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Coaching with Character Strengths: An Inside Look | November 2022: Volume 3, Issue 6

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec
character strengths briefing Dr. Ryan Niemiec

A bimonthly briefing on the latest science and practice of character strengths.

I was coaching a client on character strengths. I had never met this 25-year-old Asian woman before. I knew I only had one chance to make an impact. I knew there would be cultural differences to account for. I knew she wanted to work on bringing her strengths to work. One meeting. 30 minutes. I would never see her again. Read on to see how the session unfolded, plus 7 action-based, strengths coaching tips.


A Deep Dive into a Strengths Dialogue

“Thank you for taking the VIA Survey prior to our session today. Can we take a look at your results together?”

“Sure.”

I shared my screen on Zoom to reveal her rank-order results from 1 to 24. “I’m curious, what is your reaction to your character strengths results?”

She studied her profile from top to bottom. “I think it is weak. I don’t like the results,” she said with an uncomfortable chuckle.

“I appreciate you sharing your honest reaction. Perhaps you can tell me a bit more about what you mean by not liking the results?”

“As I look at my highest strengths here, I can say my prudence prevents me from going out of my comfort zone. The strength of love means I do everything for others and people take advantage of me. My curiosity leads me to lots of distractions at work on social media and Internet exploring.”

Linking Strengths with Work Behaviors

“I’m hearing you draw some important connections between your character strengths and behaviors in your life. That’s excellent because it makes your strengths real. But, the content of what I’m hearing is mostly negative. Your focus is on how the strengths cause you problems – in other words, you are talking only about how you overuse your strengths. I’m curious about how you use your strengths in a balanced way – in a way that brings joy or is productive at work. When have you used one of these top strengths in a way that was helpful to you at work?"

“I cannot think of any ways.”

“Let me offer a couple examples. Love can be expressed in the workplace as being a good listener to co-workers and being warm, supportive, and thoughtful as you interact with them. Prudence might mean you’re always early for meetings, follow structured agendas for each work project, and help your team set good short-term and long-term goals. Curiosity can be expressed in asking the right questions at the right time, exploring new ideas, and challenging the organization to explore new products or new ways to improve existing products.”

“Those make sense. I see what I was doing before. I was using my strengths, but I was in overkill mode with them. I do use my strengths in some of those other ways, too. That does help me to be more productive.”

The 3-Sentence Challenge

“Great! Are you up for a little experiment?” I asked with a gentle smile.

“I can try,” she replied.

“This is called the 3-sentence challenge. I want to invite you to share with me, in one sentence only, how you use each of your top 3 character strengths at work in a strong and balanced way, without any overkill! You can start by saying, ‘I use my strength of curiosity at work when I….’ then you would share one behavior – one action – of using curiosity at work. You might share how you successfully used curiosity in the past or how you might use it in the future. OK? Let me give you one example. ‘I, Ryan, use my strength of hope at work by setting a goal for new projects along with at least three pathways by which I could easily reach that goal. Your turn, ready?”

“OK, starting from the top. I can use my curiosity at work by exploring ideas and possible products across people in different departments. I used my strength of love at work when I took time to listen and support my colleague who was going through a lot of personal problems. And, I use my prudence strength at work when I map out my tasks for the week and prioritize them.”

“Great examples and uses of character strengths at work! You have so many ways you can bring your top strengths forward into productive action.”

“It appears I do!” she said smiling. “It is natural for me to not see this potential in me, and to only discuss my flaws. But, I believe both are important.”

Strengths Collisions and the Ordering Effect

“I am hearing new potential for action at work. Another question that strikes me is how your strengths work together or against each other. You mentioned your curiosity in getting involved in lots of projects with different departments and you also mentioned your prudence to thoughtfully organize, plan, and manage things. Do these two strengths ever work against each other, in other words, collide with one another?”

“Oh yes, that is one of my big problems at work. I can get involved in helping a teammate and brainstorming with them. I then spend so much time exploring with them that I don’t have time to manage my own project that is due the next day!”

“What have you noticed that helps with that?’

“The days that I turn on my computer and list goals for the day seem to be the most productive days for me. On those days, I still connect with others on breaks and at lunch, and sometimes after work.”

“Interesting. What I am hearing you describe is what I refer to as the ordering effect of strengths. This means that we can deploy an optimal order of which we use our strengths, one after the other. In some cases, the improper order causes problems, such as curiosity, perhaps with some kindness and zest, all happening before prudence. A simple switch of the order of strengths use can make a big difference. I am hearing you say, ‘prudence then curiosity.’ Is that right?”

“That’s right. I can be prudent with my organizing and planning when I arrive at work. Then, I know that I’ll have time to use my curiosity after prudence while I’m on my first break. I will focus on that approach this week at work.”

7 Tips to Apply these Practices When Working with Others

This real-life coaching scenario has a number of character strengths concepts and practices embedded within it. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Query the client’s experience: Start with asking about the client’s experience as opposed to a didactic interpretation of results. Get to know their experience of their strengths profile.

  • See and understand the client’s experience: It is not wrong for her to have a deficit-focused mindset. Nor is it wrong that she saw problems in her top strengths. This experience can be “seen” and acknowledged, while also gently guiding her toward the positives of her strengths.

  • Connect strengths with behaviors: The linkage between the subjective experience of character strengths with actual behaviors the client can take is an overarching feature of character strengths-based approaches.

  • Offer character strengths seeding: It’s important to offer examples of character strengths use, especially tailored to the client’s context. This is called “character strengths seeding.” Otherwise, many clients will never have (and won’t) consider the relevance of character strengths.

  • Notice strengths overuse and underuse: The overuse of strengths is a hot topic and prevalent in the workplace. While the underuse of strengths is most likely a far worse problem for workers (and for outcomes), the overuse makes for not only interesting conversation but potential for growth.

  • Consider leading a novel activity: In this scenario, I used the 3-sentence challenge for purposes of brevity but also to center the client squarely on productive or balanced use of her strengths.

  • Look for opportunities to apply the ordering effect: The ordering effect is one of the many emerging character strengths dynamics. As you become familiar with finding the optimal ordering of strengths in different situations in your own life—and in reaping the benefits—it is an extraordinary strategy to then offer to clients.

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Every other month Dr. Ryan Niemiec, VIA's Chief Science & Education Officer, sends a newsletter to connect with researchers, strengths practitioners and educators from around the world. He offers things such as a character strengths research finding, a practical nugget, and/or a character strengths story or dialogue he's found inspiring. His hope is that it will prime your day and week with character strengths. Also, let it serve as a reminder that you can reach out at anytime to share your study, your strength applications, and your latest innovations! This article captures a past newsletter. To receive newsletters in real-time, click to subscribe

Empowering You to Bring Out the Best in Others Using Character Strengths

Character strengths are a scientifically-validated pathway to help individuals improve their lives, work and relationships. The free VIA Survey, translated into over 40 languages, is the premier tool in the field of positive psychology that assesses an individual's character strengths. When you know your clients' or employees' strengths, you can guide them more effectively and authentically. Discover a host of resources for professionals.