It’s perhaps a universal truth of coaching: our clients come to us to “improve” themselves. They’re looking to change something (or some things) they deem undesirable, unacceptable, or lacking in themselves no matter where they are on the health spectrum. Initially, of course, many are concerned with physical or athletic attributes. Then we get to the revelation that it all comes down to behaviors…switching out previous behaviors that don’t serve them or their intended aims. As we dig deeper in conversation with our clients, we often find these old behaviors have roots in long-held beliefs about themselves or their potential. These are the weak links in the chain.
But is making these “weaker” aspects the center of your coaching conversations the most effective means of moving your client forward? Likely no. While perceived weaknesses certainly inform our client’s behavioral goals (not to mention influence the stumbling blocks they encounter getting there), the attention we pay to their strengths may offer a better approach for encouraging persistence and progress.
Ironically, research shows people presume they can change their weaknesses more than their strengths. Strengths, as the assumption goes, are somehow inborn or locked in, whereas we tend to believe weaknesses are the malleable elements of our lives and personalities. Furthermore, a recent study showed, the more discrepancy between where a person is and where he/she wants to be, the stronger the person’s assumption he/she can reach that goal. As inspirational and hopeful as that thought pattern is, on its own it can be the root of many an unrealistic expectation about how much time and work will go into achieving a goal.
In contrast to these common assumptions about which is more pliable, we might do well to take a lesson from management theorist, Peter Drucker, who said (PDF):
[One] cannot build on weaknesses. To achieve results, one has to use all available strength. These strengths are the true opportunities….”.
That’s a strong message to offer clients and maybe a critical question for initiating a program of change: where are the valuable “opportunities” here, and how can we best engage them? We can work with clients early on to identify strengths—of skill, character and motivation—that they bring to bear in making healthy changes. Doing so can also help clients counter deep-seated self-esteem issues as well as the emotional impact of past disappointments by putting concrete strengths at the forefront of the process. Clients can claim them as tools to employ every day.
In our work with those who want to change their health, it’s important to remember we’re operating within the realm of “affective priming,” the psychological principle that expectation largely influences process and even outcomes. It’s nonetheless important to help clients “root” their eagerness in solid ground. The stronger and more resilient a client’s expectation that he/she has what it takes to effectively change their behaviors (not just personal desire but identified skills, practices and traits), the better the chance they’ll be successful.
Keeping a client’s strengths at the forefront also, coaching experts suggest, can shift the overarching conversation. As coaching psychology researchers, Susan Harrington and P. Alex Linley explain, instead of focusing on “mitigating weaknesses,” a strengths focus encourages ownership and moves the exploration of your coaching relationship from a fixation on “problems” to the open field of “potential.” As a result, a client can more readily perceive his/her own assets as driving the change rather than viewing external authority figures (e.g. a health coach) as saving them from themselves. The result is a greater sense of self-efficacy for the client.
Strengths-based coaching isn’t a new concept, but it can offer an important perspective on how to balance our focus with clients to maximize their motivation and success. Of course, coaching is never about unconditional positivity. We’re truth tellers for our clients. We help them cultivate honest self-awareness of their behavioral patterns and self-talk. We promote a commitment to health integrity and personal accountability. Sometimes this means sharing harder feedback. Yet, a strengths focus builds an encouraging relationship that gives those messages an ultimately positive context.
With all this in mind, how can we incorporate a strengths-focused strategy into our day-to-day coaching? What can this emphasis look like in terms of concrete practice? Let’s break it down into parts.
What We Can Do in the Initial Session(s)
At the beginning of the coaching relationship, we can set the tone early by helping our clients list strengths they feels they’ll bring to working toward their health goals. Depending on their goals, examples can include any of the following: “biographical” circumstances like athletic experience, an active job, or extra time; skills such as cooking talents or athletic abilities; personality traits such as tenacity, self-discipline, optimism, flexibility, or resilience; attitudes like enjoyment of exercise or willingness to try new things; etc.
This will be a master resource you both can refer to in setting new goals, recovering from missteps, and gathering motivation to overcome obstacles (e.g. plateaus). We can also help clients expand their concept of success by talking about the inherent power of living through their strengths.
What the Client Can Do in Between Sessions
Food journals, exercise logs, motivation albums, vision boards…these are all tools many coaches apply in their work with clients to respectively cultivate awareness of behaviors and to celebrate/envision progress along the way.
A strengths journal, however, is a less common, but powerful option to consider—particularly with clients who struggle with defeatism or whose goals are substantial enough challenges to require a long-term commitment. Ask clients to maintain their own master list of strengths as you’ve discussed them at the beginning of your coaching collaboration. Guide them to record their self-observations in a notebook or an e-file devoted to your health coaching endeavor. Specifically, ask that they review their strengths each week (if not each day!), and to answer the following question related to a few of their strengths: “How have I shown/employed (a particular strength) in my healthy choices this week?”
What We Can Do During Each Session
Ask clients to share how they engaged their strengths that week (or however long it’s been since your last check-in). Spend time talking about the difference their strengths are making at this stage in their adherence to, enjoyment of, and progress toward their health endeavors.
Throughout the session, we can point out existing or evolving strengths that we witness in their attitudes or practices. In doing so, we encourage them to appreciate the small (or substantial) shifts they are making. Further, we model a lens of positive self-concept for clients, which can help those who chronically believe they always fall short.
What We Can Do Throughout the Coaching Relationship
Contrary to the common assumption that strengths are more or less “fixed,” you and your client can consciously follow the evolution of his/her strengths over time. Some on that initial master list will solidify or deepen further. Other, entirely new strengths will reveal themselves.
Finally, even some beginning perceived “weaknesses” may over time shift in such a way to become some of your client’s greatest assets. A love of food can spur a client to develop impressive healthy cooking skills. A tight schedule can become a competitive catalyst for embracing intensively efficient workout modes. A stubbornness regarding routine can morph into an asset when they get over the initial hump of change and now feel committed to their new (healthier) regimen.
Celebrate each of these shifts with your clients, and appreciate the empowerment that comes from fully owning one’s process—respecting both the external behaviors and the internal attitudes that guide and strengthen it.
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