The Long Driveway

When we imagine a positive future, we imagine ourselves enjoying that future. We just assume that we will enjoy the situation we foresee – the place, the people, the activities. In other words, we see ourselves savoring the event. Unfortunately, many times, when we approach that future, we do not experience the joy we anticipated. We fail to savor. SMART Strengths provides guidance on how to savor (basking , marveling, luxuriating, thanksgiving), but our new driveway reminded me of the need to remember to savor. Can’t apply the “how” if we never remember to start!

 

The Beginning

The driveway at our new house is 200 yards long. It is flat, graveled, and flanked by cherry, walnut and other trees. That 200 yards, and the sense of isolation that comes with it, was one of the things that first attracted Teresa and I to this lot. Our home in Nashville – the house where we raised our boys – had a similar quality. Hills and trees on two sides, and trees on the third, meant that we could sit in the sunroom in the back of our house in the summer and not be able to see another house. Since we both love nature, looking out at woods was a real pleasure for us, and we often lamented that the builder of that house had not done more (i.e., more windows!) to take advantage of that view. Instead, he had simply built the standard design for that subdivision, and it really failed to capitalize on the lot. When we thought of moving to the Louisville, KY, area to be closer to our boys and their families, we anticipated that replacing that sense of isolation would be unlikely – there just aren’t many lots like that! However, in our first foray of house-looking, our realtor showed us this lot. Wow. It was part of a larger parcel that had been subdivided by the children of the original owner and two had already built on their lots. But the third had decided not to move back to Kentucky and was selling the lot. As our realtor pulled off the street and eased over the land that is now our driveway, Teresa and I both started to perk up. We had already looked at a number of houses, none had grabbed us, and we were really becoming aware of how much our view had meant to us. We got out of our car, looked around at the lot where our house now sits, looked at each other and immediately knew. This lot would work. We wanted it. And, with great good fortunate, we were able to buy it.

Anticipation

Over the next couple of months, as we found a builder, drew up plans, and signed a contract, we would need to be at the lot for one reason or another periodically. Each time we would ease down the strip that would be our driveway, and each time I would appreciate what it gave us. We even sent a video clip of pulling down what was to be our drive out to family to help them visualize what we were doing! On one occasion, we were there with our younger son and his girlfriend and spent time picking cherries, blackberries, and raspberries from the trees and shrubs along the drive. The jam from those fruits held special meaning. (Can you tell I grew up on a farm? Something about that created some strong ties to land!) So, along the way, that driveway was acquiring more and more meaning.

Oops!

Finally, as fall became winter, we were in! We subscribed to the paper (more on that in another post!),
and part of my morning ritual became a walk down that 200-yard driveway to get the paper. As you can probably imagine, the first walk was special. I savored the path, remembering the special times we had already had, enjoying the place and the home we had built, and anticipating the future here. As the next few days went by, I continued to enjoy this morning ritual, at least until the weather turned! One morning, I got up, got our old dog, and went out to enjoy that walk to the end of the driveway, and was hit by a cold, rainy wind! It was NOT pleasant. It was nasty. Almost immediately, my anticipation vanished and was replaced by irritation. “Yuck,” I thought. “This isn’t any fun. Wish the driveway wasn’t so long.” And, just like that, our driveway went from special feature to unfortunate drawback. Could I be any more fickle? But, aren’t most of us like that? A little bad weather can turn us against a place. A friend or loved one has a grumpy day and suddenly we are pulling away from the relationship. Some unexpected failures or a few challenges and suddenly our jobs aren’t as satisfying anymore. Suddenly, that which was so satisfying has lost its power and no longer brings a warm glow into our lives.

The Choice to Savor

Fortunately for me, I had two things going for me in that moment. First, the contrast in my feelings that morning compared to the preceding days was so sharp, and it was situated in the context of such an anticipated change, that it made it easy for me to consciously notice the phenomenon. In other words, I was mindful of the change and reflective about what I was experiencing. Second, I was experienced in the SMART Strengths skills. I had a framework within which to ponder this interior experience, and some tools. I realized that I had no reason to be unhappy. In fact, one of the things we have always loved were changes in the seasons. So, I committed to savor that walk. To be mindful of what I was experiencing. To notice the bite of the cold and the feel of the wind and the damp of the rain. To be appreciative of the warmth of my jacket, of the umbrella I carried, and of the warmth of our house as I returned. And, finally, to let the morning ritual of that walk serve as a reminder, each day, to savor all the good things in my life.

Over the next few days, I cemented this habit by reminding myself each morning to pay attention to the walk and to savor the experience. Some days I would  be aware of the sky through the trees, perhaps with the moon still shining or, depending on the time, even enjoying the first rays of sunrise. When I noticed that my mind had wandered and I had lost focus on the experience, I would gently re-focus and try to deepen my appreciation. As the days went by, I added the afternoon walk to check the mail to this ritual, giving me two built in opportunities to savor good things in my life. Then I discovered that Teresa and I had turned watching the sunsets into a ritual, one that added value to the time of year when leaves are off the trees and our view of sunsets is better than it will be during leafier seasons.

Rituals

Rituals are important. Think of them as habits turned to a purpose. We can let the things we do each day become mindless habits, tasks accomplished while we stew about the past or plan the day. Or, we can turn some of them into mindful rituals that help us bring our awareness back to all the good things in life. In fact, one frequently-tested(1) positive intervention  in positive psychology is just such a ritual. It goes by various names. In one of its earliest experimental forms, it was called “Three Blessings.” The Army calls it “Hunt the Good Stuff” and Dave calls it “Right-Spotting” in his work with lawyers. In SMART Strengths, we call it the 3XGood exercise (see pp. 155-156).  Simply take a few minutes at the end of each day for a week and write down three good things that you experienced or noticed that day. A good thing can be something you did or someone else did or that you noticed in the world. It can be a big accomplishment or a small pleasure. Whatever comes to mind, write it down. Then add a sentence of reflection. Why did it happen? What did you or others do to cause it? What does it mean for your life? How can you have more such experiences in the future? In repeated trials, this exercise has been shown to build well-being, decrease depression, and improve sleep. It is a positive ritual, and by attuning you to notice the good things in your life, it can help you build other positive rituals, such as my daily walks.

What positive rituals do you have? Share them at the SMART Strengths Facebook Page!

Additional ideas about rituals of appreciation in this week’s newsletter. Sign up here for your copy!

(1) Google Scholar for “counting blessings” – the most common name for this exercise in the literature

 


Positive Guidance with Jolanta Burke (Webinar)

Webinar: Sponsored by UPENN MAPP Alumni Association. Register here.

Positive Guidance:
Applying positive psychology in
career and guidance counselling.

Jolanta Burke

Find out how to boost your clients’ employment rates, improve their career decision making processes and enhance their motivation by applying the science of positive psychology. During the webinar, you will discover the latest research on how character strengths can help your clients find a vocation; what role optimism and passion play in securing a successful employment; or how you can use time perspectives with your clients to enable them to make a good career decision.

Jolanta BurkeJolanta Burke is a PhD Researcher at the University of Dublin, Trinity College, Ireland. She lectures in Positive Psychology at Dublin City University and Trinity College Dublin. She has spoken at many conferences and published articles in professional and psychological magazines in Europe. She hopes to receive her PhD degree within 6 months.

Jolanta is an Irish Representative for the European Network of Positive Psychology and is currently undertaking a nationwide study in Positive Education in Ireland. She is particularly interested in applying Positive Psychology in Career advising and School Counselling.

Prior to her academic career, Jolanta was an HR and Training Manager for over 10 years. She married her extensive professional experience and love for academic research in a soon-to-be-published book about applying positive psychology to career advising, school and guidance counselling. It was co-written with Prof. McGuckin from the University of Dublin, who is the programme manager for Masters in School Counselling, and Mr. Kilmartin, the Head of Careers at the Dublin Institute of Technology, who for the last few years has been practicing the applications of Positive Psychology in his profession. For more information, check out her website.

Members of the general public can register for this webinar for $25 here.


Policing our Strengths – Building Productivity and Relationships with the Indiana State Police

Working in law enforcement in the 21st century can be very demanding in a chaotic and challenging world. SMART Strengths has been fortunate to work with the Indiana State Police and most recently with two different groups from the Criminal Investigations Division. This arm of the ISP investigates serious felony complaints and then assist local and federal policy agencies with investigations. This work is not for the faint of heart.

Good detectives are able to effectively analyze, scrutinize, and evaluate trends in a criminal case. When criminal investigators are comfortable in their own skin in what they do and how they receive feedback from others, they are more ready to forge and maintain healthy relationship among fellow detectives and outside agencies. To that end, John has worked with the ISP Criminal Investigators to focus on their individual and collective strengths.

Resilience

The detectives and other personnel had an opportunity to “spot” their strengths through completing the Values in Action Inventory. When you know your own strengths, you are better observer of strengths in others and are more attentive to spotting what is good instead of trying to find fault. Lt. Scott Shuh, who leads the Northeastern Indiana CID, commented that spotting strengths in others is a key to leadership, as it is in how you listen to others, assist them in accomplishing the task at hand, giving everyone ownership and personifying greatness. This goes right to what Daniel Goleman, the emotional intelligence guru, calls the empathy triad – this consists of cognitive empathy – thinking how a fellow investigator thinks, emotional empathy –feeling what the other person feels; and empathic concern –knowing what someone else needs from you. During one of the training sessions, several officers were coming off of several sleepless evenings due to a murder investigation, and their fellow investigators did a great job in supporting the diligent work that they had been doing.

High Quality Connections

Good relationships are about using strengths while connecting with and appealing to others. Sometimes, people can be self-conscious about how they see themselves in the world and are concerned about how their peers see them. By asking the investigators to share what strengths they see in each other (the SMART Strengths 360° Gallery Activity). The feedback from external observers helps provided checks-and-balances to what the respective investigator sees in him or herself. Lt. Dave Kirkham, the Northwestern Indiana CID leader claimed that examining your strengths allows you to come out of comfort zone and interact with other investigators in a very personal way. – a great way to develop new relationships and foster old ones. Captain Bob Rich, who is the Deputy Commander for the Northern Indiana CID believes it is essential to know your partners and what they bring to the table. He said, “It is very important in a team environment to concentrate on each other’s strengths to get the job completed and get the best results.”

Leadership

Once a criminal investigator has the tools, approaches and techniques to help him or her spot, manage and relate his or her strengths individually and in relationships, they are even more prepared to deal with the challenges of tough criminal cases. Kirkham added, “I wish I would have had this training earlier in my career. Identifying my strengths and the strengths of my personnel will assist me in my leadership journey. I am connecting with my coworkers on a different level than I ever have before. I never knew they saw those traits in me.”

Goleman, D. The Focused Leader – Harvard Business Review, December, 2013


SMART Strengths Operating Together

“What’s your good news?” One of us, Dave, was sitting with a young lawyer and asked this to start the exercise. The young man responded, “We just finished a big arbitration, and I handled the expert witness.”

Green Light Responding 


We were in a mentoring training for a law firm (the SMART Strengths skills are widely applicable!) and this was a “Green Light Responding” practice, our name for Shelley Gable’s research on what she calls “active constructive responding.” We developed our name because the practice “green lights” the relationship; over time, those who respond this way help develop closer relationships with fewer conflicts and greater relationship satisfaction. See SMART Strengths, pp. 263-265. Green Light Responding means being active, authentic, and attuned when responding to another’s good news. You help them re-live the event, or as Dave’s farm background suggests, you help them “wallow” in it a bit!

Right Spotting

The participants in this event all should have had at least some good news to share because we had already practiced the skill of Right Spotting (p. 117). Like Green Light Responding, this skill has been researched repeatedly. It involves simply noticing what went right, the good things that happen, and paying attention to them in some focused way. One way to do this is to use a journal and at some set time each day, record thee things that went right, pleasurable events, or good things that happened to you. Then, write a sentence of reflection on why that event happened, what you or others did to cause it, or what you might do to have more such experiences in the future. The impact of this exercise for most folks is significant. It tips our minds out of the “negativity bias” rut we are all prone to and helps us begin to scan for what is right and good in our lives – a basic appreciative stance.

It wasn’t obvious from the young lawyer’s statement, “I handled the expert witness,” what was good about this, so Dave aked, “And it went well?” The young lawyer then explained that it was an important expert in a large case who was not easy to deal with. He had managed the relationship with this expert throughout – getting him the information he needed to prepare his expert opinion, preparing him for his testimony, etc. Green Light Responding drew out that the expert was known to be difficult to work with, and this young lawyer ‘s great job was noticed and acknowledged by the litigation team as a key contribution to the victory.

Spotting Character Strengths

After some Green Light Responding conversation on the details of this experience for the young lawyer, Dave asked, “Where is Forgiveness on your VIA list?” The participants, mentors and mentees, had taken the VIA in preparation for the training and a prior session had helped them explore their own strengths. Our definition for this strength is, ” Beliefs of being wronged often generate lower levels of anger or sadness; consideration of the needs and feelings of the other; able to give 2nd chances or move on.” Basically, this strength often shows up in behavior as a wide latitude for others. Sometimes, this character strength isn’t as much about “forgiving” as it is about just not being trespassed against in the first place. “Oh, that? That didn’t bother me.” The young lawyer smiled, lit up, and said, “Number 4!” This led to another exchange about how his Signature Strength of Forgiveness had helped him achieve this result. Of course, from a mentoring perspective, the lessons for the larger group was (1) to be watching for the manifestation of strengths in behaviors and (2) that thinking about differing strengths patterns can help when we are trying to be or to use role models. (The same can be true for teachers learning from each other!)

Practical Optimism

Notice that our discussion of this good event assigned a broad-acting, long-lasting cause for the good event – the young lawyer’s character strength of “Forgiveness.” In assigning such a cause and one where the young lawyer could continue to develop and deploy it in the future, we were developing a practically optimistic explanation for this event (SMART Strengths, Chapter 7) and one that would tend toward a Growth Mindset (Chapter 8).

Synergy

Most of us have favorite SMART Strengths skills. Each skill, alone, is powerful and can help shape the trajectories of our lives and those we love and work with in more positive directions. But, there is also an added effect from these skills working together. With practice, we can become fluent at using the skills sequentially or in tandem to enhance the opportunities for positive results in our lives.

What’s your story? Can you think of a recent event that might have actually involved several of the SMART Strengths skills?


Super Story of Growth Mindset by a Woman Engineer

As we note in SMART Strengths, a growth mindset is critical to learning, and teachers, parents, and coaches can help students develop growth mindsets. Both teaching neural plasticity and telling stories that model growth mindsets at work help tip young people (and adults!) away from fixed mindsets and toward growth.

Here’s a great story for teachers or others to use that incorporates neural plasticity as it tells of successful professor(!) of engineering who turned around a life of failure in mathematics in her 20s. Barbara Oakley is now a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excell at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra). (And she was in the Army! A point that really calls to Dave after his work with that organization – including teaching growth mindsets! – over the last five years!) Oh, and it is also geat on how to learn a foreign language. How much more useful can one article get?

Oh, and what about resilience? She worked hard at mastering a foreign language, found it didn’t pay off for her (though it seems to for many), then went back to work at another tough learning effort! Resilience! Grit! Yep. Great article.


Thinking & Grieving

This post deals is inspired by a blog post from a fellow MAPPster, Lucy Hone, 2010, who is coping with grief from the death of her 12-year-old daughter, pulling on what she learned from MAPP, and sharing the process with the world. She powerfully rebuts “The Fluffy Fallacy” (that positive psychology is “fluffy” – not something for the hard times -and that it means avoiding “negative” emotions, SMART Strengths, pp 167-168). If you don’t have time to read both, read hers! Before pulling a key paragraph from Lucy’s post, let me make two points about this post and my reaction to it that emphasize the roll SMART Strengths can play

MAPP Magic

John, Sherri, and I, as members of the first MAPP class, wondered if the closeness and camarderie we felt was just because we were the first. And we wondered what it would be like to meet class 2, and 3, and so on. Turns out, the “MAPP magic” as Marty called it in Flourish, seems to be arise from the experience of studying and practicing key positive psychology principles in the company of a committed cohort. (Those of you responsible for school culture, think about what a little “MAPP Magic” could mean for your school or system.) Moreover, many of us who have the opportunity to meet and work with members of other classes find there is a connection and camraderie that manifests quickly. Many of us feel part of something bigger than ourselves – again using Marty’s language. Thus arises the connection with a MAPPster who graduated four years after us.

So What?

So, why am I writing about this? Well, in the words of another member of our MAPP experience we miss, Chris Peterson, Lucy answers a key question: “So what?” That’s what Chris used to ask about research. He’d ask it of us about our ideas, and he asked it of his own work. What difference will it make? How will it help us live “the good life”? We’ve tried to make the point in this blog on occasion that learning what we call the “SMART Strengths skills” – our way of sharing Positive Psychology research – makes a difference in life. The skills help us reach our goals, sometimes in trivial ways (but even “trivial” changes mount up over time). Our goals are sometimes about achieving some task or reaching some milestone.  But, sometimes we have to make it through, first. And that does not mean ignoring the bad.

Anyway, this lady I am most proud to identify as a fellow MAPPster is responding to her loss by sharing in her way, even as we are in ours, what she has learned. And she is doing it by being open and vulnerable about this time in her life. In the following passage, she talks about using the skill of separating thoughts from the emotions and reactions they drive to make choices about how she is responding to her grief:

“When I’m trying to decide whether I will do something (get up and go for a run, have another glass of wine, visit the scene of the crash, read the media coverage) or continue to think in a particular way (go over and over again the what ifs of Abi’s death) I ask myself “is this activity/way of thinking helping or harming my healing/grieving?” This is not to say I am going all out to avoid thinking about her death, just that we do have a degree of choice in what we focus our attention and energy on; if it’s not helping me, I’m not doing it. Sometimes, looking over photos, I sob my heart out knowing it’s what I need. At other times, when listening to the girls’ favorite music and the ache inside gets too much, I make myself put something else on, or pick up the phone and call a friend. Asking myself the helping or harming question enables me to act intentionally, it’s not about avoidance or denial, just taking some control over my experience.”

Taking Action

Please read Lucy’s post. It is so worth your time. Then, if you are in a leadership position in a school, ask yourself how important these skills are for you, for your fellow educators, for your students and their families. What might a little MAPP Magic do for faculty camaraderie and school culture? How could some SMART Strengths skills help your students not only set and achieve some challenging goals, but also persevere through their toughest times? Now, where do you have control? How can you help make sure someone is not only better able to reach their goals, but also more equipped to face the tragedies that life sometimes hands us? We encourage you to take some action now. We are here to help, and contacting us to talk about your school or system and the challenges you face is one possible step. But we are not the only ones. If you look, the resources you need are likely available. If we are not the right fit for you, we will be happy to put you into contact with other education-focused positive psychology practitioners. Your leadership may be, in fact likely will be, the difference for some students and faculty as they face some future challenge.

 


Michael Makes a Plan: SMART Strengths and LIFT, Question 4

This post concludes our consideration of how the SMART Strengths skills can help with asking and answering the four questions that the Ryan and Robert Quinn suggest in Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation. The four questions are:

  1. What result do I want to create?
  2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
  3.  How do others feel about the situation?
  4. What are three (or four or five) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for the situation?

We have been thinking through these questions along with Michael:

Michael is in his ninth year teaching middle school science at an inner-city, high-poverty school. His days are overwhelmingly filled with frustration and disappointment. He is frustrated and disappointed that his students do not demonstrate the interest, effort, or discipline necessary to learn the material, that many of them are inadequately prepared to do grade-level work. He is frustrated and disappointed that the pressure to show improvement on test scores forces him to turn to “drill and kill” approaches to try and achieve some semblance of learning. And, he is frustrated and disappointed that none of his superiors, up to and including the superintendent and the school board will stand up to the insanity of test-based accountability and advocate for better learning experiences for students. Michael has read both Lift and SMART Strengths, and decides to apply what he learned to this situation.

Here are Michael’s answers to the first three LIFT questions:

1. What result do I want to create?


ANSWER: I want to feel happy and engaged at school, as to see my students engaged in activities through which they come to appreciate both the scientific principles and the scientific process that has created so much of the modern world in which they live.

2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?

ANSWER: if I were living the values I expect of others, and my own signature strengths, I would not settle for a “drill and kill” approach; I don’t even really believe that works well for getting high test scores, and I know it doesn’t help students learn the way I want them to. I would bring my curiosity and creativity to the task of designing new lessons, constantly striving to find better ways to engage students. I would let my love of learning inspire both me and them, and I would forgive them, my fellow teachers, and the leadership in the system for the times when they, like me, have not lived up to their highest values in the face of all the challenges in our schools. In fact I would be working with those faculty members and leaders with whom I have close relationships to sustain each other in this effort.

3. How do others feel about the situation?

ANSWER: Not everyone feels the same as I have, although some do. My students display a range of emotions, some being angry, others sad, but some are happy, optimistic, and engaged. The same is true of my fellow teachers and leadership. I know the thoughts and beliefs that have been driving my own emotions, but I’m curious about the thinking of those who are experiencing very different emotions from our own.

Now, Michael turns to the fourth question: “What are three (or four or five) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for the situation?”

Michael recognizes immediately that this question drives toward optimism and a growth mindset (Chapters 7 & 8 in SMART Strengths). Optimism focuses on recognizing and exercising whatever control one has, and growth mindsets acknowledge that one may need to develop new knowledge, skills, and levels of effort to succeed and that initial failure may be part of the process. He recognizes that his Creativity and Curiosity could help him generate ideas and then test them out, and treating it all as a long-term experiment might be a way to use his Love of Learning as a boost to perseverance. So, he goes back over his answers to the first three questions with the goal of generating strategies.

First, he notices that just admitting that he wants to feel happy and engaged at school is a change. He had almost given up on that goal and just admitting that it is still what he wants is both liberating and energizing. He of course still recognizes that it is not going to be easy, but thinking about the situation with the goal of developing multiple strategies to try out just puts it in a different light. His energy and optimism are already up.

Second, he continues to be struck by the degree to which he has veered away from his own values. He recognizes he hasn’t been doing the things he thinks most likely to help student learning – real student learning – out of fear of the results on tests. Further he realizes that he really has no assurance that abandoning those approaches made for better test results and, as he thinks about it, he begins to suspect his approach has been counterproductive.

Third, the renewed resolve to live by his own values really engages as he reviews his answer to the third question. He realizes that he has been ignoring, of even sometimes seeking to tear down, the students and teachers who were happy and engaged. Remembering the power of an appreciative approach – starting from what is working and seeking ways to get more of it – he begins to wonder whether there are things he can learn that will help him improve his own happiness and engagement. He also starts to think that perhaps there are ways he can help others experience more happiness and engagement at school.

Michael then writes down these strategies for moving forward:

  1. I will, to the greatest extent possible within mandated requirements, teach the way I believe best for real student learning of the curriculum regardless of the impact on test scores. Next week I will do this by…
  2. I will pay attention to those students who seem happy and engaged and seek to understand how they think about school in ways that lets them experience such feelings. I will also seek to better understand the thinking that is driving anger or sadness in my students rather than – as I sometimes have – just assuming I know. I will ask at least three appreciative questions of students next week.
  3. I will spend more time with my faculty peers who seem happy and engaged and seek to understand how they are thinking about our school. I will start by asking Bob to get a cup of coffee together after school one day next week.
  4. I’m going to continue to let strength of Forgiveness to help me handle some of the behavior of administrators, and I’m going to try and better understand where that behavior is coming from. I’m also going to express my appreciation for good leadership when it happens. I will start by mentioning to my principal how much I appreciated her comments in front of my students last week.
  5. I’m going to more intentionally leave school at school. I want to detach better at home. Next week, my goal is to write down my thoughts and feelings about the day for 5 minutes before I leave school so that I can better leave them behind.

So, what do you think? Would Michael’s efforts change his experience? Would his demeanor, posture, and behaviors change enough that others might notice? Would they react to him differently? Would he become a positive force in his situation? What if every member of his school’s staff did the same exercise?

As usual, sign up for our newsletter for bonus material!


SMART Strengths & LIFT Question 3: Michael thinks about others.

The third question that LIFT suggests to become a positive force in any situation is, “How do others feel about the situation?”

As human beings, we are capable of caring for others because we care for others, not just to promote own interests. However, it is easy to slip out of this state and start to see others as things to be manipulated – “obstacles” or “assets” – rather than people with needs, drives, purpose, meaning, and capacities. We each have a fundamental need to belong, defined in LIFT as the feeling that comes from having others empathize with us, and empathy involves co-experiencing emotions. We are wired (mirror-neurons) to be able to “feel” emotions of others. When we refuse to do this, or refuse to acknowledge and act in accordance with our awareness, the authors suggest it is a form of self-betrayal and can lead to toxic patterns of interaction between individuals and within organizations. When empathizing with another, we unconsciously connect to the point where our actions and speech patterns become synchronized. (L. Tickle-Degnan and R. Rosenthal,1990.) When we are so synchronized, our ability to influence others increases significantly. We are more able to get them to be more open to change, work harder to get along with others, try new approaches, give a better effort, etc.

How SMART Strengths Can Help

Although some aspects of empathy may be easier for some of us than for others, we can all learn to better identify emotions that we and others are experiencing. This helps us to think about how others may feel about situations, and generate better, more productive ways to respond. SMART Strengths Chapter 7 covers the Think-It-through skill that lets us separate an event from our thoughts about the event and the emotions and reactions driven by those thoughts. We go into some detail about the types of thoughts that drive six specific negative emotions in Chapter 7 and introduce a number of positive emotions in Chapter 6. We deal more with the thoughts behind those positive emotions in our workshops. Learning about the different causes and effects of positive and negative emotions helps us become better able to identify and work with both our own emotions and those of others, a key part of emotional intelligence.

Returning to Michael’s Story

In our previous post in this series, we introduced Michael as a way to see the LIFT questions SMART Strengths skills applied to a particular situation:

Michael is in his ninth year teaching middle school science at an inner-city, high-poverty school. His days are overwhelmingly filled with frustration and disappointment. He is frustrated and disappointed that his students do not demonstrate the interest, effort, or discipline necessary to learn the material, that many of them are inadequately prepared to do grade-level work. He is frustrated and disappointed that the pressure to show improvement on test scores forces him to turn to “drill and kill” approaches to try and achieve some semblance of learning. And, he is frustrated and disappointed that none of his superiors, up to and including the superintendent and the school board, will stand up to the insanity of test-based accountability and advocate for better learning experiences for students. Michael has read both Lift and SMART Strengths, and decides to apply what he learned to this situation.

Michael has answered the first two LIFT questions:

1. What result do I want to create?

ANSWER: I want to feel happy and engaged at school, and to see my students engaged in activities through which they come to appreciate both the scientific principles and the scientific process that has created so much of the modern world in which they live.

2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?

ANSWER: if I were living the values I expect of others, and my own signature strengths, I would not settle for a “drill and kill” approach; I don’t even really believe that works well for getting high test scores, and I know it doesn’t help students learn the way I want them to. I would bring my curiosity and creativity to the task of designing new lessons, constantly striving to find better ways to engage students. I would let my love of learning inspire both me and them, and I would forgive them, my fellow teachers, and the leadership in the system for the times when they, like me, have not lived up to their highest values in the face of all the challenges in our schools. In fact I would be working with those faculty members and leaders with whom I have close relationships to sustain each other in this effort.

How do others feel about the situation?

As he ponders this question, Michael begins to pay more attention to those around him. (Interest is a positive emotion and this activity engages Michael’s Signature Character Strength of Curiosity. Interest starts to balance out the anger and frustration that have been his primary emotions in school.) He notices that some of his students are also angry, but some seem to be happy and engaged. Others are determined and purposeful. Some seem sad and withdrawn while another set appear mostly disconnected – he cannot read them at all.

Michael also notices that his fellow teachers are not all experiencing the same thing either. Some are, like him, frustrated and angry. He realizes that these are the teachers with whom he has been spending the most time, except the ones who seem frustrated and angry at him, and he has been avoiding them. Some teachers, however, seem to feel a sense of joy and hope much more often than he ever has. He starts to wonder (again, that Signature Character Strength of Curiosity!) About the thoughts and beliefs that are driving these emotions. What about teachers who seem angry at him? In what way do they feel he has violated their rights? What about his students? He has ascended that their anger stems from the general situation in life, but could some of it be more specific to the school? Or – perish the thought! – Could some of their anger be caused by beliefs about ways in which he has violated their rights?

Finally, Michael begins to think about and pay attention to what leadership in the school system seems to be feeling. He has long been able to identify those that have shared his anger and frustration, he begins to see that others seem more hopeful and optimistic, even including scum of the leadership in his school. Others seem primarily anxious and still others mostly sad. He starts to wonder about the positivity balance in his school (SMART Strengths, Chapter 6) and notice how some of his interactions with his fellow teachers and leadership tend to move his emotional state in a positive direction, and others either reinforce his own anger and frustration, or create other negative emotions. (SMART Strengths, Chapter 10.)

After a time of watching and thinking about the emotions of others, Michael writes this answer to the third question:

3. How do others feel about the situation?

ANSWER: Not everyone feels the same as I have, although some do. My students display a range of emotions, some being angry, others sad, but some are happy, optimistic, and engaged. The same is true of my fellow teachers and leadership. I know the thoughts and beliefs that have been driving my own emotions, but I’m curious about the thinking of those who are experiencing very different emotions from our own.

Would you say that just asking and answering the questions so far have been beneficial to Michael? Has he become more of a positive force in his situation? Are there any potential negative effects of the process Michael has gone through so far in seeking to apply the principles of LIFT and the skills of SMART Strengths to his situation? Could others be noticing a change in Michael already as he becomes more curious (and therefore, less angry)?

Reference:

L. Tickle-Degnan and R. Rosenthal (1990), “The Nature of Rapport and Its Nonverbal Correlates,” Psychological Inquiry 1(4): 285-293.


SMART Strengths & LIFT – Question 2

This is the second in a series of posts about combining SMART Strengths and Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation by Ryan and Robert Quinn. LIFT offers four questions that, if asked and answered conscientiously can help us become a positive force in any situation. The four questions are:

  1. What result do I want to create?
  2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
  3. How do others feel about the situation?
  4. What are three (or four or five) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for the situation?

In the first post in this series, we looked at the first question, which helps us become focused on our purpose in the situation. This question helps us achieve our priorities, rather than having them set of circumstances or others.

The second question challenges us to notice the gaps between our values and our behavior in the situation. It protects us from the forces, both external and internal, that tend to drive our actions in ways that may not align with the values we would choose to serve if we thought deeply about the situation. This question promotes that deep thinking.

Meet Michael

Let’s use an example to explore how this second question might be used, and also to think a bit about how the SMART Strengths skills would apply:

Michael is in his ninth year teaching middle school science at an inner-city, high-poverty school. His days are overwhelmingly filled with frustration and disappointment. He

Photo Credit: Bluedharma via Compfight cc

is frustrated and disappointed that his students do not demonstrate the interest, effort, or discipline necessary to learn the material, that many of them are inadequately prepared to do grade-level work. He is frustrated and disappointed that the pressure to show improvement on test scores forces him to turn to “drill and kill” approaches to try and achieve some semblance of learning. And, he is frustrated and disappointed that none of his superiors, up to and including the superintendent and the school board, will stand up to the insanity of test-based accountability and advocate for better learning experiences for students. Michael has read both Lift and SMART Strengths, and decides to apply what he learned to this situation.

In answering the first question, which we looked at in the earlier post, Michael realizes that the result he would like to achieve is to feel happy and engaged at school, and to see his students engaged in activities through which they come to appreciate both the scientific principles and the scientific process that has created so much of the modern world in which they live.

What do I expect of others?

However, in turning to the second question, it gets a bit harder. “What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?” First he thinks about his students. He recognizes that what he wants most from them is just to try. He thinks that if they would just give it an effort, he would certainly meet them more than halfway. He recognizes that they have substantial challenges to overcome in order to engage in class and do any work outside of it, but he thinks that if they would just give it an effort, he could help to make progress. He thinks about his peers, his fellow teachers, and realizes his wishes for most of them are fairly similar. He recognizes the challenges they face; he faces them also! But sometimes it feels like they let their negative emotions flow so freely that they contaminate both the students and other teachers. He also thinks that many of them have given up and are either making excuses for the students or putting challenges they cannot meet in front of them that they cannot handle, then blaming the students when they fail. Finally, he thinks about his superiors, his principal, and the leadership above this principal in the system. He knows that they cannot simply do away with the test-based accountability system in the state, but he wishes they would acknowledge that learning and engagement are what is important, not test scores, and help enable teachers to focus on learning and engagement without a relentless drumbeat about test scores in the background.

As Michael looks back over the values he wishes others were living in the situation, he realizes he is asking them to live out some VIA Character Strengths – not surprising since VIA stands for Values in Action:

Perseverance – a willingness to engage a sustained effort despite challenges and even in the face of a risk of failure.

Integrity – recognizing that they know what is the best thing to do in this situation though it may not be the easiest and safest.

Courage – doing what they know is right even in the face of opposition, criticism, and possibly personal risk.

Michael realizes that these are character strengths, so he pulls out his VIA strengths list to see where those strengths are for him. He knows they are not at the top – he has his top or “signature” strengths memorized: Creativity, Curiosity, Love of Learning, Judgment, and Forgiveness. Further, as he looks down the list he finds that, although Courage is 7th on his list, Integrity and Perseverance are both down near the bottom. However, Michael believes, based on past experience, that he can persevere when he is convinced something really matters, and that once his Curiosity and Judgment that cause him to see so many sides to any issue are satisfied and he settles on a point of view, he has the Integrity to stick with it. He also starts to realize that he has not been bringing even his own top strengths to the situation. He has let his focus on all the difficulties and obstacles cause him to quit being Curious and Creative in his lesson planning. He has even let slide some things he knows have worked in the past just because they weren’t the total answer (there’s that low perseverance!).

What would my story be?

Michael writes out his story if he were living his strengths – and maybe some of those he expects of others:

“If I were living the values I expect of others, and my own Signature Strengths, I would not settle for a ‘drill and kill’ approach; I don’t even really believe that works well for getting high test scores, and I know it doesn’t help students learn the way I want them to. I would bring my curiosity and creativity to the task of designing new lessons, constantly striving to find better ways to engage students. I would let my love of learning inspire both me and them, and I would forgive them, my fellow teachers, and the leadership in the system for the times when they, like me, have not lived up to their highest values in the face of all the challenges in our schools. In fact, I would be working with those faculty members and leaders with whom I have close relationships to sustain each other in this effort.”

Michael feels both energized and anxious. The vision he has just written is one of him working at his best, and it caused him. However, he also recognizes the risks and obstacles that may accompany any effort to live out that vision. His answers the first question has made his purpose clear. Now, by answering the second question, he has tied his path to achieving that purpose to his deepest values and the Signature Character Strengths that make him who he is at his very best.

Michael has combined the questions from Lift with his understanding of SMART Strengths to generate authentic and powerful answers to the first two Lift questions. He still has two questions to go, but he is starting to sense how he might become a more positive force in his situation. Our next two posts in this series will follow Michael as he answers the remaining two Lift questions.

As always, bonus materials in this week’s newsletter! Sign up here.


SMART Strengths at Tindley Schools

Tindley Accelerated Schools, located in Indianapolis, Indiana, began with one school in 2004. Today, the Tindley network has five schools that serve K-3, Middle School Girls grades 6-8, Middle School Boys grades 6-8, High School grades 9-12, and a “turn around” middle/high school. Tindley emphasizes a very rigorous curriculum that provides opportunities for a high-quality education with their students.

Tindley’s 200+ teachers and staff came to Tindley from other schools in Indianapolis and from the Teach For America program. Tindley asks for 100% engagement of students and staff. Everybody works hard at Tindley and over the past several years, the hard work has paid off. Tindley has made strong strides with test scores and college acceptances. But, the work takes a toll.

Recognizing the need to insure sustainability for the focus and effort of Tindley’s staff and students, Chief of Staff Tiffany Kyser worked with the faculty and settled on a strengths-based approach. They reached out to SMART Strengths co-author Dr. John Yeager to develop systematic ways to increase staff’s ability to identify, develop, and maintain ways to cope when confronted with adversity, bounce forward in the face of change, and contribute to organizational health which is scholar and solution focused. Tindley’s engagement with SMART Strengths seeks to support staff and students to work better and smarter in achieving their vision.

Tindley’s first action with SMART Strengths was an initial one-day training with 20 principals and leaders from Tindley schools. This approach aligns with Best Practice #1 for implementing SMART Strengths, “Get top-level buy in.” The leaders participated in a “Right Spotting” activity that focuses on what goes right for them in the Tindley schools. With the rigorous demands on administration and staff, it can be easy to fall into “negativity bias”. Then, the leaders learned how to interpret the Values in Action Inventory (VIA) and how they can best Spot, Manage, Advocate, Relate and Train strengths with themselves and others. In preparation to work with their school staff, under the tutelage of SMART Strengths facilitators, the leaders participated in a Strengths 360° Gallery as they learned the nuances of how to implement the exercise with their respective teachers. Also, they were introduced to the Discovery and Dream phases of Appreciative Inquiry approach.

After the initial training, Dr. Yeager and SMART Strengths facilitators conducted an introductory two-day program with the entire 200 Tindley staff. The principals and other leaders from the initial training led the strengths work with small groups from each of their respective schools, including activities such the Strengths 360° Gallery and an Appreciative Approach to living, learning and leading at Tindley. An Appreciative Approach helps teachers create what Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan calls “high quality connections” among themselves and with their students.

SMART Strengths’ Appreciative Approach is based on the Appreciative Inquiry work of David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney. (see SMART Strengths – Chapter 10 – pp. 252- 269) The approach focuses on the notion that there is something good in any organization, and it is important to identify the “positive core” of the group in order to move forward. The path of the inquiry goes in the direction of the questions that are asked. The questions include Discovery – What is the best of what is at Tindley? Dream – What might be for Tindley? What do you envision the possibilities of Tindley to be? Design – What should be at Tindley? and Destiny/Deployment – How do we sustain and empower the good that we do?

Many organizations in business, education and other fields will spend 3-5 days in undertaking the AI process. All members of the organization matter and there is a lot of partner and group interviewing based on the essential questions. During our inaugural time together with the Tindley staff, the focus was on the first two phases of the cycle. This allowed Tindley staff to share a lot with each other about what is good in their schools, instead of trying to find fault in the network. The results were gratifying, which they tend to be when employing Appreciative Approaches with groups.

Discovery questions considered by the staff included:

• What do you value most about yourself and your work (in general), at Tindley?
• Tell us about a high point/peak experience at Tindley. What made it a high point/peak experience for you?
• What are your strengths and how do they support the Tindley mission?
• When have you been most proud of being a part of Tindley?

Dream based-questions included:
• What does our positive core indicate we can be – taking Tindley to a new level?
• What are the most enlivening and exciting possibilities that Tindley can undertake?
• I will be most proud of Tindley in 2019 when what occurs?

What was most striking about the day was observing the number of teachers and staff who experienced visceral positive emotions during the Discovery phase. As part of the Strengths Gallery 360 °activity, other staff shared what they thought were their fellow staff members’ strengths. This is a wonderful way for teachers to declare what they see as good within others.
Here’s some feedback from the respective schools’ Dream discussion:

Tindley Renaissance – Grades K-3
• I will hopefully continue to focus on the positive and continue to grow as an educator. I want to be able to contribute to the decisions that will shape this network for the better. I want to be a game changer instead of just a spectator.
• I now understand that I need to take a greater leadership role in my school and my community. This means sharing my opinions and reflections with my colleagues and school leaders in order to make my vision become a reality. A leader is only as good as his or her communication of convictions.

Tindley Collegiate – Girls – Grades 6-8
• Taking the time to talk about the good has been a real eye opener. I would like to continue being there for my girls and giving them the opportunities they deserve.
• This can be integrated in to work and community by discussing what is possible and working as one to make it happen.
• Appreciative Inquiry has given me a new perspective on how to be solution-driven in a way that lets you dream and wish, but also gives you plausible goals to drive your actions. I feel this is especially important for my school, as we are very new and still working our way through in some respects. A genuine and collaborative vision will give us a unity and direction that could lead to a very bright future.

Tindley Preparatory School – Boys – Grades 6-8
• Helps me understand how to evaluate how we can grow and be a better well-rounded people.
• This was interesting as to how we all see each other and the school.
• The activity reinforced my “why”. It further encourages me to do the work I do.

Tindley Accelerated School – Grades 9-12
• Use with seniors regarding orienting future students entering the Tindley Accelerated High School.
• Asking students what they envision or want from their school in the future can really help foster positive behaviors from students depending on how invested they want to be.
• Look for the positive first. Getting students to look at what is good in their lives.

Arlington – Grades – 7 – 12
• Focusing on strengths and then moving to positive framing of dreams.
• I love this way of inquiry and problem-solving. It’s so much better than thinking only about the “problems” It was also great to see so many similar reflections.

With the rigorous demands of Tindley, the SMART Strengths engagement provides Tindley staff with a “tool kit” to bring out the best in all the adults who serve the students. SMART Strengths is helping staff be even more nimble and flexible through having them do “strengths work” in their own lives. Jane Gillham, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Resiliency Project, and a faculty member at Swarthmore college, reminds us that teachers and counselors need to understand curriculum at an adult level, to make it part of their daily life. Any teacher can hold fast to a curriculum script, a type of blind adherence, but to be competent with any program is to think and to apply the wisdom of that model. There needs to be a fit and readiness, so that the teacher’s strengths come alive in appealing to student strengths. As Ted Sizer, the author of Horace’s School, says, “Having the skills today is a small part of the whole. Being committed to using them consistently tomorrow is the crux of it . . .Habit, obviously, relates to disposition.” (SMART Strengths, Chapter 2, p. 75).

We look forward to engaging the Design and Destiny stages with Tindley, as well as learning how the appreciative approaches will come alive in the classroom. Now that the Tindley staff has a more collaborative picture for the future, and a new set of “tools” in their education tool kit, the odds of the vision becoming a reality are much higher!

References:
Cooperrider, David. L. and Whitney, Diana. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Build and Sustain High Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.