How do you describe your character? What would your friends say are your most prominent character strengths? Bravery, creativity, kindness, and gratitude perhaps? Or how about persistence, fairness, humour…? There are, of course, many others.
But disguised in each of these strengths is a shadow side that we can fail to recognise if we’re not careful. None of us are perfect. And so if we asked our friends and colleagues to honestly say what they find most irritating about us, our list of ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ might well be almost identical:
- You’re really creative? But you sometimes forget or ignore day-to-day processes and protocols.
- You’re really kind? But you find it hard to make tough decisions that affect others or to give honest, critical feedback.
- You’re really hopeful and optimistic? But you sometimes bite off more than you can chew and cause avoidable stress for yourself and others.
- You’re really zestful and energetic? But others find you tiring to be around sometimes. And you can tend to interfere with others’ desire for calmness and quiet?
As we really start to know ourselves better by exploring the strengths and limitations of our own character, and remaining open to feedback from those we trust, there is an enhanced opportunity to understand how we are known by others. Embracing this learning fertilises our social intelligence. We become more self-aware and more aware of our effect on others.
And, perhaps most importantly, when we recognise both sides of our own character, it helps remind us that behind the imperfections and faults in our friends, colleagues and family are the same beautiful human qualities that we love in them.
Does this story sound familiar to you?
Jane is in Year 7 at school. She submits her assignment and feels good about the work she has done. But that night, her teacher reads the assignment and is taken aback. The following day, the teacher calls in Jane’s Head of Year, a very experienced educator, and requests a meeting with Jane’s parents. Jane’s parents come in for the meeting with the Head of Year, Jane, her teacher, and two other of Jane’s teachers who have been called in too.
Jane’s teacher welcomes the ‘committee’ that is now present and begins the meeting. “Jane, I think you probably know why we have gathered everyone today.”
Jane quietly nods.
“The piece of work you submitted yesterday is outstanding. It is not perfect, but, as you well know, that doesn’t matter to us at all. What does matter, is that it demonstrates a new level of creativity, insight, and passion that I haven’t seen in your work before. Although you have always worked hard and done very well at school, this is different. It is so important that we diagnose and understand exactly what went right. I know your parents and teachers are so keen to help you continue to realise and nurture your strengths and so we have formed this committee today to investigate your success fully. You need to know that I will be personally writing a report about these developments that will be sent to the principal and permanently recored on your student file. I am so proud to have the privilege of working with you as your teacher. Thank you Jane.”
How different schools would be if ‘feedback’ wasn’t primarily about fixing deficits.
I love birthdays – especially other people’s! But I’ve never been able to get excited or seen much value in birthday cards. I’m pretty good at remembering the birthdays of my friends and family but I tend to just write a mundane card or message along the lines of:
Dear Nicky, Happy Birthday! I’m thinking of you today and hope you are having a lovely day. Best wishes for the year ahead, David.
Now, that’s a nice acknowledgement. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure Nicky appreciated me taking the time and energy to write to her. But it doesn’t at all reflect the fact that Nicky’s actual birth day turned out to be a gift to me. Because she was born, my life, via her friendship, is richer, happier and more meaningful.
And so I’m trying a new character strengths-based messaging strategy. I choose one of the 24 VIA character strengths that most stand out for me when I think about the recipient and write a short message describing how I see this strength actioned by them.
This is the birthday message I actually sent to Nicky this year:
On your birthday, I wanted to say thank you for what you bring to our family as a close, dear and trusted friend. One part of your character that I truly value is your modesty / humility. You are so strong and resilient and so capable but it is very much a quiet strength. I know you have been through a lot in your life and you face every challenge with hope because you know that you will be okay. But you never boast or brag about it. You just quietly and purposefully make things happen. I really admire this in you. Thank you again for making our lives happier and richer for having you in them. Have a great year ahead Nic!
Sure, it took a few more minutes to write – but it’s a few minutes I spent thinking about the best qualities in a friend. Not so bad! And I suspect this is a message that is a lot more meaningful to Nicky too.
Whose birthday is next in your life? Have a go at writing them a strengths card!
[Note: If you are interested in learning more about the science of character, head over to https://www.viacharacter.org/]