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Communicating Through Our Strengths

Amanda Sollman

Have you ever had an experience where you put together a fantastic presentation – thoroughly researched the topic, thought through all potential roadblocks, put together contingencies, described exactly how this idea would come to life – only to have it fall flat with the person you were presenting to?

What about an experience where you were super excited about an upcoming project and couldn't help but let that excitement ooze from every part of your being in an effort to get those around you excited too – only to have them ask you to calm down?

If you've been in one of these situations (or any number of other examples where reality doesn't match up with expectations), there's a good chance that you've got a misalignment of strengths.

Your strengths are those things that naturally energize and motivate you. They're things like enthusiasm, detail orientation or relationship building – ways of getting the job done that light you up with little to no effort. It's great to know what our personal strengths are, because then we can leverage them to get our work done more effectively. It's also good to know what other people's strengths are so that we can communicate and work together better.

When Strengths are Misaligned

When we don't know what strengths the people we work with have or we don't honor those strengths when we do know them, a couple of things can happen:

The most severe is that we experience overdrive – when our strengths get pushed too far, to the point of causing negative impact or conflict. Overdrive might look like:

  • Being so enthusiastic that we drive people nuts
  • Being so creative or strategic that we never get anything done
  • Building so many relationships that we can't manage the needs of each one
  • Keeping our emotions so controlled (aka the poker face) that people never know what you're thinking
  • Getting so in the weeds that people don't feel like you trust them

There's a good use for all of these strengths – enthusiasm, creativity, strategic mindedness, relationship building, emotional control, detail orientation – but there's also a dark side. When strengths go too far, you can find that people avoid working with you or get angry/annoyed with you.

The less severe version of strength misalignment is simply that we miss out on opportunities – to sell our ideas, to sell our products, to build trust and connection. When we're not keeping strengths in mind, we can find that we're talking past each other vs. to each other. 

  • We give an overly detailed presentation to a person who really only needs the highlights. 
  • We focus on how a conference will help someone reach their goals when they really care about building new relationships with other attendees.
  • We try to persuade someone that our product is the best when they want to know how it fits into their business strategically.

This type of misalignment doesn't necessarily cause conflict but we do miss out on what could be possible.

Communicating using Strengths

To avoid the issues of strengths going into overdrive or missing out on opportunities, try these communication tips:

Ask them "What do you look for when working with someone?" Whether you're talking to a customer or a coworker, this question can be great for uncovering keywords that give you clues about their strengths. They might say, "I want someone who thinks through things before bringing them to me." (detail oriented, perhaps?). Or they might say, "I love someone who brings me off-the-wall-ideas that I wouldn't have thought of myself." (creativity, maybe?). Or they could say, "I love working with someone who hashes out problems with me, where we talk it out together to get to a solution." (possibly a collaboration strength at play here!). This isn't a fool-proof way of uncovering strengths, but asking good questions and really listening to what they say could give you clues when you don't have a Strengthscope report available.

Verbalize your potential for going into overdrive. If you know that you're at risk of going into overdrive with your strengths, you can actually tell people that up front. For me, my detail orientation strengths are most likely to go into overdrive when I'm stressed out. Knowing that, I might tell my coworkers, "Hey, you're probably going to see me getting really into the weeds or asking a lot of questions over the next couple of weeks. It's not that I don't trust you or that I'm trying to micromanage. It's just that we're on a tight timeline and I want to make sure I watch the details so we don't miss anything." When we give people a heads-up, they can shift their perspective of the situation. Instead of saying Jeez, Amanda thinks we can't do our jobs! they might say I know Amanda is asking a lot of questions so we look good at this event. Different stories. Different outcomes.

If you're selling an idea or a product, tap into the "customer's" strengths. I may be detail oriented, but if my customer has decisiveness as a strength, I need to just give them the top 3-5 most important details – they'll either make a decision based on that or ask clarifying questions if they need them. I may be super enthusiastic about why my product is the best, but if my customer has emotional control as a strength, I need to tone it down a notch. I may want to build a relationship with the other person, but if being results focused is one of their strengths, I need to know when it's time to shift to talking about how my solution gets them closer to their desired outcome. Remember: it's not about losing sight of who you are and your natural strengths; it's about adapting to the situation in order to get more of what you want.

Set context for your conversation. This is a big one for the MJST team. We're constantly practicing our context setting, especially in potential overdrive situations. Here's what it might sound like:

Hey, Amanda, I'm just going to brainstorm out loud here for a few minutes. Would love your feedback but we don't need to jump to the logistics yet.   

Hey, Mark, we've got an event in two days that I need your input on. If you can just give me 15 minutes to answer my questions, I'll be out of your hair after that.

In the first example, if there had been no context, I probably would have started asking about timelines, budgets and who was going to do what (even though that wasn't the purpose of the conversation). In the second example, Mark probably would have been itching to get away from my seemingly endless list of detailed questions. Instead, he knows the pain will be limited to 15 minutes :)

Context matters.

Shifting Your Communication

Most of the problems and conflicts in our workplaces are related to communication – a lack of it or doing it poorly. Leveraging strengths is one way to up our communication game and accomplish more of what we're seeking.

I'm curious: Where have you used some of these approaches in the past? Where could you try them on? Are there other ways you use strengths in communication besides these?

Drop your thoughts in the comments below!

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