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Say More: Why We Start With Strengths

Why We Start With Strengths on a background of multi-colored circles

If you've followed Thought Kitchen for any amount of time or attended any of our Mindful Life and Work offerings, you may have noticed that we talk a lot about starting with strengths. Every new coaching client, participant in our Mindful Boundaries for Professionals program, cohort member of The Inner Work of Judging, and member of every workplace team we facilitate begins their work with us by taking the VIA Character Strengths Survey.

At this point, you may be wondering, "What's the deal with strengths?" or, "Why the VIA survey?" If so, keep reading.

Why start with strengths?

As a longtime student of human nature, I've noticed that most of us can easily identify the things that are hard for us. Whether you call them weaknesses, opportunities for growth, flaws, or whatever term you use, we all have an inner critic constantly scanning to catch them and hold them up to the light. I don't know about you, but my inner critic is persistent and loud, and sometimes she's kind of mean. That's why a little help noticing and remembering my strengths is so necessary for me. If you asked me to identify my strengths on any given day, you would get wildly different answers depending on how I had slept the night before, whether I had eaten and stayed hydrated that day, and any other number of factors that impact my mental well-being. Even if you asked on a day that I was feeling well-resourced, there's also the conditioning from a lifetime of being told to be humble and being rewarded for self-deprecation.

I'll be the first to admit that I've achieved goals by being relentlessly self-critical and focusing on what was wrong with me. I'll also tell you that method is exhausting and unsustainable. Learning to be aware of my strengths and build on them instead of trying to wrestle my shortcomings to the ground has been a game changer for sustainable success and, more importantly, for my mental health and well-being.

Why the VIA Character Strengths Survey?

I was introduced to the VIA a few years ago in an introductory coaching course. I've taken numerous personality inventories over the years, and while I find them interesting and sometimes helpful, I wasn't expecting any earth-shattering results from the VIA. I soon learned that the VIA approach is different from most other tools in one important way. It's based on the proposition that everyone possesses all 24 character strengths to some degree. There are no weaknesses or lack. There are no "types" that can be weaponized to pigeonhole or divide members of a group. Each one of us has access to all the strengths.

Signature Strengths vs. Situational Strengths. You'll notice I said we all possess all 24 strengths to some degree. What does that mean? If you take the VIA survey (which is free and takes approximately 10 minutes) you'll receive a report ranking your strengths from 1-24.

If you're like most people, you'll go straight to the bottom and start worrying about why number 24 is a weakness. STOP IT! Your bottom strengths aren't weaknesses, and I'll explain why in a minute.

The strengths at the top of your list (typically the top 5) are what the VIA Institute calls your Signature Strengths. These are the strengths that come most naturally to you, are an integral part of your character, and energize you when you use them. Conversely, when you're in situations where you can't express your Signature Strengths, you may feel constrained or dissatisfied. Interacting with people who don't express a lot of your signature strengths may be frustrating.

I'll give you an example. My top strength is Honesty. I thrive in situations where I can show up as my authentic self and express my opinions -- blogging is a fantastic way to exercise my strength of Honesty. In the past, I've worked in some situations where honesty wasn't valued or where there was pressure to conform or fit in. I can work under those circumstances, but it costs me some energy and over time that adds up. Likewise, I've worked with or interacted with people who struggle with honesty. Maybe it's just that they're uncomfortable being direct, maybe honesty isn't something they value; the motivation behind them being less than truthful isn't important. The impact is that when I sense someone is not being honest with me, my amygdala lights up like fireworks. This is where mindfulness practices can support me in responding rather than reacting, but that's a post for another day.

Let's go back to those bottom strengths. I told you earlier they aren't weaknesses, so what the heck are they? Situational Strengths, typically the bottom 5 or so, are those strengths that you can call on when you need them, but they don't come quite as naturally and accessing them might require a lot of energy. You might be really good at some of these things because circumstances have required you to use them a lot, but they aren't the things that light you up.

I'll use myself as an example again. My #23 strength is Zest, which my VIA report defines as approaching life with excitement and energy; looking forward to each new day and fully participating in life, rather than viewing it from the sidelines. I am an introvert to the core. My comfort zone is quietly observing on the sidelines, noticing things that others may overlook. Some people are surprised to hear this because I do a great deal of public speaking and have spent a significant amount of time in leadership roles where I am decidedly not on the sidelines. I'm good at some of those things, and also, engaging in them comes at a cost. I've learned that I need quiet time to recharge after exercising my Zest muscles.

How can you apply this to your own life? Building awareness of your Signature and Situational Strengths can help you more intentionally schedule your daily or weekly activities. Intentional scheduling means paying attention not just to the time a task requires, but also to the energy you'll expend, and striving to balance your energy over a period of time. Are you in the midst of a career or life transition? Starting with strengths can help discern what is yours to do right now. Building awareness of strengths within a workplace can serve as a solid foundation for team building, improved communication, and professional renewal.

Hungry for more? Take the VIA survey to start learning about your strengths. Want some guidance on how you can harness your strengths to improve your life? Check out our Introductory Coaching Package. You'll get a session on your VIA strengths, one on identifying your core values, and a third session on your choice of communication, boundaries, or perfectionism. Schedule a discovery call today to learn more about this or our other offerings.

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