July 6, 2017 Carly Rospert

Character Strengths: Optimizing Relationship Building for Community Change

Change fascinates me, especially big change.

Before coming to Mayerson Academy, I spent the last six years looking at systemic education reform initiatives across the country to identify successes and failures we could learn from. We are talking about small little changes with one kid in one classroom up to big systemic changes with a whole district and thousands of students. And while the change often looked different, and interventions varied dramatically from place to place, one key ingredient (or enabler, if you will) was always present: relationships. It always, always, always came down to having deep, trusting relationships with all the players necessary to create change.

I am sure none of you are surprised here, but it got me to think, what if we could make the process for creating deep, meaningful, trusting relationships more effective and efficient?  A former colleague often said, “This work moves at the speed of trust.” Well, what if we just sped up that trust? Turns out, trust takes time, but the idea of optimizing relationships always stuck with me.

In 2016, I was introduced to the concept of character strengths. Self-fascination set in and I was immediately driven to learn all I could about my top strengths, my lesser strengths and everything in between.  The more I learned about character strengths, the more interested I became in their ability to facilitate connections among people.  Here is this tool that has the potential to create a positive, common language for individuals to get to know each other more deeply.  Could strengths be a way to optimize relationship building?

Strong Cincinnati works to activate the strengths in individuals and through that, foster deeper connections across neighbors. Through my work with the Strong Cincinnati initiative, I’ve seen the potential for character strengths to optimize relationship building in the following three areas:

Appreciating Others

Being able to recognize and appreciate the positive traits of others is a key relationship skill that character strengths enable.  The VIA character strengths provide a common, positive set of traits that individuals can both see within themselves and identify in others.  When that observation of strength is shared with an individual, it creates the opportunity for a positive and meaningful connection.

A key activity to promote appreciation of strengths in others is strength spotting. Similar to a thank you note, you can take time to write a note of appreciation for another person and specifically identify the strength you see in their actions.

Navigating Conflict

While all relationships will experience some sort of conflict at some point, how you navigate this conflict is important to maintaining a deep and trusting relationship. Character strengths can be a useful tool in addressing and responding to conflict.  When approaching a situation that could create conflict, like giving critical feedback or disagreeing with an approach another individual is advocating for, understanding which strengths the other individual is pulling on and calling those out can be a way to start a difficult conversation with a positive and appreciative lens. When reacting to conflict, appreciating the bravery, honesty and perspective that an individual must have used to address this issue can be a helpful way to react positively to difficult feedback.

A key concept to navigating conflict using character strengths is understanding the over- and under-use of different strengths. Understanding how your strengths might be showing up and the impact that can have on others is helpful for managing potential conflict.  To better understand over- an under- use, take a look at Michelle McQuaid’s eBook on How to Put Your Strengths to Work.

Creating Common Connections

One of the easiest ways to connect with people is through commonality. Whether it is a favorite band or restaurant, similarities can bring people together.  Having similar top strengths can be a point of commonality that can create a meaningful connection between people.  Because character strengths describe positive parts of an individual’s personality, and your top five strengths represent ones that come more naturally to you, finding a common top strength with another individual can spur a deep conversation around similar parts of your identity. This connection can help build empathy and understanding, two key components to a meaningful relationship.

A key activity to connect through common strengths is to take the free VIA survey, which ranks your strengths based on which come most natural to you.  This survey can tell you a lot about yourself and provide that connection point with another person.  Take the free survey at www.viacharacter.org.

Have you built relationships through strengths? Tell us about your experience in the comments or by submitting a strengths story here.