How to Use Your Strengths for a Better Life
Insights from parenting, work, relationships, and self-actualisation.
Posted Feb 12, 2020
What are your strengths?
Many of us may have seldom considered this question. Sure, you might love drawing, your friends might laugh at your jokes, and you might have an impressive collection of thank-you notes to your name. But you haven’t thought of creativity, humour, and kindness as your strengths, per se – more as the everyday ingredients that make up who you are.
What if we adopted a more intentional approach to the things that we are good at, the things that energize us, motivate us, ignite our curiosity and passion? What if, instead of taking our extra-ordinary ingredients for granted, we celebrate them, nurture them, and use them as powerful catalysts for our well-being?
For psychologist Lea Waters, the magic of the strength-based approach lies in its paradigm-shifting capacities – focusing our attention first on the positive qualities of an individual, before considering their flaws and weaknesses. While her extensive research on strength-based parenting has yielded hopeful results (for example, happier parents and less stressed kids), the philosophy of the “strength switch” can bear positive consequences in different areas of life. “Once you train your brain to start seeing the strengths in your children, it spills over to your intimate relationships, your friendships, and your workplace,” she explains.
Here is Waters on the what (what it looks like), why (why it works), and how (how to do it) of the strength-based approach in parenting, work, relationships, and self-actualization.
To counteract our negativity bias of getting hung up on weaknesses, Dr. Waters suggests to “train yourself to intentionally look for the positive opposite of what you are trying to fix.” For example, if you are trying to teach your child to be less messy, look for the things they do keep tidy. If you are trying to change their study habits, focus on the 40 minutes of the hour they did put in, instead of nagging about the 20 minutes they missed. Acknowledge their efforts. Tell them you are proud of what they are already doing right. Then, next time, work on extending the diameter of their cleanliness and diligence.
If there is a weakness that your child wishes to correct – let’s say lacking confidence to make friends at a new school – again, “bring strength into that fold,” suggests Dr. Waters. Talk together about the times when they were successful in making friends. What strengths helped them then? “By drawing out your child’s positive qualities, you are connecting them with their internal assets. This, in turn, will help them in the new school, as they’ll find themselves thinking, OK, I am a bit nervous, but I can use my curiosity to ask questions, I can use my kindness to show interest in people, I can use my social intelligence to know when to stand back and observe and when to step forward,” says Dr. Waters. Besides, a strength talk will likely achieve more effective results than nagging ever could.
Intrapersonal outcome: a holistic view of self, increased self-awareness, and self-esteem
“A strength-based approach helps the child to define themselves by what they are and what is present in them, rather than what they aren’t and what is lacking,” explains Dr. Waters. It generates self-confidence and self-awareness. Children gain a broader understanding of who they are – their strengths and their weaknesses. As a result, they become less defensive when confronting their challenges. (Yes, I am a bit impatient or not very tidy. But it doesn’t define me.)
Interpersonal outcome: better parent-child relationships
“When parents incorporate a strength-based approach, children feel like their parents love them, are seeing the best in them, and are in their corner. If instead of criticism and nagging about what needs work, the child hears from her parent I see your humor, I see your kindness, I see your strategic thinking, this helps create a solid foundation of a safely attached, positively bonded relationship. As research shows, these primary attachments go on to shape future attachment styles in friendships, intimate and work relationships. This is why a secure attachment is an enduring gift that you end up giving to your child,” explains Dr. Waters.
- Become a strength detective. “For the next week, observe your child’s behavior and tune in when you see a strength – humor, kindness, curiosity, even being great with animals, technology, or decorating their room. There are hundreds of different ways in which kids express their strengths.”
- Write a strength letter to your child. “It might end up as a precious resource for your child to go back to, whenever they need an extra boost.”
Research shows that organizations that incorporate the strength-based approach can enhance the well-being of their employees. “When you craft roles and projects based on the employee’s inherent strengths, the better they will perform, and the more energized and self-motivated they will be,” says Dr. Waters. Moreover, if employees feel like their employer believes in them, appreciates their strengths and is there to help them polish the areas that need more work, they will be less likely to view addressing their weaknesses as criticism.
Everyone wants to feel like their contributions are valid. A strength-based approach allows people to be seen and validated in a workplace, “shifting the dynamic from compliance to collaboration,” explains Dr. Waters.
- Strength spotting. Spot employee strengths with team exercises.
- Surveys. Fill out work-oriented strength-based surveys.
- Offer praise. Not empty praise. Instead, strength-specific praise, where you acknowledge the individual’s strength and its positive outcome (I saw you use your diplomacy in that meeting, which helped the meeting go well).
Research shows that feeling appreciated in a relationship is a significant predictor of whether the relationship endures. Over time, we can start taking our partners for granted. “When we intentionally train ourselves to see our partner’s strengths and to place attention on their good qualities, we begin to see them with new eyes. It takes away from our partner becoming invisible, keeps the relationship engaged, and creates a mutual regard between partners,” explains Dr. Waters.
Lack of recognition and appreciation is one reason why relationships fail. A strength-based relationship helps partners feel seen and appreciated.
- Step back and look at your partner with fresh eyes. Remind yourself of their strengths.
- Express gratitude for the small things (doing household chores; showing support).
- Incorporate your appreciation of the strengths they bring to your relationships into family milestones, birthdays, or holidays. Write a letter, raise a toast, create a collage of memories.
Thanks to our negativity bias, we are pretty good at picking out our faults. “Give yourself permission to think well of yourself,” says Dr. Waters. “It doesn’t mean that you are being egotistical – owning your strengths can come with being humble.”
“Similar to the oxygen mask analogy, when we own our strengths, we can be best for others. A part of self-actualization is moving out of ego and fear-focused states towards becoming more other-focused. We realize that we are part of a big picture and that we can contribute. This, in turn, gives us meaning and purpose. Ultimately, self-actualization comes back to understanding that we are here to figure out who we are so we can help others. It’s hard to do that if you are only focusing on what is wrong with you,” says Waters.
- To (re)discover your strengths, tune in to yourself (or take a strengths survey). What gives you energy? What are you self-motivated to do? When do you lose track of time?
- Plan your perfect week. What would you choose to do without your daily obligations? Step back and see what you chose and why. What inherent strengths are underneath your choices? Creativity? Social skills? Planning skills?
- Design a passion project based on your strengths.
- Finally, ask yourself how you can use these strengths – these invaluable tools that have guided, lifted, saved you along your path, these extraordinary ingredients that make you you – to give back to the world?
For in using your gifts in service of others, you can grow the joy and meaning that your strengths have brought to your own life.
Many thanks to Lea Waters for her time and insights. Professor Waters is one of the world’s leading experts on Positive Education, Positive Organizations, and Strength-Based Parenting. She is the Founding Director and Inaugural Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology at the Centre for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne. She is the author of over 100 scientific articles and book chapters, as well as her book, The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. Her website offers a wealth of strength-based resources for parents and teachers.
Waters, L. (2015). The Relationship between Strength-Based Parenting with Children’s Stress Levels and Strength-Based Coping Approaches. Psychology, 6, 689-699.
Waters, L., & Sun, J. (2016). Can a brief strength-based parenting intervention boost self-efficacy and positive emotions in parents? International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 1(1-3), 41-56.
Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257.
Page, K. M., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2009). The ‘what,’ ‘why’ and ‘how’ of employee well-being: A new model. Social Indicators Research, 90(3), 441-458.