Strengths-based approaches deploy the inherent strengths of clients to aid recovery and cultivate a sense of empowerment in terms of their own lives and treatment – irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, or ability.
Whether those clients are individuals, families, groups or organizations, strengths and asset-based practices encourage clients to look beyond their immediate problems and tragedies and consider a future that inspires both hope and positivity.
This article will discuss strength theory, answer some common questions about strength-based practices, and discuss strength-based practitioner skills and activities to add to your work with clients.
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What is Strength Theory?
The theory behind strengths-based practice is that, in the face of adversity, people reveal their inner strengths and have the potential to utilize those strengths to become more resilient and resourceful.
The strengths perspective has a clear focus on human potential, strengths, abilities, and aspirations. According to the strengths model by Rapp & Goscha (2006), mental health case management from a strength and resilience perspective, allows for new and creative ways to work with clients that honor their skills, competencies, and talents as opposed to their deficits.
Strength-based practice emphasizes the self-determination and strengths of clients – a way of viewing clients as resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity (McCashen, 2005). Clients with a strength mindset are likely to deal with challenges by focusing on their positive qualities rather than their deficits, weaknesses, and flaws.
Put simply, strength theory views the skills and abilities of the client as the platform on which recovery will be built.
1. How Is Working With Strengths Different From What I Already Do With Clients?
Adopting a strengths-based approach can be a challenge. Practitioners must first re-examine their approach and change their focus from the past, deficits, and problems to the future, strengths, and solutions.
Rather than examining client deficit patterns, strengths approach focuses on understanding how change occurs in the lives of clients and the positive possibilities that present themselves. Wong (2006) recommended that practitioners implement the following four-step procedure to promote and use strengths with clients:
- Explicitize – an identification process in which existing strengths are recognized and overtly constructed.
- Envision – a method of identifying areas for future development so that goals can be achieved.
- Empower – a process of encouragement in which clients are urged to try out their identified strengths and refine their usage.
- Evolve – a means of summarizing gains and generalizing strengths beyond therapy.
2. What Are The Six Principles Of The Strengths Perspective?
According to Rapp (1993), practitioners should adhere to six principles which act as the driving force of the strengths model:
- Every individual, group, family, and community has strengths – the focus should be on strengths rather than deficits.
- The therapeutic relationship becomes one of collaboration – the practitioner-client relationship is primary and essential.
- Each client is responsible for their recovery – strength interventions are based on client self-determination.
- Every environment is full of resources – the community is an oasis of valuable resources, not an obstacle.
- Working with clients in natural settings within their community is the preferred environment for helping.
- All human beings have the inherent capacity to learn, grow, and transform – clients suffering from severe mental illness can continue to try, succeed, and learn.
3. What Does The Research Say?
Strength-based approaches offer an alternative to traditional deficit-based models. Here we will look at some of the research and findings related to strengths.
- Stanard (1999) examined the efficacy of strength-based interventions for clients with severe mental illness. Participants with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and major depression reported significant improvements to the quality of life post-treatment.
- Early & Glenmaye (2000) found that the strengths perspective assisted clients in identifying resources for coping and to use their existing strengths to sustain hope and a sense of purpose.
- A study by MacDougall (2018) found that using signature strengths improves happiness. One hundred fifty-five female carers were assigned to one of three groups: using signature strengths in new ways, using signature strengths adapted to the care-giving domain, and a survey only control group. While each group exhibited an increase in happiness, the use of signature strengths showed a significant decrease in depression when compared to the control group at a one-month follow-up (MacDougall, 2018).
- Louis (2009) suggested that strengths-based curricula within educational institutions are associated with increased motivation and effort in secondary school education and post-secondary education. Further, Bowers & Lopez (2010) found that students who capitalize on their strengths are more adept at mobilizing social support and building upon previous successes.
- Strengths-based approaches can help maintain and improve client involvement in treatment programs. Siegal (1996) examined 632 individuals with substance abuse issues and found that providing strengths-based case management was associated with retention in aftercare treatment.
- Individuals who utilize their strengths are more engaged at work. Stefanyszyn (2007) found that staff turnover fell when employees regularly implemented their signature strengths.
- Additionally, a study of managers in the United Kingdom found that employee performance increased by 36.4% when managers emphasize strengths compared to a 26.8% decrease in employee performance when managers focus on performance weaknesses (Corporate Leadership Council, 2002).
- In addition to the strengths that clients bring to the process, strength-based approaches are also concerned with the quality of the therapeutic alliance. Priming and focusing on client strengths is associated with enhanced therapeutic bonding, client mastery experiences, and decreased symptoms (Fluckiger & Grosse Holtforth, 2008).
4. Are There Any Disadvantages?
The labeling of strengths has the potential to lead clients to underperform. According to Smiley & Dweck (1994), when a client assumes that their newly labeled sense of self is a stable and unchanging entity, they are unlikely to invest effort in developing existing strengths and uncovering new opportunities to implement them.
The potential risks of this kind of stable entity mindset in a strengths-based intervention should be explained clearly to clients. For these clients, the initial discovery of strengths can be a source of intrigue and excitement, followed by a period of uncertainty in terms of what more can be done with them.
Furthermore, McFall (1991) suggested that strengths labeling without an explicit growth mindset may potentially lead to adverse therapeutic outcomes.
4 Skills to Add to Your Strengths Arsenal
1. Identify Your Strengths as a Practitioner
Clients are not the only ones in the therapeutic milieu who have strengths: practitioners bring with them a host of abilities and resources that can go underutilized. The purpose of this exercise is to help practitioners identify their own strengths that can be used as building blocks to facilitate positive change in clients.
While the following exercise is designed primarily for practitioners, it can be modified for use with clients.
- What do you do well as a therapist?
- How have you developed those strengths or abilities?
- How are those strengths useful to you as a therapist?
- What would others who have observed you or worked with you say that you do well?
- How might you increase your awareness of those abilities and use them a little more often as a practitioner?
- What is a skill that you use in other areas of your life but perhaps not so deliberately as a therapist? How might you transfer that skill to your work as a practitioner?
- What might you do in the future to further develop your strengths as a therapist?
Consider sharing your responses with colleagues or supervisors or perhaps including them as part of your professional development planning.
This exercise was adapted from The Therapist’s Notebook on Strengths and Solution-Based Therapies (Bertolino, Kiener, & Patterson, 2009).
2. Learn to Ask the Right Questions
Strengths-spotting can be done in many ways: we can try to identify our own strengths and the strengths of others through questionnaires, daily observations, or interviews. According to Saleebey (2006), practitioners must ask a series of questions that can be used to gain insight into potential areas of the client’s life that may be related to their strengths.
Example: How have you managed to overcome or survive the challenges that you have faced? What have you learned about yourself and your world during those struggles?
Example: Who are the people that you can rely on? Who has made you feel understood, supported, or encouraged?
Example: When things were going well in life, what was different? What point in your history would you like to relive, capture, or recreate?
Example: What do you want to accomplish in your life? What are your hopes for your future or the future of your family?
Example: What makes you proud of yourself? What positive things do people say about you?
Example: What are your ideas about your current situation?
Example: What do you think is necessary for things to change? What could you do to make that happen?
A list of additional strength spotting questions suitable for use during strengths interviews can be found in the Positive Psychology Toolkit. These can help practitioners gain insight into the potential strengths of a client by asking questions that invite the client to talk about things that are directly or indirectly related to the core characteristics of strengths.
3. Expand Your Strengths Vocabulary
When identifying strengths, assessments such as the VIA are valuable resources. However, in reality, we all have a range of strengths that advance into the foreground and recede as required. The 200+ Strengths Labels tool offers an extensive list of strengths relevant to a variety of life domains, including many that are not part of other strength assessments, for instance, budgeting, coordinating, interviewing, and teaching.
4. Know-How to Conceptualize & Use Client Strengths
Gelso and Woodhouse (2003) identified the use of client strengths as involving two processes – the conceptualization process (which refers to paying attention to and incorporating client strengths as well as deficits) and therapist enactments (ways in which practitioners can utilize client strengths in the therapeutic process).
The table below details the four primary methods of conceptualization and the corresponding actions that can be taken by the practitioner.
|Conceptualization of Strengths||Therapist Enactments|
|The practitioner asks questions about client strengths, for instance, “In what areas of life does the client do well?” or “What are the client’s internal-psychological assets?”||The practitioner points out client strengths to the client.
Comment on the progress a client is making.
|The practitioner reveals the client’s strengths through the interpersonal process of the therapeutic relationship and working alliance.||The practitioner positively reframes deficits.
Describe a client’s weakness or deficit as a once appropriate strength that made sense and worked in an earlier context.
|The practitioner finds client strengths embedded in deficits.||The practitioner focuses on client strengths embedded in defensive or histrionic personality styles.
Helping a client recognize that the use of humor, for example, as a defense mechanism can ease emotional pain and facilitate the therapeutic process.
|The practitioner uses empathy to understand client strengths and the client’s culture as a mediator of the meaning and expression of strengths.||The practitioner interprets client strengths within the correct cultural context.|
4 Activities to Develop Strengths
1. Positive Strength-Based Introductions
One way to help clients focus on their strengths rather than weaknesses is to shift attention to more positive aspects of life. Through strength-based introductions, clients are given the opportunity to reflect upon, recall, and express moments during which they effectively utilized their strengths.
In this activity, clients will write about an occasion when they were at their best and then reflect on the personal strengths they displayed at the time.
- Write a 300-word introduction describing yourself at your very best.
- The introduction should have a beginning, middle, and end.
- It should be about one concrete moment in time, not a collection of multiple occasions.
- It must be written in a positive tone.
On completion of the activity, clients are invited to consider the following questions:
a. What strength(s) does this story illustrate?
b. Do you use this strength often?
c. Do the strengths and values present in the story you told show up in different areas of your life?
d. How can you make these strengths more prominent in your everyday life?
Clients may review their story regularly and reflect on the strengths they have identified. You can access a more comprehensive and detailed version of this activity – complete with troubleshooting advice.
2. The Strength Self-Efficacy Scale (SSES; Tsai, Chaichanasakul, Zhao, Flores & Lopez, 2014)
The Strengths Self-Efficacy scale can be used to assess a client’s ability to develop their signature strengths and apply them to everyday activities, including work, home, and educational settings.
To complete this activity, clients should be aware of their top five signature strengths and be familiar with the relevant strengths definitions. Invite clients to list their five signature strengths – this can be carried out in several ways from carrying out strength-based interviews to completing the VIA strengths and virtues survey.
Clients are then asked to rate a selection of questions and statements on a scale of 1 (not confident at all) to 10 (extremely confident). These statements are focused on clients’ perceived confidence in their ability to effectively use each of their five top strengths, for instance, “How confident are you in your ability to use your strengths at work?” and “How confident are you in your ability to use your strengths to help you achieve your goals in life?”
A detailed breakdown of this tool, how to interpret client scores, and additional advice are available in the Positive Psychology Toolkit.
3. The Strength Report Card
Maintaining client progress can be challenging, however, by assessing client progress, practitioners have the opportunity to acknowledge progress and create a concrete reminder of the client’s hard work and dedication. The purpose of this exercise is to summarize and maintain client progress by incorporating a frequent and positive assessment throughout the counseling process.
Practitioners should write a narrative report card describing the strengths, resources, and progress of the client – including a paragraph presupposing continued change. When you have completed the client report card, show it to the client, discuss the content together, and plan future actions.
- What are your thoughts regarding the strengths report card and your progress so far?
- What aspect of the report card held the most meaning for you?
- What actions can you take to continue your progress?
- If you were to write your own strength report card, what would it say?
This exercise was adapted from The Therapist’s Notebook on Strengths and Solution-Based Therapies (Bertolino, Kiener, & Patterson, 2009).
4. Looking for Strengths in Others
It can be difficult for clients to recognize their strengths; however, learning how to spot strengths in others can help clients identify and acknowledge their own personal strengths.
Invite clients to list three strengths for each of the following people and think about the ways these individuals successfully utilize their strengths.
- A close friend
- Someone they admire
- An acquaintance
4 Useful Worksheets (incl. PDF)
The following strengths worksheets can be used to get clients thinking about their strengths and how to utilize them in several contexts, from health and finances, to employment and general day-to-day life.
This worksheet focuses on the strengths clients have exhibited in the past, their current strengths, and how they might draw on these to achieve their desires and aspirations for the future.
This worksheet looks at how clients utilize their strengths to cope with challenging times and how they might develop these strengths further.
This worksheet is a great way to help clients recognize their strengths and gain a better understanding of where their strengths lie.
This strengths worksheet is concerned about how strengths can help clients achieve their goals.
A Take-Home Message
Strength theory recognizes that while adversity is a natural part of human life, clients have the potential to face those challenges using their strengths to become resilient, more resourceful, and to learn new strategies to cope during difficult times. When clients talk about their strengths, they are often more empowered, receptive, and engaged with the therapeutic process.
I hope this piece gave you an overview of strength theory, answered some questions concerning strength-based practice, and provided you with some practical skills and activities to add to your work with clients.
Thanks for reading!
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