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)?


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

Comments are closed.