The Strengths Dilemma

When an athlete has yet to master a skill, many coaches will focus on that problem area. When an employee is struggling at work at a specific duty, most supervisors will focus on that problem area. Similarly, in behavioral health, when working with a client to improve his or her functioning, many clinicians will focus on that problem area. Is there any thing wrong with this approach? Let’s consider the consequences of focusing only on problem areas:

  • Anxiety on the part of the learner (athlete, employee, client)
  • Frustration on the part of the learner
  • Resentment on the part of the learner
  • Low self esteem on the part of the learner
  • In the worst case scenario, giving up on the part of the learner

Now let’s consider the consequences of focusing on strengths and helping the athlete, employee or client make use of an existing strength to overcome or work around a problem area.

  • Sense of empowerment
  • Thinking of solving issues in a whole new light
  • Sense of hope
  • Creativity in thinking and subsequent behavior
  • In the best case scenario, mastery of a new skill

An excellent example of the strengths based model is Baseball Legend “Wee” Willie Keeler. Keeler was only 5ft 4in. and was certainly no power hitter. However, he is listed as the 14th all time hitter with a .341 average. He had hits in 44 games in a row, broken only by Joe Dimaggio. He had a season with 206 singles, a record that stood for 100 years (broken by Ichiro Suzuki). What was his trick? Since he knew he would never be much of a home run threat, he mastered a philosophy that he invented, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Keeler taught himself to carefully hit singles where there were empty spots on the field, safely away from the offensive team.

The recent research on strengths based approaches in behavioral health tells a similar story. Learn a client’s strengths and hopes. The help the client master the skills of his or her choosing. This empowering approach not only improves client’s self reported satisfaction, but also keeps clients engaged in the habilitation process and improves functioning over the long run. Our main job as clinicians include engaging clients in their own healing and being a purveyor of hope – focusing on strengths is a natural way to achieve both.