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Academic Coaching & Writing

IV. Identify Signature Strengths and Core Values

Feb 04, 2016 by Kathryn Kleypas

The field of positive psychology, from which the practice of coaching emerged, moved away from the deficit model of personal development and instead works from a strengths model. Coaching does not view people as broken and in need of fixing or empty vessels in need of filling. Instead coaching sees people as innately gifted with resiliency, intelligence, powers of choice, and repositories of their own unique constellations of strengths and values. A coach’s job is to help the coachee tease these out to act on them in ways best suited to his or her goals.

Coaching takes as its starting point the belief that when a person is living a life “aligned” with his strengths and values, life is richer and more fulfilling. This pertains to both a person’s professional and private lives. Helping your coachee align choices with strengths and values is a valuable tool as you help your coachee make important choices about how to spend one’s time and energy to advance one’s career. Once you begin working with and get to know your coachee, you will be able to identify the strengths and values the coachee holds dear. This will become a touchstone in your coaching work.

Signature Strengths

Martin Seligman, in his positive psychology research, writes about “signature strengths.” A signature strength makes you who you are—it is innate, feels inevitable, it’s what you do almost effortlessly. There is a joy and zest, even ecstasy, in the act of using these strengths. The more you are able to work from your signature strengths, the more in balance you will feel and the more you will thrive.

As a coach of a new faculty member, one of your duties may be to help your coachee select service and committee assignments for the upcoming year. Insofar as it is possible and expedient, making selections based on your coachee’s signature strengths will create potential for a much better fit and more long-term satisfaction on the part of both your coachee and the institution.

The non-profit VIA Institute provides a short online strengths survey free of charge. The VIA created a classification of strengths and ranks them. This can be a powerful adjunct to your coaching work. A simple yet extremely effective coaching strategy, if your coachee takes the survey, is for you and your coachee to look at the ranked list, select the top two or three strengths, and ask your coachee how, to the extent that it is in his power to do so, design his professional life so that he draws as heavily as possible on those strengths. An effective added step is to “invite” your coachee to integrate an activity that draws on one of the main strengths into his daily life.

Core Values

There is nothing inherently moral or ethical about values. Each person has his own personal list of what is important. A core tenet of coaching is that when you make choices that are aligned with your values, you will be far more satisfied with your life. Helping your coachee to articulate his core values is a powerful activity in itself and in the service of future coaching that requires goal setting and decision-making.

Conversations about values can help your coachee learn about values that had previously been hidden. When you are getting to know your coachee in your early meetings (and perhaps in your reading responses he wrote in a questionnaire you asked him to complete before meeting you), you can easily assess his core values by actively listening to what he emphasizes when he introduces himself to you.

One way to get right at your coachee’s core values is to ask a powerful question about his career. Here are possible questions:

  • What motivated you to be part of the academic life?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you value about your professional work?
  • What keeps you going in your career?
  • What has been a high point of your professional life?

As he answers, be attentive to the values that emerge and jot them down. For example, if a person tells a story about hiking the trails of the Himalayas to do the field research for his dissertation and stopping for a month at a monastery to help rebuild after an earthquake, you can conclude that, amongst many others, adventure, service, community, and intellectual curiosity are important values to this person. You could mine about a dozen more values from the story and put them in clusters and then ask your coachee to prioritize them. This list of values will be a touchstone for future coaching conversations. Powerful questions such as “How would this decision honor your values?” or “What value are you honoring if you do that?” can be extremely effective in getting right to the heart of what matters to your coachee.

Discussion Questions:

What do you value about mentoring people?

How are your values being served by doing so?

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