Using a strengths-based approach

Applying the principles of a strength-based approach to our wellbeing journey can be an empowering way to view ourselves and others. We all have strengths to rely on and have the capacity to keep growing and developing these.

The Strengths Approach is a method that sees others, like the whānau we work with, as having the power and ability to change their own lives. They just need support to identify and value their strengths and resources then put these into action. This is a positive shift away from only seeing people's faults and problems.

It’s common to hear whānau supporters kōrero about their mahi as ‘walking alongside’ whānau or ‘holding hope’ with whānau. This truly captures the core principles of the strengths-based approach which is sharing "power-with" whānau, rather than having "power-over" whānau (McCashen, 2005).

Today, strengths-based practice is widely used across our health, social services, education and justice sectors. Alongside this, we are always learning more about the science of wellbeing as led by positive psychology research. We might be familiar with much of this inside our own mahi, but here we explore how we might use a strengths-based approach to support our own wellbeing.

Being aware of our negativity bias

This is the work of American neuropsychologist Dr Rick Hanson and others who noticed how easy it is to fixate on what’s wrong and negative. We only have to think about our old school reports to notice what we remember – generally the negative and perhaps nothing of what was positive!

As we fixate on the negative, we also tend to give it way more meaning and weight than we do anything positive.

Our negative experiences stick to us like Velcro, while our positive experiences slide right off us like Teflon.

Dr Rick Hanson

The reason for this is similar to what we know about our sometimes-overactive flight, fright or freeze response. This busy part of the brain causes us to have more neurons ready to look for any signs of threat, than to search for reward. This would have been handy thousands of years ago when we might have been at greater risk of being attacked by a wild animal, but it's not so handy now that our levels of risk are lower. 

So what is the remedy? Well, if we are aware of our negativity bias then when we find ourselves only focusing on what's wrong we know that it's our brain making us do it! Then we can wave it off like the guy that’s full of annoying and negative advice! Alongside this it’s important to remember that what’s bad and wrong is only as important as what’s good and right, and actively choosing to switch our focus to the positive can sometimes be a welcome change.

Adopting a growth mindset

People who believe their skills and talents can be developed through practice, coaching and work have what we call a ‘growth mindset.’ They believe they have the capacity to grow. Whereas those who believe they are either good at something or not, and that’s just how it is, have a fixed mindset. 

The growth mindset science has been heavily used in education to support tamariki with their learning, which is great. But it might be worth us also taking a look at where we might hold some fixed mindsets of our own that could be holding us back. 

Carol Dweck explains that when we have a fixed mindset around a certain activity or task, we can add the word ‘yet’ to its end to change the way we think about it. Instead of saying, "I’m not good with managing finances" you could start saying, "I’m not good at managing my finances yet." 

  • It also means we have to ‘try’ and praise ourselves for trying. 
  • Seeking some help is another way to put our growth mindset into action.
  • Looking at some strategies – a plan, a to-do list, a budget all support us adopting a growth mindset.
  • Note any progress we've made – in the past or by working on things now – and acknowledge this!
  • Recognise that it takes time to learn new skills and things and it takes our perseverance and determination to take the steps we’re taking.
  • Allow for mistakes – these are a natural part of our learning.

It can be reassuring and refreshing to know that human abilities can be grown. 

Bringing our strengths and seeing the strengths of others

The VIA Character Strengths were the research of Dr Martin Seligman and Dr Neal Mayerson. Seligman shifted away from traditional psychology to become a positive psychologist because he was really interested in people’s strengths despite the challenges they faced. He wanted to study what’s right with people, rather than what’s wrong!

Seligman and Mayerson therefore set about researching the universal and across-culture character strengths that we all have as part of us, and how we might use this information to deal with challenges and understand ourselves better. 

Their studies have identified 24 strengths which we all have available to us, these are:

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence 
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity 
  • Open-mindedness
  • Love of learning
  • Perspective
  • Honesty
  • Bravery
  • Persistence
  • Zest
  • Kindness
  • Love
  • Social intelligence
  • Fairness
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Forgiveness
  • Humility
  • Prudence
  • Self-regulation
  • Gratitude 
  • Hope 
  • Humor
  • Spirituality

The VIA Character Strengths website offers a free quiz which allows us to determine these strengths for ourselves and in what order. That means we can be aware of our top strengths – the ones we rely upon and have readily available.

Some ways we might use our strengths is to identify them as supports when we’re facing challenges. For example, a difficult task we’ve been putting off may require us to ‘dial up’ some perspective and tackle one small thing at a time, as well as perseverance to continue with the task over time. We might opt for different strengths depending on the circumstances.

What strengths might we bring to:

A difficult meeting?
Our tamaiti having difficulties with a school friend?
Conflict with our good friend?
A job interview?
Our annual assessment of our mahi with management?


McCashen, W. (2005). The Strengths Approach: A Strengths-based Resource for Sharing Power and Creating Change. Bendigo, Australia: St. Luke’s Innovative Resources.