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What is a Strengths-Based Approach?

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

The latest and greatest on the practice of character strengths has arrived!

The number of people who call themselves a “strengths practitioner” is far too high to count. I would venture to estimate that the majority of educators, teachers, coaches, counselors, social workers, and psychologists would say they are “strengths-based.” And, a large number of managers and employers would say the same. But, what does it mean to be strengths-based?

The answer these days is: it means almost nothing.

It points to a vague notion of being positive or occasionally asking a client or student about something they have fun doing or that they like about themselves. Some helpers will think that because they are generally “nice” to their clients, they are being strengths-based. Other well-intentioned practitioners will “throw” a strengths activity at their client and hope that it sticks. And, there are others who rigorously use peer-reviewed assessments and interventions to tap into and encourage the positive internal qualities in their clients. The range is clearly vast. While the answer to “what does it mean to be strengths-based” will always have a lot of variance between one practitioner and the next, some clarity and definitions are critical for the strengths field.

The science of character strengths

Because the science of character strengths has amounted to several-hundred studies in a short time – and is growing substantially each year – there is good reason to give close attention to character strengths when attempting to help another person. In our recent scientific article for a special issue devoted to character strengths in Frontiers in Psychology, we attempt to operationalize what it means to be strengths-based. The title of the article attempts to capture what we hoped to accomplish in the article: “The practice of character strengths: Unifying definitions, principles, and exploration of what’s soaring, emerging, and ripe with potential in science and in practice.”

Our hope is to bring practitioners on the same page as they think about and work with strengths and character strengths in their clients, students, and employees.

The sections that follow are based on a review of hundreds of studies in character strengths, discussions with strengths-based practitioners across the globe, and personal practices with character strengths.

What is a Character Strengths-Based Approach?

A character strengths-based approach (or practice) is empowering, energizing, and connecting in which practitioners, in their own uniquely personal way and with their own orientation/approach to helping, embody and exhibit their character strengths as they educate clients on strengths and support clients in cultivating their character strengths for boosting well-being and handling adversity (Niemiec & Pearce, 2021).

These points are reflected in the character strengths practitioner and his or her approach. In particular, seven elements within this definition are expanded upon.

Who is a Character Strengths Practitioner?

A practitioner taking a character strengths-based approach (or a strengths-based approach) employs the following seven elements:

  1. Embodies character strength: the practitioner serves as role model for character strengths use thus displays character strengths awareness and use as they interact and practice.

  2. Educates on strengths: the practitioner teaches about strengths, explains rationale and importance, corrects misconceptions (e.g., strengths are Pollyannaish or happiology; strengths involve ignoring weaknesses), and offers pathways forward for character strengths use.

  3. Energizes: uplifts and fuels the person out of autopilot tendencies, entrapped mental and behavioral routines, and strengths blindness patterns.

  4. Empowers: focuses on character strengths to help people move from what’s wrong to what’s strong and/or helps them use what’s strong to overcome what’s wrong.

  5. Faces adversity: acknowledges problems and struggles – and when appropriate for the context/relationship, explores them, but doesn’t get lost in them, nor allows the positive to be squashed out.

  6. Connects: a character strengths-based approach engenders connections – helping the person become more connected with others, with the world, and particularly with themselves. This strengths connection naturally extends to the practitioner-client dyad.

  7. Cultivates seeds: a character strengths-based approach offers an orientation of cultivating seeds, not just plucking weeds (the negative). Rather than a prescriptive approach, the descriptive language around character strengths is prioritized to build awareness, to explore, and to help the client grow toward positive action.

These seven action-focused characteristics are essential for an authentic character strengths-based approach. They are central attributes of the strength practitioner’s mindset. Other beneficial characteristics could be named – such as being goal-oriented or holistic – however, these sometimes are not aligned with certain professions or theoretical orientations.

If you would like to read the full article, click here.

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Niemiec, R. M., & Pearce, R. (2021). The practice of character strengths: Unifying definitions, principles, and exploration of what’s soaring, emerging, and ripe with potential in science and in practice. Frontiers in Psychology.