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Struggling to understand your strengths? Ask your mother...

Exercise: Get a blank sheet of paper, or open up a new word document. Make sure you are somewhere you won't be disturbed for at least 15 minutes. Turn off your phone/ email/ any other distractions. Imagine I'm speaking to your mother (or other close relative or friend). Start to write what you think she would say to me if I asked her what your strengths are. Don't stop this exercise until at least 15 minutes have passed, even if you think you have run out of things to write. Keep going for as long as you can.

On our third meetup J wanted to work on recognising her strengths  — something many of us struggle with for all kinds of reasons. We had spent a little time working on a whiteboard with J calling out her strengths, and me writing them up. But the ideas were slowing down. So, to switch it up, we changed the view point and started to think about how others around her would describe her. I asked her what her mother would say her strengths are.

As a coach, it’s one of the strangest things to watch. I meet with fantastic people, speak to them about the brilliant things they are doing and what they’ve already achieved, and then ask them “what are you good at?”. This is nearly always answered with a blank stare, or self-conscious laugh, followed by a few mumbled words of things that came up in a performance review 5 years ago, swiftly followed by caveats, denials and a bunch of other comments that show embarrassment, discomfort and uncertainty.

When I’m not being a coach however, I get it. Totally get it! In fact, I’m feeling fairly uncomfortable writing this post now knowing that I'm about to do this exercise as well. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m probably about a level 7 uncomfortable with this.

What’s making me most uncomfortable? Two things. 1) Other people reading it and going “yeah, right — you think you’re good at that???” and 2) the complete feeling of wrongness that comes when going against everything you’ve been brought up to say and do. I’ve been brought up in a culture where talking about yourself is indulgent. Talking about your strengths is downright egotistical. The problem is unless you spend some time thinking about what they are for yourself, it’s hard to know how to sell yourself to others, or to work out if that job or career move really is for you. So, with the uncomfortable dial moving up to 8 or 9 already, let me get on with this… eeek

Q: What would your mother say your strengths are?

A: Mum would say I’m smart, honest and caring. She would say I like to see the best in people. I’m generous with my time and my money. That I’m brave, independent and adventurous. I’m dependable and capable, and good at solving problems. That I don’t shirk from challenges or hard work. I put in the graft and that my achievements have all been deserved because of that. She would say that I’m capable of doing anything that I put my mind to. That I’m good at thinking for myself and deciding what I believe is right or wrong, and I have integrity and stand up for what I believe in. I admit when I’m wrong and don’t hold grudges. That I can be fearsome and passionate, especially if I think someone has been treated unfairly or unkindly.

So, it probably took you about a minute to read that last paragraph - it took me 20 minutes to write it. I spent a good bit of time sitting back and staring at the words. It was really hard, especially at the beginning, not to follow every sentence with a “but” of some sort. A little because I could actually hear a voice in my head saying the “buts” as soon as I wrote anything positive - like there was some kind of cosmic balancing scale that I had to keep level by putting a negative as soon as I put a positive.  And a little because I was feeling uncomfortable writing things that would never have come up if the question had been “What do you think your strengths are?”  I'm glad I had put a minimum time requirement on it, because otherwise I would have stopped after about 5 minutes and only three or four sentences.

So if, like J and me, you struggle to make a list of your own strengths I can definitely recommend this exercise. It doesn’t have to be your mum — it can be anyone at all. Your boss, colleague, a friend. Why not answer the question for all of them? Try to still your inner critic and let their virtual voice speak for itself. And even if they haven’t spoken the words, think about the ways they show you what they believe you are good at. You might just be surprised.

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