March 24, 2007

How important is the concept of strengths really?

Sometimes, in solution-focused change, a lot of emphasis is put on what is called a strengths perspective. I have done that too (see for instance here and here). But I sometimes wonder if focusing on strengths is really one of the essential points of the SF-perspective.

I have two quotes to illustrate my confusion: QUOTE 1: Even seemingly negative traits can be called talents if they can be productively applied. (Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton). This quote by strengths based management guru's actually puts the notion of strengths somewhat into doubt. A characteristic which, in one situation, looks like a weakness, turns out to be a strength when applied in a situation which asks for just that characteristic. Apparentely, strength is at least partly dependent on the perspective you take.

Here is a second quote to add to the confusion: QUOTE 2: We do not believe that people have resources anymore than we believe that people have deficits...We believe that everyone is capable of doing what they need to do to get what they want. (Walter and Peller (1992). Maybe, the essence of solution-focused change (and perhaps this goes for positive psychology too) has even more to do with doing what works than with identifying and applying strengths per se. Doing what works has a lot to do with finding interactions between people and situations/environments which work. Doing what works requires that you specify how you would like things to be, try out different things you think may work, observing carefully what actually helps and doing more of that.


  1. Interesting, Coert. It is not really helpful, in my opinion to think of something as a strength or resource in itself. Something is a strengh relative a particular goal or ambtion. A strength is an ability that makes something possible. A resource is something you draw upon to make something possible. So, in SF the focus is not so much on resources or strenght but in getting things done, with whatever we can find to make it doable. This can be some rather odd things. I recall a client who controlled his drinking by drinking. Starting a day with a glass of wine gave him an appetite. The appetite helped him eat breakfast. And a full stomach helped him overcome urges, so he didn't have to drink anomore. In this case an aspect of his problem was the strenght or resource that helped him cope with the problem.

  2. Hi Michael, you say: "Something is a strengh relative a particular goal or ambtion." This is a very productive way of looking, which I like a lot. It allows for the following: if you have a certain behavioral tendency you may actively look for a goal relative to which that behavior is a strength. (In other situations, of course, this same behavior might be seen as non-relevant, irritation, harmful etc).

  3. Hi Coert and Michael. A belated response to this topic because I was reading up on strengths over the Easter break. I liked your comments, they align with Mark McKergow's summary in Positive Approaches to Change, which (to paraphrase) implies that one of the difference between the positive psychology view and the socially constructed view of SF is that the former focuses on universally defined strengths and the latter focuses on strengths that are given meaning (and usefulness) in social interactions and in certain situations.

  4. Dear Sharon, You can indeed wonder whether a generic taxonomy of strengths is needed on an individual level. In SF you focus on identifying behavior that works. What works may be different depending on circumstances and it may vary over time. It also may refer to interactions between people. In that case the 'strength' may not be individual but collective.


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