Coaching and Psychological Flexibility

July 26, 2022

Posted by Sara King

We’ve written previously in our blogs about concepts from positive psychology and how they have been incorporated into the coaching psychologist’s toolkit to promote flourishing. Psychological flexibility is a relatively new psychological construct, but one with incredible potential in a coaching context because of the curiosity and openness to new ideas and approaches it encourages.. Todd Kashdan and Jonathan Rottenberg (2020) suggest that psychological flexibility is a fundamental ingredient of both mental and physical health. Their definition proposes that psychological flexibility reflects an individual’s capacity to adapt to the demands of different situations, change perspective and balance competing needs from different domains in their life. A crucial aspect of psychological flexibility is that it enables the individual to act in alignment with their values in the face of challenging situations and emotions. This in turn increases the individual’s sense of meaning and purpose.

In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, recent research has suggested that psychological flexibility acts as a protective mechanism to preserve health and well-being. In part this is because it expands the range of responses available in situations.

At its core, psychological flexibility allows individuals to take action aligned with their values and goals even when difficult situations and emotions are being experienced. From a coaching perspective, this is an invaluable tool. 

Using the tools of psychological flexibility, a coach can work with coachees to “unhook” from unhelpful thoughts and behaviours and create a broader range of possible responses. Trying to suppress or control difficult thoughts and emotions may have the opposite effect from that intended – amplifying attention on those thoughts and distracting the individual from the task at hand. The focus of building psychological flexibility isn’t on reducing distress or controlling difficult thoughts and emotions, but rather on acceptance and still being able to take goal-directed action either in spite of the difficult thoughts or emotions or by harnessing them in service of the desired result. That requires the individual to practice both awareness and acceptance.

The tools of psychological flexibility encourage individuals to be present, to open up to new ways of responding to thoughts and emotions and to do what matters most to them. To improve their psychological flexibility, individuals may practice being mindful and staying in the present moment.

Another way to promote psychological flexibility is to get very clear on what matters most to the individual This might mean clarifying values and purpose.

The combination of “unhooking”, mindful presence and clarity of values and goals allows individuals to identify ways to accept or even harness difficult thoughts and emotions in service of values and goals.

Engaging in coaching may support you to build psychological flexibility. The coaching relationship is typically oriented towards identifying goals and working towards them. The working alliance that is established in a coaching engagement may provide both support and challenge for individuals to test their thinking and work through challenging situations, including identifying a range of possible ideas and options. The support of the coach may help the client to notice and be present with thoughts and emotions that are preventing them from taking action in service of their goals and values. 

While these concepts are “borrowed” from psychological treatment frameworks and approaches, their application is equally powerful in solution-focused coaching. Of course it’s important not to use coaching as a substitute for appropriately qualified mental health support in instances of mental illness.

To speak to one of our specialist about how coaching can support psychological flexibility, email us: