Focusing on Potential: Conversations About Strengths

Traditionally, medicine is about treating and diagnosing the disease. Instead, what if we focus on a patient’s potential instead? What if we focus on what the patient is doing right? Might this lead to positive health behavior change?

As part of a six-month long research and design project entitled, What Ifs, Ahas and Now Whats?: Designing for the Creative Process of Behavior Change, my design partner, Marnie Meylor, and I observed the practice of our Wellness Coaches. During this twelve-week program, clients were paired with a coach and engaged in a process of self-discovery, self-awareness and experimentation. Clients connected their values to their actions to create relevant, meaningful changes in lifestyle.

It was like magic seeing how transformative these sessions were. The relationship that was formed between the client and coach led to open and honest conversations. Clients were given the time and space to discuss what and who influenced their lives. Clients were asked about how they envisioned their life, how they truly felt and why. These intimate conversations were the foundation to setting goals and experimentation of habits that might turn into sustained health changes.

The findings from the research gleaned six insights and a suite of tools that supported this behavior change process. A particular insight was about acknowledging that everyone’s unique. This highlighted one premise of the Coaching practice – coaches build on their client’s intrinsic strengths. Knowing that most clients come to coaching with past failures, coaches help them discover strengths as a means to building confidence and small successes.

The Strengths Book tool that was co-created between coaches, clients and designers, changed negative outlook by focusing on success. First, from a set of strength cards, clients were asked to self-select the strengths they thought they had. Then, they had to identify a story or reasoning as to why they thought it was a strength. Next, clients were to ask a close friend or family member what s/he thought their strengths were. Finally, clients were to tell that close friend or family member what they thought his/her strengths were.

One client who had tested this tool commented that the it was a “confidence builder and stress reliever.” He identified these top five strengths*:

  • Curiosity and interest in the world
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  • Honesty, authenticity and genuineness
  • Spirituality, sense of purpose and faith
  • Capacity to love and be loved

Because of the social aspect of the tool, clients felt it valuable to have the perspective of their friend or family when identifying strengths -- especially when they couldn’t identify them for themselves. One client commented, “It was valuable to have the perspective from my co-worker because I never would have known that was a strength of mine. In fact, I thought this was a weakness. It was eye-opening and kind of nice – also fun, and I liked doing it.”

Currently, experimentation of these tools and the Coaching competency into the clinical practice will test the value for patients and providers.

*Initial concepts for this tool used the list of strengths from research done at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania