How to Perform Strengths-Based Therapy and Counseling

Strength-based TherapyOur strengths make up our wealth in life.

We can hide them away, remaining fearful, or use and develop them to the benefit of ourselves and those around us (Jones-Smith, 2014).

When we use our signature strengths, we feel most like ‘us’; we are energized and experience a profound sense of fulfillment in what we are doing (King, 2016).

Strengths-based therapy helps us become more aware of and better able to explore and apply our strengths, and encourages us to become the “heroes of our own lives” (Jones-Smith, 2014, p. 11).

This article explores the theory and practice of strengths-based therapy and introduces several interview questions and worksheets for working with clients.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.

What Is Strengths-Based Therapy and Counseling?

Strengths-based therapy asserts that we choose whether we live a successful life or one of quiet desperation by deciding whether we focus on what is missing in ourselves (and others) or noticing what’s there (Jones-Smith, 2014).

The strengths-based approach recognizes that strengths can be found in the most challenging stories clients bring to therapy, even if they were only used briefly. For example, a drug user may remain clean to attend a therapy session or a visit with their child.

As with most other therapeutic approaches, strengths-based therapy does not stand alone; instead, it is built upon and connected with other disciplines, fields, and treatments that value strengths, including (Jones-Smith, 2014; Rogers et al., 2020):

  • Social work
    “Strengths-based and solution-focused work allows service users to build skills and resources for the future,” moving on from being preoccupied with risk and risk management (Rogers et al., 2020, p. 243).
  • Positive psychology
    The benefits of focusing on the positive, including both emotions and strengths, as opposed to the negatives are clear to positive psychology practitioners.
  • Counseling psychology
    While counseling psychologists are trained to spot patterns of abnormality and pathology, they also empathize with the expression of individual strengths.
  • Solution-focused therapy
    This approach furthers the strengths movement by focusing on clients’ issues rather than problems and has contributed the miracle question to strengths-based therapy.
  • Narrative therapy
    The meaning clients ascribe to their lives and their emphasis on strengths can change their experiences and narratives of traumas and stressful events from the perspective of a victim to that of a survivor.

In turn, strengths-based therapy (Jones-Smith, 2014):

  • Focuses on what is working, rather than not working, for the client
  • Focuses on what the client has, rather than does not have
  • Emphasizes the clients’ strengths within their struggle

Strengths-based therapy explores what drains the client emotionally and physically while paying particular attention to what is right about them. Therapists construct experiments that help clients recognize and appreciate their strengths to maintain or increase their sense of wellbeing (Jones-Smith, 2014).

Strengths-Based Theories Explained

Strength-based theoriesExperts in the field of strengths-based theory suggest that we should all be investing our time and energy in our personalized strengths, rather than aiming to be great at everything and ending up mediocre at best (Rath, 2017).

Clinical evidence for the value of focusing on clients’ strengths originally came from therapists’ awareness that clients were most animated and appeared happiest when asked about their strengths. When encouraged to use their strengths in difficult situations and to overcome obstacles, clients appeared to change for the better.

Strengths-based theory is not only based on anecdotal evidence from treatment – the data backs it up. Over 30 years of research at Gallup has found that the highest achievers (Jones-Smith, 2014; Rath, 2017):

  • Spent most of their time using their strengths, particularly in overcoming obstacles
  • Focused on finding ways to apply their strengths while managing their weaknesses
  • Invented novel ways of capitalizing on their strengths in new situations
  • Often partnered with others to tackle their weaknesses

Awareness and maintenance of strengths, it seems, has the power to boost our wellbeing, relationships, and performance inside and outside the workplace (Jones-Smith, 2014; Niemiec, 2018).

A strengths-based approach is “a perspective, or lens, rather than a theory of model,” offering an alternate way of interpreting a client’s life and providing the help they need (Rogers et al., 2020, p. 244).

Whether considered as a perspective or a theory, there are several underlying theoretical principles (Rogers et al., 2020):

  • Individuals, groups, families, and communities all have their strengths.
  • While trauma, stress, and adversity can be damaging, they may also provide the opportunity to use strengths and promote growth.
  • It is a mistake to assume the limits of an individual’s or group’s strengths or their capacity for change and growth.
  • Working with clients is at its best when collaborative.

While defining what a strength is can be difficult, it is accepted that they are not fixed personality traits, but rather “lenses we use to process information, to experience others, to view time and structure” and ultimately implement the changes we would like in our lives (Jones-Smith, 2014, p. 13).

Crucially, there are ways of practically implementing the theory behind strengths. Two of the most popular uses of strengths-based theory include the Values in Action (VIA) and Gallup models.

Research by Don Clifton and the team at Gallup with leaders and other professionals found that high performers typically have strengths that help them get work done, influence others, build relationships, and utilize strategic thinking (Rath, 2017). The CliftonStrengths assessment they subsequently created helps individuals score their strengths and offers suggestions for using them.

The VIA Inventory identified by Niemiec and McGrath (2019) groups 24 character strengths into six virtues. Their online assessment offers insight into the most positive aspects of the individual.

Strengths Therapy in Practice: 12 Examples

Strengths-based therapy involves working closely with clients to achieve better outcomes by identifying and building on their strengths and capabilities and promoting independence (Pattoni, 2012).

The following are six examples of practical approaches and interventions for use in strengths-based therapy (Pattoni, 2012):

  • Goal orientation
    Working with clients to set goals is highly motivating, and they can use strengths to reach their goals and overcome obstacles along the way.
  • Strengths assessment
    Identifying an individual’s resources rather than focusing on their weakness or deficits can offer them confidence and increase their sense of control.
  • Strengthening links with the environment
    While the client has their own strengths, it can also be beneficial for the therapist or counselor to work with them to identify environmental strengths.
  • Environmental goal resources
    Client goals can be set jointly to identify environmental strengths and recognize their value in facilitating goal attainment.
  • Expanding hope
    Strengths-based therapy can effectively increase client hopefulness using their own strengths and promote stronger relationships with other individuals and the community.
  • Autonomy and meaningful choice
    Collaboration with the client and increasing and explaining their choices throughout treatment recognizes their status as experts in their own lives.

According to Niemiec (2018, p. 46) “a well-conceived, strengths-based approach is at best transformative and at worst well-intended.”

Strengths-based practitioners or counselors must find ways to integrate the following six strategies into their practice (Niemiec, 2018):

  • Encouraging the client in identifying, labeling, and using strengths
  • Identifying strengths in others
  • Finding opportunities to “align character strengths with activities and tasks” (Niemiec, 2018, p. 46)
  • Embedding character strengths into your approach as a therapist or counselor
  • Using the strengths-based practice model (i.e., becoming aware of positive strengths, exploring them together, and helping the client make meaningful action)
  • Using your own strengths in sessions

The use of strengths by practitioners in therapy ensures they practice what they preach, take care of themselves, and provide their best support to the client (Niemiec, 2018).

A Look at Strengths-Based CBT

Strengths-Based CBTStrengths-based therapy integrates well with other treatments, including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

“CBT therapists will turn to many of their own character strengths in their work with clients,” including curiosity to uncover patterns of thinking and judgment to recognize irrational beliefs (Niemiec, 2018, p. 66). In turn, they will encourage their clients to identify and then deploy their particular strengths throughout treatment.

Success has also been found regarding using strengths in CBT for specific areas of focus, such as resilience. The client is invited to search for strengths, build their personal model of resilience, learn how to apply it, and then test it through behavioral experiments (Niemiec, 2018).

Generally speaking, it is possible to weave in the use of clients’ strengths into the creation of client schemas “that might counteract, replace, or bring balance” (Niemiec, 2018, p. 66).

20 Strengths-Based Interview Questions

Interview questions are an essential part of identifying client strengths. Why not give the following a try with clients?

Are you using your strengths?

The first examples assess whether the client is using (and developing) or burying their strengths (modified from Jones-Smith, 2014):

On a scale of 1–5 (where 1 is not at all, and 5 is daily), rate how often you:

  1. Use your strengths at work.
  2. Use your strengths in your relationships.
  3. Focus attention on your strengths.
  4. Build and develop your strengths through practice.
  5. Allow your strengths to play a significant role in your life.
  6. Utilize your strengths when reaching for life goals.
  7. Focus on your strengths to improve your life.
  8. Use your strengths to overcome obstacles.
  9. Use your strengths to help others.
  10. Determine how best to build on your current strengths.

The higher the score, the more likely your strengths bring daily happiness to you and others.

How do you see your strengths?

Strengths-based questions offer deep insights into your clients’ lives.

Consider each of the following areas and the sample questions included (modified from Rogers et al., 2020):

  • Survival questions, such as:
    What has worked for you in the past?
    How have you managed this problem before?
  • Support questions, such as:
    Who in your life has supported you? How?
    Are they still around for you now?
  • Esteem questions, such as:
    How do you feel when people say nice things about you?
    What accomplishments are you most proud of in your life?
  • Perspective questions, such as:
    What beliefs and thoughts do you have about the challenge you are facing?
  • Change questions, such as:
    What would you most like to change, and how can I help?
  • Meaning questions, such as:
    What gives your life meaning?

Your clients’ answers provide insight into their strengths and what they see as important in themselves and others.

5 Best Strengths Exploration Worksheets

Try out the following exploration worksheets with clients to help them identify their strengths and find opportunities to use them.

Exploring Character Strengths

Our Exploring Character Strengths worksheet is a powerful and insightful tool for helping your client recognize their strengths.

Ask clients to consider the following points to identify their signature strengths, including:

  • Remembering favorite pastimes
  • Reflecting on their happiest memories
  • Considering their proudest achievements
  • Identifying what they most enjoy doing

In line with the VIA, each strength identified falls under the following six virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).

Aware–Explore–Apply Model

Once the client has identified their character strengths, it is helpful to use the Aware–Explore–Apply Model to help them understand their strengths, how they could be meaningful, and how to utilize them (Niemiec, 2018).

  • Aware – Increase your self-awareness of what your character strengths mean to you.
  • Explore – Try to connect your character strengths with your past successes.
  • Apply – What actions can you take or goals can you set to use your strengths more often?

What Strengths Do Others See?

Once you have your list of character strengths, it can be helpful to get feedback from those closest to you.

Use the What Strengths Do Others See? worksheet to get different perspectives on personal character strengths.

Strengths in Challenging Times

Identifying our strengths is essential, but equally important are making the effort and taking the time to use them.

The Strengths in Challenging Times worksheet will help your client reflect on personal strengths and how best, and when, to apply them.

Among other questions, the client is asked to consider:

  • What strengths will help them through a challenge?
  • What strengths might they develop through this challenging time?
  • How can they learn to grow from this experience?

Overuse of Character Strengths

“Context is king,” writes Niemiec (2018, p. 94). While using signature strengths can be beneficial, it is vital to consider their degree of use and the situation. For example, humor is valuable, but there are situations when it should be kept in check.

Use the Overuse of Character Strengths worksheet to enhance the client’s awareness of possible overuse (whether it is the frequency, the situation, or the degree).

  • What was the situation where you overused the strength?
  • Were you aware you were overusing the strength at the time?
  • Describe a time when you used this strength and it was useful/helpful to you and others.
  • What were the differences, and what adjustments might you make in the future?
  • How could you use one of your other signature strengths to balance the overuse in this situation?

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Identifying and understanding character strengths can be a catalyst for change in our own and others’ lives (Niemiec, 2018).

Why not download our free strengths tool pack and try out the powerful tools contained within? Some examples include:

  • Strength Regulation
    Clients are invited to examine life situations when they misused a personal strength and when it was used successfully.
  • You at Your Best
    Encouraging the client to create a story surrounding a positive situation in their lives can help the client identify or confirm their strengths.

Other free resources include:

  • Past, Current, and Future Strengths Worksheet
    Four questions to help clients reflect on strengths and use them in goal setting
  • Goals and Strengths Worksheet
    Clients consider how best to align their strengths with future goals.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Strength Journaling

Identifying, using, and acknowledging our strengths is a great way to grow them and our potential.

    • Every day for a week, capture the answers to the following questions:

What went well today?
What strengths contributed to this?
How did I use my strengths to create this positive moment?

At the end of the week, reflect and consider what you learned about yourself. Were any strengths mentioned more than once?

  • Inward and Outward Strength Expression

Consider the extent to which strengths are expressed inwardly versus outwardly to increase strength expression and improve mental wellbeing.

    • Step one – Consider a social strength.
    • Step two – Explore how you outwardly use this social strength.
    • Step three – Explore how you use this social strength inwardly.
    • Step four – Compare inward versus outward use and reflect on any discrepancies.
    • Step five – Reflect on why the discrepancy might exist.
    • Step six – Identify three actions that might help restore this balance.
  • 17 Strength-Finding Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, check out this collection of 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.

A Take-Home Message

Identifying and using our signature strengths can be energizing, benefiting our own lives and those around us.

Strengths-based therapy encourages us to overcome obstacles and improve our wellbeing through focusing on the assets we do have rather than the ones we don’t.

Attempting to be good at everything may not bring the benefits we expect, while investing time and energy in our strengths can help us become more resilient and change our lives for the better.

Research confirms that becoming aware and maintaining our strengths can maximize our performance and help us form deeper relationships with individuals and groups.

Strengths-based therapists are encouraged to use their strengths to increase successful therapeutic outcomes while protecting their wellbeing and happiness.

Why not try out some of the questions and worksheets within this article to form a deeper understanding of your own and your clients’ strengths and how to use them inside therapy and beyond, promoting performance, wellness, and success?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.

References

  • Jones-Smith, E. (2014). Strengths-based therapy: Connecting theory, practice, and skills. Sage.
  • King, V. (2016). 10 Keys to happier living: A practical handbook for happiness. Headline.
  • Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe.
  • Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. VIA Institute on Character.
  • Pattoni, L. (2012, May 1). Strengths-based approaches for working with individuals. Iriss. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/insights/strengths-based-approaches-working-individuals
  • Rath, T. (2017). Strengths based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. Gallup Press.
  • Rogers, M., Whitaker, D., Edmondson, D., & Peach, D. (2020). Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice. SAGE.

Comments

What our readers think

  1. Lydie

    Merci,
    Article très riche qui donne beaucoup de pistes de travail.
    Je suis française et par internet on peut utiliser la traduction pour lire les articles.
    En France, nous sommes en retard sur ces sujets.
    Dommage que le livre Strength finding exercises n’existe pas en français car je souhaiterais l’acheter mais j’ai peur de ne pas le comprendre en version anglaise.

    Reply

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