You Are Not Strengths-Based, Even When You Think You Are
10 lessons on strengths blindness and negativity bias
Posted Jun 16, 2015
When I ask large audiences of practitioners and helpers: Who believes that they are “strengths-based” in their work? Most hands shoot up. But, there is little consistency in what each person means by strengths-based. Is there even such a thing...to be strengths-based? Most meanings of “strengths-based” have the connotation that this is the person’s default mode or modus operandi—that they are always this way as a counselors, teachers, parents, or managers. That’s a fallacy. With our heavy negativity bias and neurological wiring to find flaws and inconsistencies in our environment, it would be a pretty tall order to overcome all of this and always look for the positive in situations, or the good or the strength in everyone we encounter.
It’s more likely that we are situationally strengths-based in that we are more strengths-based in certain workplace situations or specific times when we interact with our friends. Even more to the point, we are momentary strengths-based. We have fleeting moments where we are nice to a stranger, we ask positive-oriented questions, we reframe the negative into positive, we empower another person with encouraging remarks, or we spot their character strengths. These are moments of being strengths-based. Most often, they are short-lived. Our hard-wiring quickly shifts us back to problem-based mindsets.
This is one reason why we need mindfulness with our strengths. Mindfulness serves as a process for us to notice these moments of strengths. It opens the door to further action we might take—perhaps after a moment of strengths, we will cultivate more moments of strengths, attempt to elongate the positive emotion of a strength (called savoring), or stay on close lookout for the next opportunity to see a strength, which is only seconds away.
Despite calling myself a “strengths-based” practitioner, educator, writer, and researcher—hence occupying much of my day with strengths work—there are plenty of times when lapses of strengths pile up. To be honest (one of my signature strengths), I have far more lapses than uses of strengths. One example: I might have a client’s character strengths profile on my computer screen, right next to their live image using Skype as I coach them, and in the conversation I quickly habituate to the strengths profile that rests in my vision and lose sight of strengths.
When we embody a strength-based approach, how long does it last? Phenomenological research on mindfulness indicates that a true present moment only lasts a few seconds, on average. How long do those moments of strengths-spotting or strengths use truly last? I don’t know. What I do know is that they are always temporary. Always moments. Remember the philosophical principle of impermanence? Everything is always changing and temporary, nothing lasts forever—that goes for our bodies, elements of our environment, the products we purchase, thoughts in our mind, and so on.
Sometimes our strengths blindness is obvious and blatant and other times it is subtle. I won’t go through all the types of strengths blindness here but I’ll offer another personal example on how strengths blindness operates fluidly in life. One of my children is having some developmental delays and is well-behind his peers in crawling and walking. He has gone to a variety of specialists and early intervention practitioners to assist him. I’ve spent plenty of time speaking with these helpers, with family members, and others about what he should be doing and strategies to getting there. I routinely expressed concern about the developmental delays and the potential impact on his brain development and social relating.
In one of my discussions with a daycare worker about my wanting my son to keep doing different strategies to try to get him to crawl, she made a comment: “He is scooting all over the place. He’s getting to where he needs to go. He is scooting really well instead of crawling. He sees a toy or a group of kids on the other side of the room that he wants to get to, and he scoots there.” Thus, my son was meeting developmental needs relating to exploring, curiosity, and cause-effect mobility going from point A to point B.
I had been missing – or at least not appreciating – this fact, which was right under my nose! I was entrenched in a more deficit-minded approach, spending my time and resources focusing on what he wasn’t doing or should be doing rather than what he was doing (and doing quite well actually). His scooting – although far less traditional from what most kids do – was something to build upon. Now, I savor watching him scoot, I set up opportunities for him to practice scooting, and I’m filled with joy (and my phone is filled with videos) as I see his progress with scooting. I don’t ignore the problem-based aspects. I’ve built upon them.
This worker helped me break my strengths blindness with my son….in that moment.
- We need both a problem-focus and a strengths-focus, not one or the other.
- We are constantly popping back and forth between these two processes (especially those who are strengths-based).
- A strengths-based approach is not static. It is not permanent. It is a process to engage in and return to when we forget.
- We will forget or neglect strengths countless more times in our life. Knowing this builds humility.
- Strength blindness is complex, pervasive, and subtle.
- We need mindfulness to help break through the subtleties of strengths blindness.
- People who are strengths-based are collecting moments of mindfulness and strengths. As this “collection” builds, so does personal and relational meaning.
- Mindful awareness of strengths is temporary. There are other blind spots persistently operating, awaiting for the light of mindfulness and strengths.
- We need honest feedback and support from others to help break through the varieties of strength blindness.
- We can create habits of virtue and build upon our strengths. But, we are always moving toward this thing called a “strengths-based approach.” If you think "I've got it!" or "I've figured it out," you are demonstrating, ironically, strengths blindness. Consider the underuse of perspective, judgment/critical thinking, and other strengths of character. (I say the same thing about people who call themselves “experts in mindfulness.”)
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.