Relying on our “Signature Strengths”

by Rebecca Crichton

As a society, we are always on the lookout for weaknesses, for the things that need fixing or improving. We grew up with school report cards that indicated what we needed to work on to succeed. Perhaps you had a parent who wasn’t really joking when you got an A in something and wanted to know why it wasn’t an A+. I did and never thought it was funny.

Many studies indicate it takes multiple positive feedback statements to overcome a single negative one. My own experience as a leadership development teacher with Boeing was proof. One negative evaluation from a 35-participant class undermined the rest of the positive ones. It surprised me how much I had to work to not see myself as a ‘bad teacher.’

Lessons from research encourage teachers, parents and leaders to focus on people’s strengths as opposed to their weaknesses. Strengths-Based Leadership is described best in the Gallup Organization’s book Now Discover Your Strengths.

I use ideas from that approach when I facilitate classes and groups. I ask people to think about their strengths. It seems difficult for many people to identify their strengths. Women seem to have a harder time responding than men, but both genders can struggle to remember what it is they do well.

I like sharing the story from a 2011 class I taught at Lifetime Learning Center. I assigned the class ‘homework’: “Ask family, friends and colleagues what they think your best attributes are. What do they see as your strengths?”

One participant returned the following week and shared that all of the people she asked mentioned the same attributes they appreciated about her. “My reaction was: ‘They don’t know me!’” She recognized that her inability to accept the positive assessments might require some readjustment to how she saw herself.

Another woman in the class shared that she had worked with disadvantaged teen girls, teaching life skills to help them be successful. Discovering that the girls dismissed compliments of any kind, they were told that they could respond to praise in one of three ways:

  1. Thank you.
  2. Thank you. I like hearing that.
  3. Thank you. Will you say that again?

That practice had a significant effect. Not only did the girls learn to accept compliments; they learned to offer compliments and appreciation to each other.

Knowing and using our strengths ties directly to how resilient we are. Along with Adaptability and Flexibility, Resilience is part of the triumvirate of tools that can help us age well.

In her TedTalk, Lucy Hone, author of Resilient Grieving, shares “The three secrets of resilient people.”

Resilient people:

  1. Know that Shit Happens. Don’t ask ’Why me?’ Ask instead: ‘Why not me?’
  2. Choose where they focus attention. What can be changed, what can’t? ‘Search for the good.’ Don’t lose what you have by getting stuck on what you don’t have.
  3. Ask if what I am doing is helping or hurting me? Be kind to yourself. Live and grieve at the same time.

Most of us act first and reflect later. The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation that leaves you flummoxed, remember Hone’s tips beforehand or reflect on how you did or didn’t use them.

The more we learn to recognize and hone our strengths and develop our own resilience, the more likely we are to grow and thrive.