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I rarely teach a strengths seminar where someone does not ask, “Do your strengths change if you go through a significant life change?” It seems the question often comes from a person who has encountered an event in their life that was pretty life-altering. I’ve heard people talk about those life events in reference to a major job change, a divorce, having a baby, the death of someone close to them and other meaningful incidents. Our researchers would likely say that we don’t have the longitudinal data to make a determination about this question. And sure, a big change in your life could change the way you approach things, right down to your natural patterns of behavior. But based on my understanding of human talent, I know we tend to become more of who we are as things get challenging, so my stock answer had always been, “No, usually one’s strengths don’t really change that much, no matter what the situation.” And then I became one of those people who experienced a major life change.
Now I have a new answer. I truly believe our strengths don’t change, but they take on new meaning. Even though I had gone through of lot of the typical life events that most people do, nothing was quite as significant as losing my husband suddenly after 44 years of marriage. Now, I have a new view on strengths and their capacity to stay consistent. I now know that, for me, those strengths not only remained true, but in some ways, they were even more intense and present during that time.
However, my strengths probably looked different than they did before. First of all, I noticed that my strengths had more potential to be “raw” after my significant loss. I had little filter, little stamina, little feeling of control and little energy to be at my best. The behaviors I considered to be my talents took a back seat as they were filtered through the lens of loss. It took me a long time to try to reframe my strengths in a mature way.
This was most obvious with my Signature Theme of Futuristic. How could someone who had vivid mental pictures of a beautiful future with her husband proceed when all those dreams are now defunct? I felt like someone was playing a bad trick on me. But, ever the forward-thinker, on the other hand I couldn’t help but imagine what would happen down the road. Even though my life became more about day-to-day survival, I made sense of those days by conceiving thoughts about what my life would be like in the future. One morning, I simply took out a pen and paper and wrote “near future” and “far future.” Not too sophisticated, but I wasn’t feeling too sophisticated at that point. My raw Futuristic begged for me to break it down into chunks I could manage. And while the near future was more functional and focused more on how I would use this time to honor my late husband, the far future gave me the real emotional lift that was necessary to propel me forward into a preferred future. That was a difference-maker for me. For the first time, I could have some sense of pushing forward, despite this tremendous life change.
Another part of my newfound perspective on whether strengths can change came from deep self-awareness that now, more than ever, I needed to lean into certain themes one day and other themes on another day. I found myself needing to embrace a strength intentionally day by day. At times, I knew I needed my Activator to take over and get me going. Other days, my Relator was like a best friend -- actually it brought me best friends when I was lonely or afraid. There were days when my Command was necessary to make quick and hard decisions. And other days, my Significance was leading the charge as I reconsidered my new place in this world.
So, what is the answer? I do believe much of how we experience our themes comes down to our values. New values, new awareness or new paradigms may slightly adjust the trajectory of a strength. But throughout my experience with change, my themes didn’t leave me once. They did filter through new experiences, and I did have to allow my themes time and myself the opportunity to practice employing them to learn how they would play out in what felt like a new world. I needed to be smart about intentionally using each one when it was most needed in my life as I faced major change.
Sitting in the passenger seat as someone goes through a life change is a rare and powerful privilege. If you get the chance to coach someone who is going through something major, you can help them understand who they truly are, even in the midst of the chaos they’re experiencing. Consider asking them questions that will help bring them back to themselves. Like always, not every theme is going to wield equal power. There may be some strengths they need to lean on more than others. Build awareness and appreciation for this by asking great questions. When I help people through change, I like to ask them to consider ways they might redefine the relationship they have with their themes. Offer grace and simplicity, and allow for exploration.
Help them gain a better understanding of the problem:
Allow for exploration of what has changed. This may seem simple, but it can be an important point of clarification.
Analyze the challenges they are facing, and explore which of their themes might fit each challenge individually.
What strength do they feel they need that they don’t have? Who can they lean on to provide it?
Help them seek increased self-awareness:
Anticipate situations that might quickly bring out the raw side of their themes.
Ask them to journal regularly about how their strengths are appearing in their life. Ask them to look daily for examples of their talent.
Throughout this journey, I found that I needed stability, reliability and predictability more than ever. And strengths, along with relationships, faith and work, provided that for me. What is more predictable than knowing and embracing who you are? I could be myself, for better or for worse. I didn’t need to waste precious energy redefining the new me. I knew what my talents were and I knew what they could be. That was a gift. An unchanging gift.
Rosanne M. Liesveld is a Managing Consultant at Gallup. She consults with K-12 school districts to develop comprehensive recruiting, assessment, hiring and development strategies for teachers and principals. Rosanne's primary areas of expertise are in teacher and principal selection, motivation, development, engagement and performance management. Rosanne is a coauthor of Teach with Your Strengths, a book on strengths-based development for educators and school systems.
Rosanne's top five strengths: Futuristic | Activator | Significance | Relator | Command.