A blog by Tanya Moore @tanya_tavi
Strengths practitioners focus on what people can do.
This doesn’t mean we skirt over difficulties or risk. It doesn’t mean we ignore sorrows, challenges or pain. Strengths practitioners see the full picture and work with the reality and messiness of life. Strengths isn’t a naïve approach to practice, it’s a realistic conversation about how things have been. So we don’t look away from difficulty but we refuse to allow itto distract from our task of identifying the resources drawn upon to get through.
To do this, we listen very carefully for hints, clues and revelations of how people have managed. Strengths approach tells us the best thing we can do to help people think clearly and creatively about their situation is to focus on how they’ve managed so far; to listen carefully for those skills, interests, friendships and connections that meant the person could cope and is here now to tell the tale. So we might be listening to stories that involve lots of
problems but we’re looking out for the solutions embedded in the story.
We’re listening for ways the person has manged to cope. Our social care jargon would say this is focussing on ‘assets’. But this is just jargon and we’d never use such terms in a real conversation. And we’d never ask someone what are their assets!
So strengths approach recognises and values resilience and resourcefulness. It’s interested in how people cope in adversity. It identifies those elements the person draws upon to cope.
A Skilled Approach
Sounds easy? It really isn’t. This is skilled work and takes practice. It’s easy to get pulled into the difficulty of a person’s experience and to ‘prescribe’ services that reassure us all that we’re doing something helpful. But the skill of the strengths practitioner is their ability to maintain focus on the prize. And the prize is those coping strategies that helped the person get through. This might be their fantastic sense of humour, that 40-year friendship or the comprehensive Bob Marley vinyl collection that brings transcendental joy each time a disc is spun. These are all resiliences and resources. Bob Marley records or an old school friend might not be the practical help needed to get out of bed in the morning. But they might be the reason to want to get up. They might give a person facing significant difficulty, a clear and strong reason for pushing through and keeping going.
Spot the Strengths
So how do we spot these resiliencies? The key to this and actually, the best thing about being a strengths practitioner is how much we can do just by listening to people. But of course, it’s super-listening. It’s that detailed listening that applies our ability to fully tune in and hear what isn’t said as well what is. Sometimes, when a person’s having a really tough time, it can be hard for them to spot the strengths in their stories. But strengths approach tells us they are there. And strengths practitioners can hear them. We can do this because we’re genuinely interested in people’s stories, narratives and understanding of their experiences.
You might be lucky enough to take good listening for granted but if you’ve ever tried to talk about a difficult time to someone who doesn’t listen, you’d know it isn’t a universal trait. And yet, it’s in the good listening that the magic happens. It’s here that we spot the bits in the tale about how people kept going when it was really hard. We think of these as ‘strengths’ and we point them out. So we don’t ever ask people to tell us what their strengths are. Instead, we notice strengths in their story and highlight them back to the person.
Authenticity is Key
But we’ve got to be real. People can always spot a fake and authenticity is a key element of strengths approach. It’s because we can genuinely see strengths and achievements even when things are difficult, that we can always find real and positive things to say about people’s ability to cope. We might say; ‘it’s amazing that you’re able to get on the phone to your sister and laugh about it. I can see how your close relationship and brilliant sense of humour have helped you get through so much!’
But we could only say this if we really did think the person has a fantastic sense of humour and a brilliant sibling connection. So the person tells the story and the practitioner spots the strengths and reflects them back. Collaboration is key. It’s not an approach that can be ‘delivered’ but then, social care isn’t an Amazon parcel. It’s a relationship. We don’t just ring the doorbell and hand over the service. We work together to make the helpful connection happen. But crucially, in this relationship, it’s the person who’s in charge; they decide what they want to tell us and where they want the story to go.
There are always strengths in a story. People often ask me how we know there will be strengths in a story. What if some people are having such a hard time, there aren’t any strengths to highlight?
Happily, strengths practitioners are optimists. We believe in people’s capacity to take control, even if they need a bit of help to do this. But we don’t gloss over the difficult stuff. We acknowledge how hard things can be and we see and respect the risks that some people have to take just to get on with their lives.
Our role in this collaboration is to reflect back the resources and strengths inherent in the person’s story. No matter how overwhelmed people might be feeling, we believe it’s possible for them to see what they’ve achieved so far and to think imaginatively and creatively about what’s next.
Strengths practitioners see the community as an important source of support. Whether community means family, the neighbourhood or the internet, we think imaginatively with people about how they might build on or tap into this. We might ask questions such as:
‘What’s helped you to keep going so far?’
‘Who do you rely on for support and encouragement?’ or
‘What do you think needs to happen to get you (back) to where you want to be?
Any of these open questions might help thinking about how the person has managed up until now and what might help moving forward. Not a Panacea but can emphasise agency And that’s the Strengths based conversation upon which many practice models in social care are based. It’s not a panacea. But when someone wants to think through next steps, it’s a positive way to make sure they’re aware of their agency and can stay in control of what comes next. It’s helpful in practice but also in teams and supervision and a strengths-based management approach that highlights and learns from successful systems is a constructive and supportive way to work.
Strengths approach takes practice so do try it out on willing volunteers. We all know how empowering it can be when a good conversation helps us recognise our own coping strategies and resources. But strengths practitioners will never ask anyone to tell us about their strengths. We believe that when we listen carefully, we spot them ourselves.