I’m a huge fan of a strengths-based approach. There’s nothing better than working with a young person and talking about their strengths; it places them at the centre of the conversation, focuses on their existing resources, and allows us to unpack what might be possible from a place of success.
The concept of focusing on strengths isn’t particularly new, and has been gaining momentum over the past few years as the Positive Psychology approach gains steam. Essentially, it’s the opposite of the deficit approach which still exists in so many places – rather than focusing on where the client can improve, we ask the client to think about what they’re already doing well. There’s no need to ‘fix’ anything, and we don’t need to point out all the broken bits, we can just talk about what’s going well.
With this approach, we aim to create sustainable change – positive growth that leans into what’s already working, rather than dragging people back to the things they could be doing better. The expectation is that the same amount of effort applied to capitalising on strengths is likely to be more successful than focusing on overcoming weaknesses.
It’s an approach that’s been applied successfully across a number of fields, including psychology and counselling, business, and within education;
“…a foundational assumption of strengths-based education is that potential exists in all students and that educators do well to discover and implement the kinds of learning experiences that can help their students realise this potential.”
Lopez & Louis, 2009
And it’s an approach that can be particularly useful in career conversations, where there is no real need to focus on the jobs, skills, and interests that young people don’t have.
We’ve been taking a strengths-based approach for years, and, in our experience, students engage well with strengths-based information and activities. They prefer to reflect on the things they’ve done well, and identify their strengths, which makes sense – we all like to focus on the positives. There’s a whole field of research into the importance of self-belief and confidence in career decision making (see Bandura, 2014 etc.), and everything we do is designed to foster confidence and self-belief.
There are two sides to this coin
When we’re talking about a strengths-based approach, it is as important to not rule out possibilities, and not focus on deficits, as it is to talk about strengths.
We never tell students what they can’t do or suggest something might be out of reach.
Of course, there might be times when it’s clear that there is more work to be done, in which case it is important to talk about the realities of certain pathways, but we always do this in a way which gives students space to rise to the challenge.
A great example of this is how we talk about medicine – we talk about the workload, the length of time the training will take, and the costs of the training, but we also talk about how students manage all of those things, and the ways to mitigate any issues. We talk about how competitive it can be to get into medicine, but we also talk about how there are a whole range of medical pathways for people who want to work in healthcare, and raise awareness of other jobs which could be just as great for aspiring doctors.
What we don’t do, is quiz people on their abilities, and then tell them that they would not make a good doctor. Who are we to pass that kind of judgement on a person? The risk of harm for a student who has their heart set on that pathway and then receives a negative result is massive.
When we created the Career Clusters and the Quiz, we placed strengths at the core of the entire program. Each Cluster is defined by their strengths, and we waste no time dwelling on the negatives, which means students who take the quiz are never told what they might not be suited for, or where they need to ‘improve’.
The power of a strengths-based approach
What we find is that the strengths-based approach we take gives students room to be brave – to consider pathways they thought were out of reach, to put their hands up for work experience, and to talk to people at career expos. These may not sound like huge achievements, but in the context of flipping a student’s mindset they can make a big difference.
There’s nothing as exciting as hearing a young person talk about their strengths, especially when they start to realise just how capable they actually are, and I’m so excited about the range of strengths-based tools we can now use in our practice as Career Counsellors. If you’re looking for ways to integrate a strengths-based approach into your own counselling, some of these resources may be useful:
- Yarn Circles Wellbeing Cards from Knowledge Books and Software
- What’s Your Strength Cards from Katherine Jennick
- Strength Cards from Australian Council for Educational Research
And you’re also welcome to access our suite of Career Cluster resources at no cost for educational use, which are entirely strengths-based.
Bandura, A. (2014). Exercise of personal agency through the self-efficacy mechanism. In Self-efficacy: Thought control of action. Routledge.
Lopez, S. J., & Louis, M. C. (2009). The principles of strengths-based education. Journal of College and Character, 10(4), 2. https://doi.org/10.2202/1940-1639.1041