As an ADHD and Life Coach, and as a former primary care physician, I look at literature from various professional sources, each with their own perspective. These include journals which touch on coaching, ADHD coaching, life coaching, and cancer survivors. (I am myself a cancer survivor and coach cancer survivors). They will also include online information and journals relating to psychiatry, psychology, positive psychology, ADHD and life coaching, and human development.

Coaches are trained to be positive, asking questions to bring out options and goals. We both acknowledge and validate.

However, in coaching and everyday life, we come upon negative individuals. They may be us too. They may repeatedly say “I don’t know”, or “I don’t care.” Or they may reply “I can’t think of anything.” or “These are dumb questions” or “You say you’re a coach. Can’t you do better than that?”

If one were to say to them something like, “Well, like a lot of people, you seem to see the glass as half empty instead of half full,” they may respond by saying things like:
“The glass is both full and empty.”
“The cup is the wrong size.”
“What is the point of the question?”
“Who gives you the right to pin a label on me?”
“You’re trying to get me to talk, and I won’t.”

Some people just call this a bad attitude and dismiss it.

However, coaches are obliged (by their code) to accept all observations and values, including negative value systems. Coaches are trained to abide by the agenda of the client, where they are at that moment, without judgment. In reality coaches may be uncomfortable about global negativity but, it is not their perceptions or feelings that count- but those of the client.

We may actually create further negativity by trying to argue someone out of it. Sometimes, it may not even be helpful to ask powerful questions like – What’s another way of looking at this? How is negativity (in this specific context) working for you? Are there any things you feel hopeful or positive about?

Those whom we coach may perceive any such attempt as challenges to them, adding further incentive to “dig in” to negativity. Also, they may get some satisfaction and power out of the attempts coaches make as they flail away, trying to gain traction.

In the beginning one needs to understand the extent of someone’s negativity. Is it just on a particular topic, or are the comments in this coaching session consistently negative? It is also possible that people are just having a “bad hair day”, and that they will be helped by empathy, and honest compassion.

(I am not addressing the issue of someone who is dangerously angry or depressed. They require immediate counseling or medical treatment, which I do not provide as a coach.)

The first thing I think of doing is acknowledging -in my own words. I want to re-state what that person said – and do this in a complete paraphrase, without embellishment, or judgment.

The next step is very important. Silence. And this is a little uncomfortable for both coach and client. A stop watch counting 60 seconds may be needed – or more.

Instead of directly challenging them, I might eventually focus on how negativity is working out for this person. It might be satisfying some need at the time. This requires ongoing active listening.

If there is still no response, I think I would engage in objective validation – something like “You know, it takes some courage and personal insight to really know yourself.” Or, “It seems, if I am correct, that you are pretty sure about yourself and how you look at events in your life.” Or, “It is admirable that you can be so clear and aware of your feelings.” Or, even the observation, “You know, people want to be positive, and but sometimes they’re just being phony. It’s not what they’re really thinking.”

I believe such statements are an honest and appropriate form of recognizing a person as they are. That person has at that moment in time a reason for feeling this way, a motivation, regardless of any reasons or experiences behind that negativity. Coaches need to demonstrate acceptance, patience, sensitivity, and respect for their clients and wherever they are in life. Otherwise, it is impossible to proceed.

In Summary:

  • Coaching Negativity requires non-judgmental acceptance.
  • Negativity, itself, cannot be judged.
  • It is possible to validate even negativity, on its own terms.
  • Coaches do not have the right to manipulate client’s framework, just for the sake of “progress.”
  • Some things, and some times in life, are very difficult. We may be unable to sense even a smidgeon of progress. Remaining in place, and not back-sliding, may be the best we can do.
  • Negativity may have, within itself, the seeds of later insight for a client. The client may not be ready, or yet insightful enough, to consider any learning opportunity. Whether they do or not is not our responsibility as coaches.

Finally, coaches are not required to make tangible progress in every coaching session. Learning often occurs outside coaching sessions.

Coach Ron