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Journeys are best begun with an initial reconnaissance. We want to get our bearings, check out what supplies we have in our backpacks, decide on a destination. A self-development journey is no different and learning more about our strengths is an excellent starting point because they are the foundations on which we can start to build greater self-awareness. Today, as I started out on a fresh adventure with a new client I reminded myself why.
Why Start With Strengths?
At the start of a coaching relationship, hope is high but trust has yet to be built. Your client might be nervous, wondering what they’ve signed themselves up for. I am asking them about some broad concepts; Zest, Honesty, Bravery, any one of Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) 24 character strengths. The client is new to this work and I can tell they’re not sure. How will becoming aware of their strengths benefit them, what can this knowledge offer?
Well, to begin with, strengths are a great place to start a conversation. A way into the stories we hold about ourselves. It helps the client notice the lens they are holding up to their lives and in turn builds self-knowledge and understanding. It also provides a language with which to discuss our drivers and interests. It helps us name our choices and see the threads that have guided our decisions all through our lives, even when we didn’t realise it.
Humour, one of my top strengths, helped me recognise the truth of this.
Seeing The Funny Side
I had always considered my desire to make people laugh as a quirk of my personality. When I recounted the day’s ups and downs to my husband, my most important news often revolved around making somebody smile, especially if that person wasn’t in a good place. But I had some judgements about this. As a behaviour, it had seemed quite superficial to me, a vanity even.
As I learnt about strengths though, I saw that making someone laugh gave me what others got from offering an act of Generosity or Kindness. It has a three-fold benefit; I make someone smile and their day is a little brighter, there is a communion of shared emotion between us, because Humour is in the Virtue of Transcendence which is all about connection, and I benefit simply from exercising my top strength. It makes me happier, it gives me meaning and I feel competent because I am practising a way of being that I value. So, important stuff!
I looked deeper into Humour by doing the Three Funny Things exercise (Wellenzohn et al, 2016), noting when, where and what type of Humour I engaged in. How it made me feel when I was being playful or connecting with lightness. I saw that much of my humour was childlike and slapstick and, crucially, I laughed as much on my own as I did with others. Both were highly beneficial for me in different ways.
Strengths Are About How You Interact With Yourself Too
Many clients with Kindness high in their profile come to me feeling overwhelmed. They are worn thin with giving and people-pleasing. They’d learnt that Kindness was something to be offered to others, forgetting about Kindness to themselves. A strength like Humour, which has less story and judgement attached to it, provides an insight into why it is just as important to direct your strengths inwards as well as outwards.
I started to understand strengths more through my relationship with Humour. I recognised that if I only offered my playfulness to others then ultimately I would be acting, pretending. It would be inauthentic. I can do that for a day but not much longer, I have to make myself smile too. It is also a useful red flag when it comes to my wellbeing; when I am not feeling right my playfulness just goes!
Learning About Yourself Through Your Strengths
So back to that new client. They’ve taken the VIA strengths questionnaire and are wondering what the results mean. We talk more and find examples of when they’ve practised their strengths. The stories that come to mind often say something about their values; demonstrating ways of being that they are proud of. They begin to get a better understanding of their behaviours and why some things are important to them. They understand why, with Honesty high in their profile, they find it hard to handle indirectness, or why simple acts of Kindness can leave them with a swing in their step, and where, if a strength has slipped into overuse, they feel out of balance.
This knowledge makes self-compassion a bit easier. We can turn to ourselves with more empathy, curiosity and love. As lightbulbs go on and we realise ‘Oh! That’s why I react like that’, we are less hard on ourselves, we might even be able to smile when we behave a certain way.
We are reminded of what brings us joy. I learnt that, for me, self-care is pushing myself out to watch a sunset and, understanding why it makes me feel better, also makes it easier to do.
Your unique pattern of top strengths will give you a fantastic insight into how you interact with the world. What you expect from yourself and hope for from others. I love when a client has a less common signature strength. It gives me the chance to find out a bit more about it, reading into some research to understand it better, but then Curiosity and Love of Learning are both high in my strengths profile, so… of course I would!
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
Wellenzohn, S., Proyer, R. T., & Ruch, W. (2016). Humor-based online positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled long-term trial. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(6), 584-594. doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2015.1137624
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