September 22, 2007

It is essentially about what has functioned well (not about strengths)

As I said before, I think the emphasis on strengths may be a bit overrated or even misplaced in solution-focused approaches and in Positive psychology. Read for instance this post: How important is the concept of strengths really? The post of yesterday (Solution-focused questions to criminal offenders) quoted Marcus Buckingham who mentioned some good questions which are asked to youth who have broken the law, like Have you made any positive changes in the past? If you would make these changes today, who would be the first to notice these changes? Only after posting this, I noticed something interesting.

The quote remains great but maybe Marcus Buckingham's qualification of the questions misses the point a bit. He calls these 'good strengths based questions'. But it is doubtful if this is a right way of describing the essence of what these questions are. The questions are typical solution-focused questions as in the approach which was developed by the Brief Family Therapy Center of Steve De Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg. My central complaint here is not that Marcus Buckingham (and other positive psychology people) do not refer once in while to solution-focused brief therapy as a great approach which has independently developed. I know for a fact that people like Martin Seligman and David Cooperrider are aware of the solution-focused approach and probably Buckingham does too. And I think it would certainly harm no one if they would refer to it as an interesting independent approach, once in a while ;). My point here is another one.

The questions which Buckingham mentions here do not necessarily refer to strengths. Instead, they refer to what has worked before. It is not certain that the answer to these questions necessarily leads to the discovery of some stable personal strength. What the answer will lead to is to the identification of some behavior which in the past has been successful in a more or less comparable situation. So these are not strengths based questions so much as questions which shine a light on what has functioned well. What has functioned well does not exclusively refer to people only but to the interaction between people and situations. So, again it may be wise to be careful of placing a great emphasis on any kind of fixed labels on people (even if these labels are positive). Here is another reason for that.

Carol Dweck, Stanford professor, has warned against complimenting children for intelligence. Her research shows that praising children for intelligence leads them to fear challenges and makes them feel stupid and discouraged when they fail (read more here). So again, I think the great questions Marcus Buckingham mentions are more about what has functioned well (what has worked well) than about strengths. 'Strengths' puts the focus on the individual person too much, I think. What has worked well puts the focus on the interaction between person and situation and allows for situationism, dynamism and interactionism.


  1. Sharon McGann replies: "Good food for thought Coert. I tend to agree and have been focusing on trying to understand strengths for a while without a huge lot of success. Perhaps it is a desire to believe in something stable - nature vs nurture."

  2. Both/and:
    The positive folks are doing a great job and your key point Coert is a big opportunity not to be missed:
    "What has functioned well does not exclusively refer to people only but to the interaction between people and situations".

  3. I agree with this. My colleague Chris Iveson wrote a great piece on this earlier this year.
    Solution focus is NOT a strengths-based approach.

  4. i Evan,I'm glad to hear that two of such experienced SF people agree with this! I have been writing about this for more than three years and thought in SF circles there was rather little support / agreement for this view of mine

  5. Important distinctions you're making here, Coert!

    I,too, have been perplexed for years about why the AI and Buckingham groups don't acknowledge the cross-overs...and the differences in SF and their approaches.

  6. hi Meri, thanks. Here is post in which I try to compare the solution-focused approach, positive psychology and the strengths movement: Positive psychology, the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach

  7. There is another thought you might want to consider behind this discussion about strengths and successfull behavior. This thought off course looks at the value you give to strengths and behavior.

    If you value behavior and its outcomes as more important you will off course find it more important to emphasize behavior that has positive outcomes. If you value talent you will emphasize behavior that is the result from talent.

    I think however, that both approached are flawed. Looking only at successfull behavior means you lay to much emphasis on the influence you have on your surroundings. Forgetting that your surroundings often consist of other humans with their own needs and wants and behavior looking to be successfull. Laying to much emphasis on strengths, means you are no longer looking at what these strengths should accomplish. It also leaves out the fact that many strengths are multi behavioral. Often you can handle more situations with the same strength. A simple example is the strength of perseverance. If you have it, you can become successfull in many situations. However you will still need to define what you mean by success.

    So it might be better to combine talent and successfull behavior. In which talent or strengths is what makes it possible to do things that give you pleasure. Where successfull behavior makes you see that you are capable of much more than only what you think you are good at.

  8. Hi Normyo,

    Thanks for your comment. I like the distinction between focusing on successful behaviors on the one hand and applying your talent on the other.

    I agree that doing what works (or focusing of successful behaviors) is not the only useful guideline for what to do.

    But I am slightly skeptical about the relevance of the talent concept. Instead of thinking much in terms of talent I prefer to be guided by my intrinsic motivation (or fascination as I'd like to think f it), never mind of whether this touches on my 'strengths' or not.

    Here are two background posts:
    - The word 'talent':
    - 25 Quotes about Expertise and Expert Performance:

  9. Coert I agree with you that talent is a badly chosen noun for an ability that might well be created in the first years of our lives. But to say that motivation is not an talent or endurance or the special structure brains of people with high abilities have might be a disappreciation of the term talent.

    Of course talent is nothing without the wish to excel in and the time to develop it. But to disavow talent because it is difficult to define or defined incorrectly, is like saying that the color of ones skin is off no meaning.

    So I agree that talent is not enough, but often motivation and endurance seem to be talents that are in poor supply with lots of people. So the many other strengths they might have get lost, probably in the human struggle to survive and keep our fears for the future as low as possible. Because that might be the biggest talent all humans have in common our ability to fantasize about all the bad things that can happen to us. A strength we all get to practice a lot.

  10. Hi Normyo,

    Thanks. Too be precise, I am saying that I hesitate to use the word talent because it is often so unclear what people mean when they use it.

    I am not claiming that talent, in the sense of innate, natural abilities do not exist. That would be going too far, for me. I am however saying I am skeptical about the role and importance of innate talents have in building performance.

    I'd rather speak in terms of motivation, interests, drives, etc. And even for thinks like motivation and endurance I would rather not use the term 'talent'. Even these concepts, I think, are perfectly developable.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  11. Coert I agree with you that talent is to easy used in some kind of solitary meaning. As if someone who has a talent will automatically be a success because of that talent. And I also agree that many users of the word talent use it in that way: If you have a talent it will automatically create your success in that field.

    But to say that the role and importance of talents is limited in creating success, might be comparable to saying that you only need talent to succeed. Maybe the important thing with talent is not that it is some innate ability, but that it is a warning for teachers and parents to create a rich learning environment in which the ability can be developed. Because there will be children with the talent for playing the piano or running in countries in which there are no pianos or everybody runs. These children will probably never develop these talents in the same way that children with a piano and a runningcoach will do.

    So the concept talent is not there for the owner of the talent, but for those of us that are in the business of helping people to develop their talents. You might say that talent creates the obligation for the rest of the world to help talented people to develop. And as research in the eighties of the previous century in Canada has show, if you create environments in which high ability students can develop, you also create an environment in which normal able pupils can get to be the best they can be.

  12. Dear Normyo,

    My quarrel is not only with the thought that if someone has a talent he or she will automatically be a succes because of that talent.

    I also have a quarrel with the the thought if someone is successful this must mean that he or she has a talent for that activity.

    I am not specifically claiming that the role of talent is limited in creating success. What i am saying is I am skeptical about the claim that it is. The burden of proof is on the person who claims it is. Currently research gives us much reason to doubt the importance of a talent factor (here is just one piece of evidence which raises doubt: "Exit genetic determinism: example of genes-environment interaction" -

    I agree with you that what is crucial is to create rich learning environments and to teach children how to practice in activities that they would like to become good at.

  13. I agree that talent often is taken as an automatic cause for success. I wonder if asking people to proof that there idea of talent as cause for success is effective. You might have more success asking them to explain what they mean with talent. Because you might find they are just repeating what they have heard others say about the relation between talent and success.

    So I too agree that we might better stop talking about a relation between talent and success, even if there might be one, but not in the way most people think there is.

    In which way environment influence genes and through the genes talent, I wonder. I know that environment influences intelligence, as research with identical twins proofs. But as there are no studies with identical twins for which one grew up in poverty, for example an poor African country and the other in a rich Western country, we probably will never know how much influence environment has on genes and talent. But we may as well expect an influence, as few people in poor countries with a talent for music become world famous musicians.

    To end, thank you for all your extra links to interesting extra information on this subject.

  14. Dear Normyo,

    Actually, generally I would not challenge people's ideas about talent. I think it is fine when people think in these terms. However, when they try to convince me or other people I might challenge them and ask them for evidence.

    With respect to twin studies, there are actually some interesting studies which raise doubt about the suggestion that intelligence is largely inherited. The book "Intelligence and how to get it" by Richard Nisbett explains them well.

    Apart from the question how inheritable intelligence is, is the question of how important heritability is anyway. As Richard Nisbett explains, 1) it makes no sense to talk about a heritability percentage on a gourp level, 2) heritabily says nothing whatsoever about mutability.

    Thanks the dialogue.

  15. That is an important point you make about people thinking in certain terms about talent. A NLP adept would contest this idea, with the premise that what we say and think influences our actions. In a way you can see the influence of this idea that talent is a constant in the fact that companies do not create environments that are conducive to the development of talent. You can also see it in the way our educational environments are not conducive to talent development. You can see it in the fact that organizations rather get talented people from abroad then try to develop the talent incompany. You can see it in the fact that countries have rules that allow companies to import talent, when they can not find the right talent within the country.

    So the idea that talent is something that you can only develop if you have the innate ability is widespread through society. So it may be time to challenge all those persons we meet and who are talking about the inability of others to become better at what they do, because they lack the talent.


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