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How to Make Your Coaching Truly Strengths-Based

How to Make Your Coaching Truly Strengths-Based

by Cathy DeWeese

Am I really a strengths-based coach? Well, sure I am, you might say. I use the CliftonStrengths assessment, and I love what it provides. I can recite my dominant themes in order, and I even include them on my emails. I always have my clients take CliftonStrengths and work to memorize their reports. At school, work, church, in the line at the grocery store -- I spot strengths and talk strengths wherever I go. I have my strengths tattooed in ornate lettering on my forearm and an 8x10 framed picture of Don Clifton on my bedside table. OK … maybe not those last two, but I do sport a pretty amazing T-shirt showcasing my Top 5.

Being "strengths-based" goes beyond having your clients take the CliftonStrengths assessment. It even goes beyond your appreciation or understanding of the tool. A coach who is truly strengths-based approaches each client in a way that is fundamentally different from most other coaching approaches. And for many people, this is not an easy shift.

According to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report, only four in 10 U.S employees strongly agree that when they are at work, they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day. In a deficit-based society, it can be far too easy to fall into a weakness-fixing model, even while you are using the CliftonStrengths assessment. For example, it is easy to spend the majority of a coaching session telling people what potential pitfalls their talents may lead them into. You may even be asked by managers to list the most likely failures of their team based on their themes.

This Focus on weaknesses is also present when our clients want to understand themes they do not possess. Does the conversation leave them feeling a deeper appreciation, or does it simply reiterate why they don't get along with someone and leave them feeling like part of the problem?

Let's explore how a strengths-based approach differs from a conventional approach, as well as how it could improve your own coaching.

In the conventional approach to personal development, many believe:

  • it is important to maintain personal strengths and work on fixing weaknesses
  • most, if not all, behaviors can be learned
  • the best performers in a role exhibit the same behaviors
  • fixing weaknesses leads to success

In the strengths-based approach to personal development, it is important to remember that:

  • only some behaviors can be learned with skills and knowledge, but many behaviors are innate and naturally occurring in a person
  • clients should learn to focus on strengths and manage around weaknesses
  • the best performers in a role deliver the same outcomes using different behaviors
  • fixing weaknesses prevents failure, but building strengths leads to success

What does being a strengths-based coach mean to you? I find most of our work comes down to our personal mission and philosophy. So, consider an exercise in clarifying yours. Practice explaining in your own words what distinguishes your work in strengths from a more conventional, deficit-based model. How do you lead with the strengths philosophy in your coaching?

To spot check, here's a short self-assessment to keep your mind on strengths. Consider visiting this questionnaire at the close of a specific coaching interaction.

  1. How true to your talents were you as a coach?
  • Authenticity matters. The way you prepare, connect and support a client needs to reflect your strengths. Where did these come through in your conversation?
  • Are you clear how your strengths can lead to powerful coaching?
  1. What was the balance of capability and vulnerability?
  • Did you spend more time talking about what's right versus what's wrong, and talking about which characteristics and behaviors they have within their themes versus which aspects of each theme are missing?
  • What role did weakness play in the conversation? Remember: A top talent theme can be a weakness. If you discussed this, did you leave them with a plan and appreciation?
  1. Did you begin with strengths and end with momentum?
  • What questions did you ask to help them see what's powerful about them?
  • Are you helping them to become more of their best self or follow the temptation to be someone else?
  • Does your client have takeaways or action plans to move forward based on their strengths?
  1. How did you help them work through feelings about themes they don't have? It is important to check our biases at the door. All people have value, and all strengths have value. If your client has themes you are not as familiar with or comfortable with, how can you improve your perspective?
  • If they experience strengths-envy (wishing they had someone else's strengths), how did your questions build on acceptance of their talents?
  • If they experience feelings of being "less-than," how did you create opportunities to affirm? How did you make opportunities to appreciate their uniqueness and point out value?
  1. Did you talk about excellence?
  • Did your questions help them define moments of world-class performance?
  • When discussing challenges they face, did you ask about times they have been successful? Did your questions link their strengths to that success?
  • How did you illustrate/experience/discuss the value of each of their themes?

Doing this self-assessment will help you keep strengths at the center of your coaching sessions. As Don Clifton famously asked, "What would happen if we studied what was right with people versus what's wrong with people?" As strengths coaches, we have the unique privilege and honor to facilitate and witness what happens when we focus on what is right with a person rather than what is wrong: Human beings flourish.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:


Cathy DeWeese's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Individualization, Arranger, Maximizer, Input and Relator.

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