There are two basic schools of thought in coaching and development. One side feels you should build on strengths in character and abilities. The other focuses on correcting weaknesses. Which is better to do – develop strengths or correct weaknesses?
Advocates of strengths-based coaching feel that increasing one’s capacity using their strengths and positive emotions lead to better results and a happier life. Martin Seligman, known for his theory of learned helplessness and his contributions to the field of positive psychology, said, “The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living.” He felt that beliefs direct how we behave. So focusing on what is positive about the past and how we can use our strengths to achieve what is possible in the future leads to more durable success.
Those who choose to identify weaknesses, blindspots, and gaps in skills feel that removing blocks makes the path to success easier. Brenda Corbett, executive coach and co-author of The Sherpa Guide, writes, “For example, if you cannot delegate effectively, you are set up to fail. No matter how caring or charismatic you might be, you will fail as a leader if you do not work on delegation.” A person must ferret out limiting beliefs and conflicting values before they will commit to using new skills.
I believe the answer is to weave together both approaches. One side is not better than the other; both sides are right and they need each other.
Knowledge of strengths gives me the confidence to face emotional triggers and blind spots. Once these weaknesses are identified, strengths can be called on to either fill in the gaps or prompt different choices when habits and tendencies appear.
- Coming face-to-face with my weaknesses helps me make decisions.
- Identifying my blind spots helps me overcome blocks.
- Declaring my gaps gives me direction in my development.
Consider typical scenarios where people are stuck and can’t move forward. Maybe they can’t make a decision. Maybe they want to change a behavior but claim they can’t figure out how to do it. Maybe their problems are relational but they are unwilling to change. You could focus on the strengths in their character and skills to find the best way to act. It is likely they will sabotage the results until you identify what beliefs, doubts, fears, and attachments are holding them back. Sometimes, just helping people determine what they really want in the long-run removes the blocks even if this declaration feels self-serving.
If we trust that people are smart and resourceful, then we trust there is something in their way that they can’t seem to remove on their own. Help them find these blocks so they can use their intelligence and capabilities to succeed.
As I explain in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, humans develop patterns of thinking that they strongly protect in order to define who they are and make sense of the world they live in. This protective nature constrains the brain, making it difficult for people to objectively examine their thoughts on their own. People get stuck protecting their points of view. The breakthroughs happen in conversation. It takes strong reflections and questions to reveal blind spots and create self-awareness.
Blind spots create both inertia and negative outcomes. To move forward, people need to break through these blocks. Then they can use their strengths to succeed.
Practicing the following steps to identify weaknesses so you can focus on strengths:
- Listen deeply. When you are listening for emotional triggers and blocks, you are listening at a very deep level. In return, people feel profoundly seen, heard, and understood.
- Use reflecting and questioning to explore limiting beliefs. You can’t help people step out of the box until you help them see the box that is constraining their perspective. Inquire about how they see their role, what they fear could happen if they acted differently, what they doubt will occur, and what they think they will not be able to do. Acknowledge their views before asking them what else could be possible. When they think out loud, they explore, examine, and hopefully change their beliefs and behavior.
- Ask about what appears to be the underlying fears and needs, logical or not, that are keeping the patterns in place. Help them identify what they think they might be losing (control, predictability, credibility, safety, acknowledgment, respect, freedom, purpose). These are their emotional triggers. Don’t shy away when the person shows emotions; let them work through their anger, fears, and frustrations so they can come to a place where they will see how their strengths will help them move on.
- Resist the urge to save them. Refrain from jumping in and giving the person advice or trying to make them feel better. You are a thinking partner in this conversation.
- Identify the strengths needed for what’s next. Ask the person to specify what strengths in character and skills they can call on to move forward, even if they say they need time to think about what they discovered. Always end with a clear next step.
When smart people are stuck, help them see their blind spots and reasons for resistance first. Then they can call on their strengths of character and abilities to move forward with eyes wide open.
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