Research in positive psychology has shown us that people who know their strengths and use them frequently tend to feel happier, have better self-esteem, and are more likely to accomplish their goals. However, many people have a hard time identifying their strengths (4). They see them as ordinary, even when they are not.
In order for people to use their strengths effectively, it’s important that they have a clear idea of what they are and how they can be used. Therapists can be instrumental in helping clients discover and use their strengths.
This guide will demonstrate how you can identify your clients’ strengths, teach clients to spot strengths in others, help clients become familiar with their own strengths, and finally, help clients develop and use their strengths to create positive changes in their lives.
Discovering Client Strengths
Familiarize yourself with strengths.
Strengths are natural capabilities and skills that each person has. When a person uses their strengths, they tend to feel energized, and they report higher levels of self-esteem, well-being, and other desirable outcomes. Studies have indicated that strength-based positive psychology interventions might reduce depression, and contribute to successful goal completion (2, 7).
Below, you'll find a list of strengths, and a worksheet that makes them easily printable.
|Gratitude||Love of Learning||Humor||Spirituality|
Look for signs of strength in your client.
The first step of a strengths-based intervention, as you might expect, is to learn about your client’s unique strengths. You will achieve this by asking direct questions, and observing body language, emotion, tone, and behavior.
Asking about strengths.
Although many people have a hard time identifying their strengths, asking direct questions is a good place to begin.
- What are you good at?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- In what areas of your life have you been most successful?
Be sure to hone in on core strengths, rather than specific skills. For example, “basketball” isn’t a strength, but “athleticism” and “discipline” are. You can do this by asking questions such as “What makes you good at basketball?” or “What about yourself allowed you to be successful in this area?”.
Use your knowledge of the client’s life to probe further. For example, if your client has been married for 15 years, ask about that. What has allowed them to maintain a long-lasting relationship?
Some strengths are invisible to the person who possesses them. Imagine an astronomer studying a black hole. Because a black hole is invisible, the astronomer looks at the effects of the black hole on its surroundings — the gravity it creates.
In a similar way, seemingly invisible strengths can be spotted by the way they affect a person’s life. One good way to help a client spot strengths is to ask questions about what they enjoy, what activities they gravitate toward, and when they are happiest. The answers usually point toward their strengths.
- What sort of activities fill you with energy?
- Tell me about the best experience you remember having.
- What makes a day really good for you?
- When do you feel you were at your best during the past week?
- What are your goals for the future?
- What traits do you admire in other people?
None of these prompts ask directly about strengths, but their answers will often provide clues. By paying close attention to your client’s responses—including their tone and body language—you can start to detect strengths even they haven't noticed.
Watching for strengths.
Body language, tone, emotion, and behavior are excellent clues for spotting strengths. To see for yourself, try asking your client to spend five minutes discussing a weakness, and then five minutes discussing a strength. Take note of the differences in body language.
|Discussing Weaknesses||Discussing Strengths|
|Hesitant, dejected, disengaged||Energized, happy, relaxed, confident, passionate, optimistic|
|Self-critical||Uses more elaborate language|
|Annoyed at failings||Absorbed in the subject|
Not everyone will display the exact same body language, but generally when clients are happy and absorbed in a subject, it's a good indication that they're talking about a strength. Learning to spot these clues will help you notice them even when you aren’t specifically looking.
In addition to body language, pay attention to your client’s actions. What activities do they gravitate toward, and where do they seem to have the most success? Because these tendencies might seem ordinary to your client who has lived with them their whole life, it would be a mistake to rely on self-reported information. Pay attention to their stories and other in-session observations to paint an even better picture of their strengths.
- Being drawn to things that allow for use of the strength.
- Desiring to use the strength and feeling drained if not using it.
- Prioritizing tasks that require use of the strength.
- Desire to learn new information related to the strength.
- Sense of energy and engagement when using the strength.
- Having success when using the strength.
Signs of Strengths
Teach your client the strength-spotting mindset.
Have you ever had the experience of learning a new word, then hearing it everywhere? Learning to spot strengths works in a similar way. When a person learns to spot strengths, they’ll begin seeing them everywhere. By learning to spot strengths in others, your client will eventually start to notice strengths in themselves, along with several other benefits.
- Better able to look for strengths in general
- Increased sense of well-being
- More positive personal relationships
- Encourages the client to recognize their own strengths
Benefits of Spotting Strengths in Others
Teach your client to notice others’ strengths using the same signs that clued you in on their strengths. Try the following exercises to encourage your client’s strength-spotting ability.Exercise: Ask your client to list three strengths for each of the following people. How do their strengths reveal themselves?
- a close friend
- someone they admire
- an acquaintance
Exercise: Encourage your client to keep a strength-spotting journal. In this journal, your client will make a daily entry where they describe three strengths they noticed in other people. These can be three strengths in one person, or spread between several people.
- My husband has a great sense of humor. I had a bad day at work, but he helped me see the absurdity of the situation.
- I saw LeBron James in an interview after a basketball game, and I noticed that he's exceptionally media savvy and socially aware.
- My daughter must've asked 100 questions this evening. She's very curious, which I believe is a strength.
Developing and Enabling Strengths
After your client has discovered their strengths, the next step is to further develop and use them. Guide your client toward new situations where they can use their strengths, or toward new ways their strengths can be used to deal with current problems.
- Can you think of any new opportunities where you could use your strength?
- Do you ever rely too heavily on your strength? Is there anywhere you underutilize your strength?
- What is the impact of your strength on others, and how do you know this? What feedback do you get from others about your strength?
- When are you at your best, and how can you be like this more often?
Strength Growth Questions
Finally, discuss practical steps your client can take to better utilize their strengths. How can they better use their strengths to deal with existing problems? What new activities can they try to use their strengths more frequently?
Exercise: Ask your client to think of a new way to deal with an existing problem using their strengths. Encourage your client to share specific details about how they would accomplish this.
Next, ask your client to think of a completely new way they could use their strengths. This could be a new hobby or project, a career change, or any number of other ideas. Again, ask for specific details of how this would be accomplished.
The following example illustrates how a strengths-based intervention might look in practice.
Example: Emily is a stay-at-home mother. Prior to becoming a mother, she pursued a demanding career as a marine biologist. Due to this major life change, some of the strengths she used to utilize, such as ambition and curiosity, have become underutilized.
In a strengths-based intervention, Emily and her therapist create a plan that will enable her to continue using her strengths in her role as a mother. Emily decides to begin teaching her daughter about science once a week through fun activities. Additionally, Emily starts to work a few hours a week from home as an editor for colleagues’ research papers.
Strengths-based interventions are a powerful component of positive psychology. To learn more about using strengths in therapy, check out these resources:
1. Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118.
2. Govindji, R., & Linley, P. A. (2007). Strengths use, self-concordance and well-being: Implications for strengths coaching and coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(2), 143-153.
3. Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A. Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.
4. Linley, P. A., & Burns, G. W. (2010). Strengthspotting: Finding and developing client resources in the management of intense anger. Happiness, healing, enhancement: Your casebook collection for applying positive psychology in therapy, 1-14.
5. Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1), 6-15.
6. Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Character strengths: Research and practice. Journal of college and character, 10(4).
7. Seligman, M. E., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American psychologist, 61(8), 774.