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An introduction to personal strengths


This article is written by Peter Gerrickens to accompany his forthcoming workshop, developing personal strengths.

Strengths are our most typical characteristics. They are the potential of personal possibilities that we have at our disposal, whether or not we use them. Strengths are personal characteristics that are separate from what we have learned. They are the gift we were provided with at birth for doing what we have to do as well as possible.

We all have our own set of strengths, which is as unique as a fingerprint. These strengths can be developed in the course of life. Examples of strengths are: patience, discernment, creativity, being well organized, humorous, courageous, being persuasive and sympathetic.

The abundance of strengths that people may have can also be visualized as a large palette containing all the different colours. A number of these colours (strengths) suit you, and you use them in situations you run into. This set of strengths is your own personal palette of colours.

Looking at people from the angle of strengths is a positive view: you try to see and discover the best in people. By doing so you can encourage others to do something with their strengths in life.

If you use the strengths that suit you and the situation precisely, they will generally affect you and your environment positively. Sometimes you will not even notice this very much, because the way in which you behave is so suitable. Then you are simply yourself.

Strengths are a vulnerable area as well. It is very painful to be rejected in situations in which you feel most at home.

Some of your own strengths may encounter resistance in your environment. Then you can either choose to cope with the resistance or choose the line of least resistance and keep the strengths concerned hidden. Choosing the latter option will usually result in frustration, for we all have a strong inner urge to express our strengths and you very much want to be yourself. The frustration is the price you pay for not developing your strengths.

Many people have some trouble in being fully open about their strengths. They are ashamed of the best a person has. For some people it is actually easier to say what they are not good at than what they are good at.

What is the difference between strengths and skills? Strengths are present in rudimentary form and can be tapped and developed. Skills can be learned, whereas strengths cannot.

However, there is often a clear relationship between people’s strengths and the ease with which they learn certain skills. Thus the strength of tact makes the mastering of negotiation skills easier.

Developing strengths

A strength can only be deployed optimally in everyday life when it has been fully developed. In the development of a strength four stages can be indicated, ranging from undeveloped to overdeveloped: latent, half-latent, manifest and distorted.

Latent strengths

Strengths that are already there in the bud and may develop within you (again) are latent strengths. Such a latent strength is comparable to a bulb that is in the ground and may start to grow when conditions are favourable. Usually you cannot see it yourself. A practised outsider sometimes can. Via the mechanism of projection it is possible to trace latent strengths.

Another possibility is deciding to hide away a strength because it evokes negative reactions or because you are startled by it. Often you are not aware of this. You could say that this colour has disappeared from your palette of colours.

Latent strengths offer important opportunities for personal development. Situations that people view as a challenge often offer the opportunity to further develop certain latent strengths.

Half-latent strengths

Strengths that you employ selectively – that is, only in a situation familiar to you – are half-latent. They have been partially developed. When a situation is not safe you do not employ such a strength, even when it is desirable. The strength of sensitivity is an example of a strength that is half-latent with some people. They only dare to react in an instinctive way when the situation is safe and they do not run the risk of being refused or hurt.

Another example is that a person will show humour with relatives and friends, but does not use (or hardly ever uses) this strength when with colleagues at work. However, a joke to cheer things up can be very functional there as well.

With half-latent strengths it may seem that a certain strength is not there. It is possible, however, that it remains hidden in situations in which it is desirable or suitable.

In terms of the palette of colours, half-latent strengths are colours that you use at one time and do not use at another for making your ‘work of art’. In those situations you do not use the colour you really want, and you may occasionally choose another colour. So, for example, some people do not dare to employ the strength of vigorousness and instead apply the strength of care. They would rather serve coffee than cut the knot in a difficult decision.

Manifest strengths

Manifest strengths are strengths that you can handle well and that you are familiar with. They have been developed optimally. You have easy access to them and use them in situations in which this is necessary. When they are not suitable you do not come forward with them.

Manifest strengths are often those strengths people talk about when talking about other people positively. They may then say of a particular person that he is meticulous, or of another that humour is one of her very characteristic strengths.

Manifest strengths are sometimes better seen in you by other people than by you yourself. They may be so familiar to you that you no longer notice them.

Employing manifest strengths is often easy for you, for then you are yourself. Generally it costs more energy to make yourself out to be better than you are.

Distorted strengths

Distorted strengths are originally good qualities that have been exaggerated or overdeveloped, thereby often having a negative effect on the environment. They have literally gone ‘far from their original form’. They are too much of a good thing. In popular speech distorted strengths are called ‘bad qualities’.

Examples of distortions and the accompanying strengths are: fussiness and meticulousness; obtrusiveness and persuasiveness; interference and caring; wiliness and being tactful.

When you see bad qualities as distorted strengths these take on a different aspect and become easier to look at. You do not overestimate the negative aspect of the bad quality, but you are going to look for the strength that is hidden behind your own annoying behaviour. You do not deny the negative in it, but you know that there is more to it than that.

In this way people can start to experience their bad qualities differently, and be stimulated to focus more on the strength and less on the distortion.

The annoying thing about distorted strengths is that they often evoke a distortion in the other person as well. Thus one person being pushy may lead to passivity in another.

From: The Feedback Games, Peter Gerrickens, ISBN 0-566-8211-X, Gower.
On TrainingZone you can find a review about this Manual and The Feedback Game.


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