Last week my son was hospitalized for an inflammation in his lungs. Each day he was treated by a variety of doctors, nurses, and other aides. My wife and I took turns staying the evenings with him, doing our work at his bedside, and interacting with the staff. During one of the hospital rounds, a team of three doctors came in and went through the standard questions, comments, and advice. Nothing new.
But one doctor did something different: With her Irish dialect she offered some observations of my son over the days. Amidst a handful of statements she made describing him, I caught the words: “vibrant,” “hard-working,” and “inquisitive.” Her exact words. My mind immediately went to the thought that she seemed to be spotting his character strengths. I was hearing particular character traits like “zest,” “perseverance,” and “curiosity.”
I asked her to explain her view of each observation. She readily did. She explained how he is full of energy and is always moving his arms and legs and turning his body with force (i.e., zest). She noted how he is quick to look around in the room, albeit a limited space, in an exploratory way, and is ready to interact with people when they approach him (i.e.,curiosity). And, she added, he works hard at whatever challenge he is given whether it’s to reach a toy, sit up, or finish eating and that his congestion and wires hooked up to his body do not get in his way (i.e., perseverance).
Even though she was not aware of it, she was offering strengths-spotting. And this had an immediate positive effect on my mood. I felt lighter and happier. My perception of her, a physician looking at all aspects of my son and not just his illness, widened and strengthened. I will never forget that physician, or her Irish accent.
Oh, did I mention my son is only 8-months-old? Strengths-spotting can start anytime….any place….with anyone.
Knowing that this physician had probably not heard of positive psychology or of the new science of character strengths, I explained to her what she had done: amidst the problems and difficulties she had taken time to notice the good, to spot what is strong, to shift from weakness to strength. I told her, in front of the other medical staff and physicians at the “morning rounds,” how much I appreciated what she had done. This feedback seemed to give her a mood boost and I noticed her physician colleagues suddenly jumping on the bandwagon too and wanted to offer their positive feedback as well.
A virtuous circle had been created. The strengths-spotting of person to another led to positive feelings which in turn led to further strengths-spotting and positive feelings and so on.
Want to get better at strengths-spotting? It will lift your mood and the mood of others. Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Practice observing people. At your next social event, emphasize listening and looking over speaking.
- Put on “strengths goggles” by listening/looking for strengths in the people around you. It might be helpful to have this list of character strengthsin front of you.
- Label the positive in a precise way (e.g., “I see bravery in you”)
- Offer an example or rationale for the strength you see (e.g., “I see fairness in you because you always seem to stick up for other people”).
- Make your feedback to people genuine and honest.
- Keep your feedback relevant to the situation you are in.
More From Dr. Ryan M. Niemiec
Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character. He is a licensed psychologist, certified coach, author, and international workshop leader. His specialty areas include: character strengths, mindfulness meditation, and psychology portrayed in movies.