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The Best Thing to Do Before Handling a Problem

Research studies on "resource priming" report striking positives.

VIA Institute/DepositPhotos
Source: VIA Institute/DepositPhotos

"Not my circus, not my monkeys."

-Common Polish saying.

Before you enter the lion's den, discuss the elephant in the room, or address the monkeys in someone else's circus, try this: Think about their top character strengths. Believe it or not, your sworn enemy, your disgruntled boss, your depressed client, and the politician you hate—all have strengths of character.

Research studies have shown that when therapists focus on their client’s strengths prior to a therapy session (called “resource priming”) that a number of positive outcomes unfold. These include:

  • Improved therapy outcomes
  • Higher use of strengths in the session
  • A stronger counselor-client relationship
  • More experiences of accomplishment (sense of mastery)

In these studies, the task for the practitioner is simple: Take about 5 minutes to reflect on your client’s strengths right before you meet with them. That's it.

The simplicity of this exercise and the benefits that emerge are palpable. So this has got me wondering….

Perhaps this could be applied much more widely than just the therapist-client encounter? Might this be a useful approach for anyone to take before they approach a problem? If you're dreading talking with someone, maybe do some "resource priming" first? If there's a sensitive discussion you need to have with a family member or a sticky, complicated situation to address with a friend, could you consider their strengths before you talk with them?

Envision the following:

*Teachers reflecting on the strengths of their students and the strengths of their classroom-as-a-whole before walking in to teach a lesson. Further, they consider how they can help the students explore and use their strengths during classroom lessons and projects.

*Managers reflecting on the strengths of their employees before entering a weekly meeting with them. Further, these employers take a moment to remember the best qualities of each employee before sending them an e-mail or phone message.

*Parents reflecting on the strengths of their children before their next interaction with them. While driving home, working parents could spend time considering ways in which they can validate and encourage their child’s strengths later that day.

*Romantic couples considering the strengths of their spouse or partner before engaging in a conflict or confrontation. Couples can consider the qualities of their loved one that they most cherish and appreciate (research shows this is connected with happier and more committed relationships).

If you want to try this out, here are some questions to reflect on before the conversation:

  • What are the signature strengths of the person I'm about to speak with?
  • How have they used their unique personality strengths in the past?
  • What would a strengths-oriented discussion with them look like?
  • How might I improve upon past conversations by using my own strengths?
  • Are there strengths of mine that get squashed when I'm around this person? What might I do to ensure I can bring these forward?

Final question for you:

Why not? Why not prime yourself so you can see, appreciate, and reinforce the best qualities of those you are interacting with? What have you got to lose?


Fluckiger, C., & Grosse Holtforth, M. (2008). Focusing the therapist’s attention on the patient’s strengths: A preliminary study to foster a mechanism of change in outpatient psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 876-890.

Flukiger, C., Caspar, F., Grosse Holtforth, M., & Willutzki, U. (2009). Working with patients’ strengths: A microprocess approach. Psychotherapy Research, 19(2), 213-223.

Fluckiger, C., & Wusten, G., Zinbarg, R. E., & Wampold, B. E. (2010). Resource activation: Using client’s own strengths in psychotherapy and counseling. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston: Hogrefe.

VIA Institute on Character: