Coaching strengths

Coaching strengths

Coaching strengths

Understanding our strengths and the difference that makes

Have you ever been asked in an interview or in an application what you consider your strengths to be? If you have, how did you feel about the question? Is there a ‘right’ answer perhaps? How comfortable is to write or talk about your strengths? Do we really know what our strengths are? And what benefit might really knowing bring?

What do we mean by ‘strengths’?

Traditionally, we may have thought of strengths as being the skills we possess, the things we’re good at or we’ve had recognition for in the past. Have you ever been told by others that you have a particular strengths, even if for you it really doesn’t feel that way? If we dig a little deeper, we discover there’s more, and that more is important! 

According to Linley (2018), a strength is “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authenticenergizing to the user, and enables optimal functioningdevelopment, and performance” (p. 9). When we engage in activities that utilize our strengths, we experience enjoyment and increased energy levels; to use these strengths feels authentic and aligned and really makes a difference to our performance. We might lose track of time when we work in this way and find ourselves looking forward to the times when we can put our strengths into action. Conversely, activities that deplete us, even those which we are good at (spreadsheets spring to mind for me!) seem to drag and require significant effort and self-control to perform well. These are not our true strengths or our character strengths; we have learned to do them well, perhaps because we needed them for our work or because we strove for recognition from a particular person.

The Benefits of Focusing on Strengths

Focusing on those strengths that also provide us with energy and a sense of being true to ourselves can help us access a ‘flow state’, where we feel present, congruent and fully immersed by what we’re doing. This in turn can lead to higher levels of performance, intrinsic motivation, and personal satisfaction. Engaging in strengths-based activities can also enhance wellbeing, resilience, and overall happiness. More about this later. People who use their strengths frequently are reported to have more energy, feel well-rested, and experience higher levels of engagement both in their personal and professional lives. According to Linley, people who focus on strengths:

  1. Are happier.
  2. Are more confident.
  3. Have higher levels of self-esteem.
  4. Have higher levels of energy and vitality.
  5. Experience less stress.
  6. Are more resilient.
  7. Are more likely to achieve their goals.
  8. Perform better at work.
  9. Are more engaged at work.
  10. Are more effective at growing themselves and growing as individuals.

And teams that work to their strengths experience higher performance, engagement and retention. Taking an approach which plays to people’s strengths makes sense, but it’s not always easy to really know what our strengths are and of course, there can be drawbacks too.

Potential Drawbacks of Focusing on Strengths

While focusing on strengths can be highly beneficial, there are a few potential drawbacks. According to Niemiec (2019), strengths and optimal strength use, or the ‘golden mean’  requires balancing the use of strengths to suit the context and needs of the moment. Overemphasis on strengths without addressing weaknesses can result in blind spots and hinder overall personal development and there is a risk of burnout if strengths are overutilized without adequate rest or balance.

The coaching stance for working with strengths

Coaching can be a personal, deep and creative way to understand and leverage our strengths. Inviting a strengths-based approach to coaching moves us from focussing on a problem state to a resourceful one. Cultivating a stance (our mindset, beliefs and values)  and which facilitates exploration and utlisation of strengths is essential and may include a move from a desire to ‘fix’ to facilitation, from deficit to appreciation. When as coaches we hold the belief that others are resourced and whole and hold they keys to their own growth and potential, we allow them to dig deep into their strengths; and when we adopt a perspective of curiosity, exploration and hope, valuing even more uniqueness and authenticity, we create a safe, courageous space for strengths to be uncovered and brought to the fore.
 Hammond (2010) posits there are 9 guiding principles of strengths-based practice:

  1. Everyone possesses a uniqueness that helps them evolve and move along their journey. These characteristics may include potential strengths and capabilities.
  2. What receives attention or focus becomes what the client strives for and, eventually, a reality.
  3. Be careful with your words and language. Our language creates our reality.
  4. Accept change. Life and our world are ever evolving; don’t resist.
  5. Support others as authentically as you can. You will see that your relationships are deeper and more meaningful.
  6. The client is the storyteller of their own story.
  7. Build upon what you know and experience to dream of the future.
  8. Capacity building has multiple facets and organizations. Be flexible.
  9. Be collaborative. Be adaptive and value differences.

Recently, I was working with a coaching client contemplating a career change. I asked them about their strengths and they shared lots of impressive achievements, all of them amazing and all of them accessed as if from a list of things other people admired in them. I changed the question, asking what ignited their passion and lit them up at work. The conversation shifted. They talked about collaboration, bringing people together and generating new and innovative ideas. Their body language shifted too – they were leaning in, smiling, speaking freely and easily rather than accessing memories or feedback from others. They were able to focus on future roles which  aligned more fully with their character strengths, those ‘pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authenticenergizing to the user, and enables optimal functioningdevelopment, and performance’ Linley mentioned earlier.

How many of these principles are present in your practice as a coach? Which ones do you access easily? Are there any which require greater focus or reflection?

Tools for exploring strengths

There are lots of tools, from online licenced questionnaires to coaching cards out there (I particularly love the At My Best coaching cards!) and reflective tools like the one I’ve included here.

I also enjoy working with the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), a self-report questionnaire developed by Peterson and Seligman which “measures 24 widely valued character strengths.” You can find a free version on the website listed later. Peterson and Seligman (2004) defined character strengths as the processes and mechanisms that lead to 6 universal virtues – Wisdom and knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, Transcendence. For instance, wisdom (a virtue) can be attained through creativity and curiosity (character strengths).

Perhaps you have a ‘go-to’ tool when working with strengths. I’d love to know what works for you and your clients.


Understanding our strengths in relation to energy and alignment rather than by skill alone can help people access the depth and insight needed to make a real difference, not only to performance and satisfaction, but to energy levels and wellbeing. As coaches, adopting a stance which is true to this work is an essential first step and the foundation for working with a range of tools and approaches.

Over to you – how aware are you of your strengths?

Research shows that less than a third of people are truly aware of the strengths they possess. Yet, those who use their strengths more frequently experience greater well-being, energy, and engagement. As a coach, it is crucial to be aware of your own character strengths (while not over playing them) to help those you work with discover and leverage their own. I believe it’s worth revisiting your strengths every so often, to bring into focus what’s real and right for now. It can be uncomfortable. The work can be deep and unsettling as well as liberating and resourcing.

Is there a next step you will choose to take?

Tools and further reading

At My Best Strengths Cards – these are also available on the Deckhive online platform along with my  The Outdoor Coach Coaching CardsYou can access your free trial of The Outdoor Coaching Cards online via this link and attract a subsequent 25% discount on the online version with the coupon code outdoorcoach25Bradshaw, C (2024) Focusing on strengths and energy: a reflective tool
Hammond, W (2010). Principles of Strength-Based Practice Resiliency Initiatives
Linley, A (2018) The Strengths Profile Book Capp Press
Niemiec, R. M. (2019). ‘Finding the golden mean: the overuse, underuse, and optimal use of character strengths’. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 32(3-4), 453-471
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues a handbook and classification.