

Outlining the Benefits

Once the client has been encouraged to either think of feel more positive, the coach could then outline some known facts about emotions. The cortical landscape of our brains is like “the snowy hill in winter” and if we continuously think negatively about life, then there is negative pathway in the snow. However, if we retrain our brains to “steer our sled” towards a more positive outlook, then that pathway will actually show a physical change in our brains. This is known as “neuroplasticity” and our thoughts and behaviours are responsible for this change.

Positivity is worth pursuing for a number of reasons: better immune system and health, success in relationships and work, resilience, become more attractive, more fun to be with, helps us to flourish, etc. Negativity offers the opposite. We have a new opportunity each moment to enhance our emotional experience or drain our energy. We have choices.

So knowing that a positive attitude to life is worth nurturing, and that we can “steer” a different pathway on our habitual cortical landscape, then the client is ready for some strategies to make this happen for himself. We know from research on Positive Psychology that we can “broaden and build” our lives with positivity ratio of 3 to 1 of positive to negative emotions. For some clients being able to measure their positivity may help.


The coach needs to determine if there are particular areas of the client’s life that need to be particularly addressed. The Life Chart will facilitate this and also help the client to see how many areas he actually feels pretty good about. The Miracle Question could help the client imagine a more positive life without the negative self talk.?The NLP “Points of View” could be used to assist the client to see things from a broader perspective. This could be incorporated into those aspects from the Life Chart that need some attention. By reprogramming the language that is used (both in the internal dialogue and with others), the client can be shown how this reprograms thoughts and behaviour. Positive Reframing can be practiced in the sessions.

The CBT method of disputing negative thinking patterns will also help to break the negativity pattern. Identify thought trains and rumination patterns and observe and work with them.?Most people are unaware of how their thoughts influence their physical body. By bringing the client to a place where he becomes aware of what his emotions feel like in his body, he will become more conscious of the causes and outcomes of various emotions. Perhaps have him think of a time when he was really happy or content about something and then encourage him to report the sensations he feels in his body.

If the coach senses that the underlying reason that the client is negative about life in general, because of an underlying belief that he does not deserve to be happy, then some work on self-esteem issues may be of benefit. As we learn more from observation rather than what we hear, it is important that the coach be a shining example of happiness. When presented with a lemon be the one who makes lemonade rather than turning sour!

Specific Exercises

Just as we need to exercise muscles of our body to get strong or to reshape a particular body part, we also need to put some effort into becoming more positive, and thereby change that “snow pathway”. Basically, “push-ups”, but of the sides of the mouth!

Here are some ideas that the coach can offer to the client:

  • Write a letter from the future to oneself ten years from now with details of a best possible self.
  • Keep a gratitude diary and fill it daily with 5 things that he notices each day to be grateful for. This might range from the bus being on time, to a compliment from the boss to a red light, which gave him time to take a short rest.
  • Begin to notice how emotions colour the state of mind about everything and feel it in the body. Notice how we tend to add something, with a particular emotion, to every experience. Become aware of the colours of the consciousness, where they come from, what are their causes, where they go and their effects. For example, when we perceive ourselves to be short of time, or money, or energy, we tend to get more fearful, angry and stressed. When we sense that we have more time than we need, more rested than usual, we are more inclined to be more happy and content.
  • Reconstruct the day into episodes and record what he is doing, with whom, the overriding feeling, and his body sensations. Record this and then rewind it in his mind as if he could do it all again and imagine a more positive outcome. Have him start to become aware of what episodes generate negative feeling like anger, fear and bitterness (e.g. TV news, gossip, certain people) and create substitutes. If it transpires that particular relationships are at the root of the negativity, this may be something that can be worked with in future coaching sessions.
  • Likewise, encourage him to become aware of what triggers positive emotions, like joy, kindness, peace, inspiration and to cultivate those circumstances.
  • Do something intentionally that cultivates kindness and boosts positive emotions, e.g. helping a neighbour, donating money to a worthy charity.
  • Take mini holidays each day. Schedule an appointment with oneself and respect it as much as, if not more than, if it were with someone else.
  • Explain to the client that negativity is natural, indeed sometimes essential. But if a rumination cycle sets in, become aware of it, and either hang in there and observe it until it passes, in much the same way that clouds pass over, or else distract himself (with a cycle, walk, jog, whatever is most appropriate and accessible).
  • Provide him with some body scan and guided Loving Kindness Meditation recordings.

The client has now taken the first steps towards changing a negative judgment pattern on life. As he begins to note the changes in his life as he implements various strategies as suggested in the sessions, he will be motivated with feedback from various areas of his life which will assist the process of change in his habitual thought pattern.

Author: Mary Flaherty, Ph.D.