Massachusetts Medical Society: Strength-Based Coaching: A Path to Increased Life and Career Fulfillment

Strength-Based Coaching: A Path to Increased Life and Career Fulfillment

Vital Signs: May 2013

Steve Adelman, M.D., Director, Physician Health Services
As the new director of Physician Health Services, it gives me great pleasure to introduce this article on strength-based coaching by my former colleague Gail Gazelle, M.D., an experienced professional coach. The advent of professional coaching represents an important paradigm shift in how we think about the work we do as doctors. The current state of our profession is such that it may be helpful to think about the career of a doctor like the career of a long-distance runner. Our work lives require us to run this race over and over again, year after year. Just like runners, we face new physical and psychological challenges as we mature and age. The long haul of medical practice adds all manner of alphabet-soup extras (HMO, ACO, ACA, CPT, PBM, etc.) to our bowls as we make our way, day after day, with the ups and downs of delivering health care in 2013 and beyond.

So where does coaching fit in? Elite athletes work with coaches to complete races and optimize their performance. We physicians should think about ourselves as elite athletes who may also benefit from the assistance of such a coach. Athletes — and doctors — who get coached are less likely to require the more intensive, extensive, and illness-based forms of assistance than is the lot of those who lack conditioning. All “deconditioned doctors” should consider investing in their own health, well-being, and self-care.

Physician Health Matters

Strength-based coaching (SBC) is increasingly being used to enhance performance and well-being for physicians. Whether you’re feeling like you’re barely surviving the ever-increasing demands of your practice, are out of touch with the reasons you became a physician in the first place, or are looking for a more balanced life, this approach can help you move from feeling stuck to seeing options and possibilities. SBC is designed for high-functioning individuals and is a model of wellness, starting with the premise that you have significant inner resources, wisdom, and expertise regarding your life.

The coach is not a teacher or mentor, but rather a facilitator of change. The coach’s role is one of nonjudgmental advocate, ally, sounding board, and champion. A coach helps deepen your self-awareness and strengths to identify inspiring perspectives on what may seem like fixed circumstances, having no agenda other than supportively helping you find ways to move forward and effect sustainable change. SBC draws on hobbies and life passions outside of work and uses humor to help you access alternative ways to view life challenges. SBC can improve your quality of life and can also be helpful for non-clinical skill development or to deal with anger and other challenging emotions.

Most physicians are achievement-oriented and, from early in our training, the message is clear that if we’re not perfect, we are a failure. Many physicians also tend to be harsh self-critics, overlooking accomplishments and strengths and focusing more on their negative than positive traits.

All physicians have strengths! Whether through the popular book, StrengthsFinder, or a free online assessment at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology site (Values in Action questionnaire), there are well-validated assessments that identify a person’s top strengths. Once known, instead of approaching a new task by thinking about weaknesses that need to be overcome, you can start one step ahead by applying your strengths.

Coaches don’t “fix” problems; instead they point clients in the right direction to find answers. Here are some ways a strength-based coach would work with a physician:

  • Let’s think about your top strengths and ways you have used them in the past to get through a tough situation.
  • What three things did you do today that helped a patient or colleague?
  • Let’s brainstorm ways you can apply your strengths to the problem at hand.
  • We’ll work together to explore the validity of self-defeating messages and replace them with ones that more accurately reflect the truth of your life.
  • How can you apply a strength you have in a new way?

After reading this article, perhaps you can think more about your strengths and how you can apply them this coming week.

— Gail Gazelle, M.D., F.A.C.P.

For more information about Physician Health Services, Inc., please visit our website at or call (781) 434-4704. 

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