Strengths Coaching Blog

Friday, August 7, 2015

Balconies and Basements: Perception is Reality

by Stosh D. Walsh

You’ve probably heard that statement dozens of times, applied to just as many concepts. But have you considered how it applies to strengths?

Perhaps you’ve heard of or facilitated a strengths activity called “Balconies and Basements.” This is a perception activity. Several years ago, I was facilitating a session with a group of leaders about “barrier labels” -- the negative perceptions people have of individual themes that prevent us from experiencing their full potential. Examples of this might include Futuristic being labeled as “head in the clouds” or Deliberative being labeled as a “wet blanket.” I wanted to drive home the point that talents, patterns of thoughts, feelings or behaviors, are neither positive nor negative. Rather, our perceptions of them in others and our application of our own strengths make them positive or negative. So, I asked a simple question after I’d asked folks to brainstorm the positive and negative labels: “Which one of these lists is reality?”

Predictably, the answer was, “Both.” This, of course, is exactly right. Needing a way to anchor the concept and make it memorable, I introduced the notion that our viewpoint can be either from the basement or from the balcony. Obviously, the balcony has a much better view. Critically, we choose how we see the strengths of others. If they are not like us or we fail to understand their talent, we might, consciously or unconsciously, view their talent negatively -- from the basement. Conversely, if we elect to see that talent as unique, even when it does things we don’t understand or anticipate, we choose to see the value it adds -- the balcony view.
We can choose how we perceive others. But perception is not the only lesson of “Balconies and Basements.” We must also consider how we manage our own themes, and the potential ways others may understand them. We do this by wielding those strengths well. This starts by understanding the value of our themes, as well as their potential vulnerabilities. For example, Responsibility tends to be follow-through oriented, but this might feel overbearing to some. To ensure that high Responsibility is not perceived as micromanaging, those who have it can be proactive and explain their desire to be kept in the loop, initiating a conversation about how often check-ins should happen and making it clear that they trust others to complete the work. Individuals with high Intellection can explain that if they do not contribute to a discussion in a meeting, it is not because they are disinterested, but because they prefer not to speak without having thought carefully about an issue first. They can prepare others for the possibility that their best ideas and perspectives might come in the hours or days after the meeting, not during it. 
So why is all of this important? Too many times, we allow StrengthsFinder results to be weakness-finding in disguise. Knowing the basement of a theme is not useful so that we can call it out in others. Instead, understanding and appreciating the basements of our themes can help us do six critical things:
  • examine our own perceptions of the talents of others
  • reveal our potential biases
  • enable us to choose a strengths-based focus
  • broaden and deepen our conversations with others about how they wield their talents and how we perceive them 
  • understand how our strengths might be perceived by others
  • enact proactive strategies to manage others’ perceptions
 Next time you are discussing the basement of a theme, use these as a filter to check motivations and outcomes. Remember, themes are neutral; perceptions are not. Therefore, perceptions must be identified and managed proactively, whether we are perceiving or being perceived.

Stosh D. Walsh serves others as a consultant, coach, trainer, speaker, and writer.  He began his career in traditional education settings, honing his leadership as a classroom teacher for middle school through college, as a residence life director, and as a university athletics coach.  After those experiences, he spent nearly a decade with The Gallup Organization as part of their executive leadership practice.  Over the course of his career, he has served non-profit and for-profit organizations, including many Fortune 500 companies.
Stosh's top five strengths are: Responsibility, Belief, Achiever, Input and Learner.

3 comments :

Maureen Monte said...

Hi Stosh, great blog! Thanks so much for sharing with extreme clarity the benefits of carefully monitoring our perceptions! Well done!

Yvonne Koenigsberg said...

Love the final quote - worth adding to my slide decks: "Themes are neutral; perceptions are not. Therefore, perceptions must be identified and managed proactively, whether we are perceiving or being perceived."

becky said...

I just came upon this again. This is an excellent description of the value of talking "Balconies and Basements." Brings it back to the practical. Great point about "weakness fixing in disguise."