Executive Coaching Tips: Do You Tend Toward Toxic Positivity?

Barb McAllister, MS, MCC

As a professional coach for close to 20 years, I’ve attracted a number of clients with Toxic Positivity. What is this? I can best describe it as a tendency to put a positive spin on everything. At first blush, people with toxic positivity can come across as upbeat, optimistic and well intentioned. But there is a real downside to this way of being. Coaches with toxic positivity can be dismissive of others’ negative emotions. This can come across as a lack of empathy or being unauthentic, even controlling. 

There is no accident I attract clients with toxic positivity. I’ve had this too. Over the years I’ve learned that it came from my discomfort with being with negative emotions like anger and sadness. My own healing came when I learned that all my emotions offer me useful information, and it is OK and important to honor all the feelings and let them pass through me.

When I was in my coach training program years ago, my teacher once said to me after he observed me coaching, “You stepped over the elephant in the room.” What he meant was I didn’t acknowledge my client’s sadness in the moment; instead, I immediately jumped to “what’s your next step.” I didn’t pause to honor where my client was in the present. With more experience, I learned that there is a place for negative feelings when we coach others. It is absolutely important to let our clients have their experience. If they are having a bad day, so be it.

How do you know if you tend toward toxic positivity? Notice if you have discomfort being with a client who shows up in a bad place. Do you have a tendency to want to encourage people to be happy or grateful, even when they are struggling? Do you want your client to move quickly to action when they are struggling?

Do You Tend Toward Toxic Positivity?

If you tend towards toxic positivity, here are some things you might say to a client who shows up struggling:

  • “Things will work out for you; they always do.”
  • “This too shall pass.”
  • “What is your next step?”

These are not necessarily “bad” things to say to a client. But instead, consider these responses to the struggling client, which may be more honoring of where the client is:

  • “What support do you need?”
  • “This sounds very challenging.”
  • “What might you do right now to honor your feelings.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to be positive as a coach. After all, we are people of possibility. What I’m talking about is noticing that sometimes positivity can be over the top. We want to mirror our clients. We want to honor their experiences and allow them to have their genuine feelings. To do this as a coach, I believe we have to do our inner work to be at peace with the full range of our feelings. If we are, we are more able to be with our client however they show up.

To learn more about avoiding toxic positivity, working with people as they are, and improving communication and leadership skills, contact Barb for a consultation.