Strengths: What's In a Name?
July 26, 2010 by Dr. Neal Mayerson ·
As the field of positive psychology and the use of the VIA Survey of Character have grown, so has the use of several key terms:
• Signature Strengths
The importance and strategic advantage of leveraging personal and community strengths strikes a chord of logic and intuition with people. Expanding upon “what’s good and right” makes sense to people as an important complementary effort to remediating deficiencies.
As we collectively do this work, it’s helpful to look closely at how we define these terms.
Strengths-based: The term “strengths-based practice” has come in vogue since the advent of positive psychology, VIA’s work on character strengths, and before that, the pioneering work of McKnight and Search Institute on asset-based community development. The importance and strategic advantage of leveraging personal and community strengths strikes a chord of logic and intuition with people. Expanding upon “what’s good and right” makes sense to people as an important complementary effort to remediating deficiencies.
The term “strengths-based” refers to two different approaches – “building up” strengths and “building upon” strengths. Traditional practices identify a skill or attitude that could alleviate a problem and then go about building the missing skill or attitude. For example, assertiveness training might be apropos for a woman who finds herself unhappy at work. The “building upon” approach identifies existing strengths and elaborates and leverages those strengths. For example, a woman unhappy at work might focus on finding ways to express her character strength of “appreciation of excellence” or “perseverance.” Positive psychology practitioners use both of these approaches – building upon signature strengths and building up select strengths such as gratitude or optimism. The philosophical leaning of positive psychology, however, is towards “building upon.”
Strengths: Further, there is substantial confusion over the term “strengths” as it is used to refer to assets of character, abilities, talents (developed abilities), and external resources (e.g. money, social support). So, a person might have the character strength of “curiosity” that leads to him tapping into his mechanical ability to figure out how to fix his motorcycle, which he subsequently develops into a talent for fixing motorcycles, which leads him to make use of existing financial support to start his own motorcycle repair shop. To try to avoid confusion when using the term “strength” I advocate more specific language to make these distinctions, by specifying “strengths of ___ (e.g. character, talent, ability, etc.).”
Signature strengths: Finally, there is some confusion over the term “signature strengths.” In practice, we have said that one’s top five VIA strengths are that person’s “signature strengths.” In theory, a signature strength is a character trait that is deeply held – a trait that is part of defining one’s essence of being. It is a very strong tendency of thought, feeling, and action. As opposed to other character strengths, signature strengths are so central to a person’s psychological identity that suppressing or ignoring any of those strengths would seem unnatural and very difficult. For example, it is hard for me to not be authentic. When I am not authentic I feel a bit diminished and it takes energy from me. On the other hand, it takes effort for me to be grateful, as gratitude is not one of my signature strengths.
Thus, it is important for practitioners to talk with clients about their VIA Survey results to understand which of the reported strengths feel essential to the client and which are present but not “signature.” It may turn out that a person has more or fewer than five real signature strengths. That being said, it is still useful for people to focus on their top five strengths as a starting point when addressing their character development.
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