The Problems versus The Strengths Dilemma

strength2When an athlete has yet to master a skill, many coaches will focus on a problem area. When an employee is struggling at work at a specific duty, most supervisors will focus on a problem area. Similarly, in behavioral health, when working with clients to improve his or her functioning, many clinicians will focus on a problem area. Is there any thing wrong with this approach? Let’s consider some potential consequences for the learner (athlete, employee, client) of focusing only on problem areas:

  1. anxiety
  2. frustration
  3. resentment
  4. low self-esteem
  5. (and in the worst cases) giving up

Now let’s consider potential benefits of focusing on the positive—on helping the athlete, employee, or client make use of an existing strength to overcome or work around a problem area.

  1. sense of empowerment
  2. thinking of solving issues in a whole new light
  3. sense of hope
  4. creativity in thinking and subsequent behavior
  5. (in the best cases) mastery of a new skill

StrengthAn excellent example of the power of a strengths-based approach shows up in the story of baseball legend “Wee” Willie Keeler. Keeler was only 5ft 4in. and was certainly no power hitter. However, he is listed as the 14th all-time hitter with a .341 average. He had hits in 44 consecutive games, a record broken only by Joe Dimaggio. He hit 206 singles in one season, a record that stood for 100 years (broken by Ichiro Suzuki).

What was his secret? Since he knew he would never be much of a home run threat, he created and mastered a mantra: “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” Keeler taught himself to carefully hit singles into empty spots on the field, safely away from the offensive team.

The recent research on strengths-based approaches in behavioral health tells a similar story. Learn a client’s strengths and hopes. Then help the client master the skills of his or her choosing. This empowering approach not only improves clients’ self-reported satisfaction, but also keeps them engaged in the habilitation process and improves functioning over the long run. Our main job as clinicians includes engaging clients in their own healing and being a purveyor of hope; focusing on strengths is a natural way to achieve both.

Sam Bauman, PhD
Sam Bauman, PhD
Sam’s leadership is informed by his thirty years of experience managing juvenile justice, mental health, and human service agencies. He has developed and implemented wraparound programs for youth and family services, school-based behavioral health services, primary prevention family strengthening services, rehabilitation services, domestic violence treatment, homeless case management, crisis intervention, jail-based substance abuse treatment, and dual diagnosis services. Presently, he works in the areas of clinical assessment, consultation, treatment planning, training, and technical assistance.
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