No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Coaching – focusing on strengths not weaknesses


In this feature piece, Eileen Murphy looks at how concentrating on an individual's strengths rather than their weaknesses can help to introduce doubt into negative beliefs without resorting to positive thinking.

It is a human-given that when a person is infected with a negative belief - like all viruses, it grows. This can happen in any arena, business, sport or theatre. This is why competitors often consider self-talk as important as leading a healthy lifestyle – to keep the infection away.

A BBC reporter once asked a Japanese table-tennis coach how he always kept his team as the champions and he replied “I concentrate on their strengths”. The reporter asked, “What do you do about their weaknesses?” and the coach replied “nothing – we don’t talk about them”. Some people would say that you couldn’t survive in sport unless you examine your weaknesses and work on them and they might be right. I am of the school of thought that says focusing on a strength will make it stronger, focusing on a weaknesses will infect it all the more.

I was once coaching a chess player, I knew nothing about chess at all but he insisted that I watch videos of his game so I could help him understand why he was losing his last three games in succession due, he reported, to his nerve abandoning him under pressure. Privately I was dreading the whole thing as chess, like cricket, confuses me.

I asked him to tell me about the championship games that he had excelled at instead; asking in great detail how he was able to keep his nerve during these testing times and he talked for over an hour, explaining the “focus” and the “tunnel”. I asked him what was different during these times and he said, “I think I prepared more for these games”. I asked how he prepared and he told me about his diet, sleep patterns and rituals. I summed up “So, when you prepare to this extent - this really helps?” and he nodded. At the end of the session, I congratulated him on his ability to keep his nerve most of the time and asked him to remember as much as he could from his upcoming game. To remember the times when his nerve was held most effectively so that he could tell me about it next time we met. He was successful next time, lost the time after and won the time after that.

The mind is a powerful thing. Now look back at that sentence – think what a cliché that is – think how unimpressive a statement it is. Think too – do you know anyone who would say “nah – its not really”? Unfortunately, this is often as far as we get in exploring the phenomenon of the mind. Often if we can just get distracted from the conscious limits we put on ourselves – we could achieve so much more. There is a new-age-y saying that I quote often but deny its origin a bumble-bee can’t fly but because it doesn’t know it can’t fly –it flies. Apparently if you put a bumble bee on a table in front a scientist - after he measured the body weight and the wing span, he would deduce that it would be impossible for a bumble bee to fly.

I am not suggesting that we don’t need the basic talents to achieve – but you can’t tell me, for instance, that the legs of a runner are in any way biologically different from the legs of a non-runner. Surely the only real difference is that the legs of a runner are practised, trained, honed and are attached to a brain that is dedicated to being a runner.

Once the negative belief infects – the body responds on cue. Once the belief has infected – all the motivational speeches in the world won’t shift it. But introducing an element of doubt into that negative belief is much more powerful. When a client tells me that he “just can’t repeat his best” – I respectfully accept what he is saying. Then I investigate exceptions to this belief, asking subtle questions about his strongest time, his past successes. I then break those down to tiny detail and while I am asking those questions, bit by bit he is being reminded of those successes, so much so that his body is capable of responding to the messages being sent to his brain.

My biggest research at the moment is in the recovery of the Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who although a paraplegic, works doggedly on recovery when all the physical odds are stacked against him. Orthopaedics are staggered by his tiny steps of healing when there should be none at all and they have discovered that, in some small part, this is due to the fact that when he sleeps he still walks, runs and swims in his dreams. These messages are being sent to his brain, which actually results in some of those muscles being activated, however minutely.

Its not about positive thinking – I hate all that positive thinking stuff because when everything seems lost I wouldn’t want anyone reminding me to “think positive” when sometimes there just isn’t a positive. For me, positive thinking is a bit like saying to a widow at her husband’s funeral – “cheer up, it could be worse, it could be you”.

I have been coaching people from all walks of life, in various settings, under the most extreme circumstances whether its alcohol, heroin, nervous breakdown, criminal behaviour or merely to achieve a business goal – and I have never wavered in my belief that focusing on a person’s strengths will enhance them. I would go as far as to say that sometimes focusing on a person’s non-existent strength can create a strength but that’s another article for a time when I don’t care if I lose my membership to the psyche’s monthly social club.

Eileen Murphy Consultants works with the clients of, and trains staff within Social Services, Criminal Justice, Education and Mental Health. The Consultancy also works with the commercial sector to resolve conflict and achieve change. The two models used by the Consultancy; the “Examine, Repair & Move On” Approach (Murphy ‘93) and the Solution Focused Brief Therapy Model (de Shazer ‘85), are client-centred and focus on working collaboratively to bring about change.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!