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Ok, Now What? Taking Action with Strengths

August 18, 2015 by ·

aware2-300x217This is a common question practitioners ask after they have identified a client’s strength. Many times, it is the same question that the client is asking, as when they have taken the VIA Survey and received their rank-ordered list of 24 character strengths. 

The following three-step process provides you a larger framework for working with strengths: Aware, Explore, Apply.

1.) Aware: the first step of any change process – whether this be self-directed change or therapist-supported change – is awareness. This crucial step involves getting the language of strengths down and seeing some of the labels as being attributed to oneself. This step answers the question, “What are my strengths?,” and begins to answer the question, “What strength was I just using?”

2.) Explore: this is the phase in which the client connects the strength labels in a deeper way to their past and current experiences. It begins to shed some light on who the client really is and what really makes them tick. This step involves solitary reflection, pondering, and journaling, as well as interpersonal discussion and co-exploration. Ask your client questions about a strength you observe in them or about any of the 24 strengths in their VIA Survey results.

  • How do the results fit for you? What is your gut reaction?
  • What surprises you most about the results?
  • Do the top five resonate for you as signature strengths? In other words, do you feel these are the core of who you are and that the strengths give you energy when you practice them?
  • When have you used that (curiosity, fairness) strength in the past?
  • When you think about a time when you were functioning at your best, which strengths did you use?
  • When you think of a time when you were anxious, depressed, or highly stressed, which strengths did you use to move forward?
  • Consider your past or current mentors (or role models or paragons). What strengths did they embody? How did they express them?

3.) Apply: This step involves the client beginning to use their strengths in their daily life. This is the action phase. The client moves from reflecting and thinking to doing. A coach or therapist might start with the question, “Which strength are you interested in applying in your daily life?” Another angle is to directly point out themes that have emerged in the exploration questions: the practitioner might point out that hope and perseverance seem to keep popping up in discussions, that the client seems to use self-regulation well at work but not at home, or the theme that the client frequently overuses their curiosity and under-uses their creativity.

Some clients will immediately know what to do with their VIA Survey results and begin using their strengths in new ways and building up strengths they’d forgotten they had. Many other clients will benefit most from the creation of a concrete “action plan” that is integrated into their goals.

If the client wants to become a more strengths-oriented person, one part of their action plan may be that they consciously identify strengths in their environment and in each interaction they experience or observe, e.g., their spouse showing kindness, the grocery clerk displaying prudence, the movie character displaying fairness, and their boss displaying judgment/open-mindedness.

Some clients will want to set up a mutual validation/reinforcement system in their relationship or family interactions. For this approach, the client and a family member write one another’s top strengths down and commit to pointing out, encouraging, and giving positive feedback each time the other uses a character strength. Example: “Good work, that’s using your perseverance!” or “I’m noticing your fairness strength coming out here.”

Repetition and moving forward

Repeating these three steps is encouraged and highly recommended…and in any order. In fact, they function best when they are repeated frequently. Repetition underscores practice and practice is the key to developing any of the character strengths.

Practitioners would do well to keep these three steps in mind in each client interaction. If the client has just taken the VIA Survey, then jump into some exploration questions. If you and your client have been processing a few of these questions already, then it might be time to create an action plan. Remembering these 3 words will help you move from a “stuck” point of not knowing what to do or say next and help you keep your momentum going.

After you have become more acquainted with your strengths of character (awareness) and have reflected on your past, current, and future usage of your strengths (exploration), the next step is to create a strengths action plan (application).

While each of the 24 VIA strengths may have different applications to build them up, below are some exercises that can potentially help with any character strength. Choose any of the character strengths and consider one of the following research-based modes of action:

   -Self-monitor for the strength: observe yourself in various situations. Write down when you use the strength and when you don’t. Track what happens just before you use the strength, and how you feel and think while you use it. Track the circumstances in which you overuse the strength and when you forget about it or under-use it. For this exercise, some people carry a small notebook with them to track these various points. A simpler version is what has been done in research studies on kindness which is simply to write down the number of kind acts you perform each day.

   -Write or journal about the strength. This is both an exploration activity but also might be an application activity. For several strengths, expressing the strength in a written letter (e.g., gratitude letter, forgiveness letter) has powerful internal and interpersonal benefits.

   -Use the strength in a new way. This is the classic strengths-building exercise shown in research studies. The premise is to take action with one of your top strengths by conceiving of one new way to use or express the strength each day. Typically, this strategy involves using curiosity as you seek novel and new ways to do things, creativity to generate new ideas each day, or perspective to see the bigger picture as to what might be both interesting and useful for you.

   -Emulate a paragon, role model, or exemplar of a particular strength. Much of our learning occurs through observation. Practice acting or thinking the way a role model for one of your strengths would act or think. If you’re wanting to build up leadership and fairness, emulate the best qualities of Gandhi; if it’s bravery and honesty, turn to Atticus Finch; if it’s kindness and humility, turn to Mother Teresa. Keep in mind that often the most powerful role models are those in our daily life and those who have served as mentors to you.

   -Practice using the strength. Make the strength a routine, simply part of your daily existence. Once the strength becomes habit, it will feel more like the real you.

   -Imagine using the strength in the future. If you want to build up the strength of perspective, image yourself at a time in the future in which you take the wider view of things, you see the bigger picture, you tap into your accumulated wisdom, you are able to gather wisdom from multiple source, and you offer sound advice to others in need.

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