I think for many of you I am preaching to the converted when I say that accessing client strengths is essential in a helping relationship. But how do you access their strengths? Here are five ways you can bring out people’s best.
#1: Consider how their strengths can be applied to the problem situation. Everyone has strengths, but not everyone is aware of them or is using them well. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out how if a couple has great strength of good humor, how this might be used to interrupt a problem pattern of relating. Or if a person has determination or hope, how this can be used to their advantage.
#2: Ask for their ideas. I am constantly amazed at how clever people can be in coming up with creative ways to address their challenges. So we need to be quick to explore their ideas first, before offering our own. If we do offer our suggestions, we can at least let them choose which suggestions are a good fit for them. Having said that, some clients have unachievable or even ‘perverse’ ideas as to what is going to help. In these situations, the task becomes generating other ideas able to overcome challenges likely to arise with their solutions. You can better study the topic of how to talk to strangers to better find answers to questions.
# 3: Harness their motivation. Everyone is motivated for something. For students who have been suspended, it may be to get the school or their parents off their back. For a coworker, it might be to do more of a particular duty they enjoy or less of one they do not. If we can link what they are motivated for with the change we or others would like to see, we will tend to have greater co-operation with change. The key here is to discover what a particular person values and cares about.
# 4: Explore what is working at some level. Here the focus is on times when the problem is less of a problem and what the client is doing during those times to help this to occur or take advantage of those times. There are always occasions when a disruptive student is less disruptive, a violent man is more self-controlled, and someone who is depressed is less depressed. By asking what is working during those better times, the client becomes more aware of what they do and thinks that helps and, hopefully, does more of what works. If it is hard to find exceptional times when the problem has been less dominant, you might explore what the person has done to stop things from being even worse than they are.
# 5: Engage others supportive of change. Sometimes it is not so much what is being said, but who is saying it that counts. Teachers, for example, know that things are likely to improve if they have parents working together with them. Parents also have a broader range of consequences from which to draw. So consider who is likely to be supportive of the changes you want to see, ask their advice, and involve them in some way, perhaps by joining your meetings with the person concerned.
To use a strengths-based approach well requires finding a balance between empathizing with the very real challenges with which people are dealing and giving them hope for the future. If you empathize too much, it is easy to become stuck in the pain of their situation. If you go to the other extreme and simply explore what is working in that person's favor, they will not feel like you understand how they are feeling and, as a result, will be less likely to work with you.
Ultimately, our clients need us to appreciate their challenges. But our job is also to help them appreciate that success is based on developing their strengths, not by eliminating their challenges.