An introduction to strengths-based practice (a video lecture)

I teach a number of online courses (or subjects) at the University of Newcastle about working with communities and families in the Graduate Certificate of Family Studies and the Master of Family Studies. At the heart of my teaching is strengths-based practice and the above is an introductory lecture introducing students to some of the ideas we will explore over the semester.

In it I suggest 8 principles underpinning strengths-based practice:

  1. Recognise that individuals, families and communities have many strengths and the capacity to learn, grow and change
  2. Focus on strengths and aspirations
  3. Look for, and build on, the many resources that can be found in a wide range of social environments
  4. Take care with the language you use because it changes how we see people, situations and possibilities
  5. Collaborate and support self-determination
  6. Work in ways that promote empowerment
  7. See problems and challenges as the result of interactions between people rather than within people
  8. Keep a commitment to social justice

It isn’t a highly polished recording but hopefully it will be useful to some people. I’d love to hear what you think.

Here is the script for the video and at the end, there are some other posts that are related and a list of the references and photo credits.

Introduction

In this short lecture, I’m going to provide a bit of an overview of strengths-based practice which is an important foundations for this course.

At a very basic level, strengths-based practice focuses on interests, abilities and potential rather than problems, deficits and pathologies. In other words, we start with the strengths of individuals, families and communities rather than the problems they face. This isn’t to say that we ignore problems or challenges, but our approach to them starts with what is already working and builds on their strengths.

If we think of the metaphor of a half-full glass, a strengths-based approach focuses on the half-full part of the glass. The half-empty glass represents the notion that individuals, families and communities are deficient and have needs. The half-full glass represents the notion that individuals, families and communities have many strengths, skills and talents. A strengths-based approach argues that it is the half-full glass that gives us something to work with.

Strengths-based approaches are built on the recognition that:

If we ask people to look for deficits, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this. If we ask people to look for successes, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this. (Kral, 1989)

What do you see here? You might want to pause the video (or stop reading) while you have a closer look.

Do you see a series of shapes – maybe, a hat on it’s side, an arrow, a factory  or characters from the 1980’s computer game space invaders.

But maybe you can see a word.

If you can’t find the word and want it highlighted, CLICK HERE.

Now can you see the word fly? What we focus on changes what we see. If we only focus on the black, we will miss out on an important part of the image. And so with strengths-based practice if we don’t focus on strengths, we miss out on a really important part of the picture. The part of the picture that really can assist families and communities to create change.

8 principles of strengths-based practice

There are a number of principles that underpin strengths-based approaches to working with families and communities.  The following are eight principles of strengths-based practice.

1. Recognise that individuals, families and communities have many strengths and the capacity to learn, grow and change

The starting point of strengths-based practice,  is recognising that all individuals, families and communities have many strengths and they have the capacity to learn, grow and change

2. Focus on strengths and aspirations

As already indicated, our focus is on strengths and aspirations rather than what is not working. This can be quite a different approach. A colleague and I used to run workshops for Aboriginal fathers in prison. The fathers often said they were the best workshops they had attended.

I suspect that this was largely because of our focus. In prison many workshop are about what not to do. “Don’t do drugs, don’t do violence, don’t do crime.” Our workshop, on the other hand, said, “Wow, you’re fathers. Aren’t fathers incredibly important to kids, so how can you be the kind of fathers you want to be for you kids.” It set up a very different focus. We could still talk about tough issues but the context was so different. I want to emphasise again, that strengths-based approaches do NOT mean that we ignore problems. It means that we address the challenges individuals and families face by focusing on their strengths, what they are already do well, and their hopes for the future.

3. Look for, and build on, the many resources that can be found in a wide range of social environments

Individuals and families do not live in vacuums, they are part of a broader community and belong to a variety of social networks. And in every environment, there are individuals, groups and organisations who have something to give, something that others may want or need (Saleebey, 2009, p. 18). Thus, a strengths-based approach encourages service providers to look for, and build on, the many resources that can be found in a wide range of social environments (including people’s extended families, friendship circle and local community) rather than just relying on welfare and specialist support organisations.  At times external, professional services are needed but they should be a last resort and, where possible, they should be introduced in ways that complement and enhance local resources.

4. Take care with the language you use because it changes how we see people, situations and possibilities

The language and words we use, and the questions we ask, change how we see people, situations and possibilities. They help create reality, because how we describe or talk about things shape the perceptions we, and others, have of people and contexts, which have a major impact on how we respond to situations and the resulting outcomes.  Think of the different perceptions created when we talk about “victims of domestic violence” compared to “survivors of domestic violence”, or “dysfunctional families” compared to “families facing many challenges”, or “refugee families” compared to “illegal immigrants”. 

In working with families think about the difference between saying

You should vs Have you considered…?

I know that… vs Could you tell me about….?

The language we use is incredibly important.

5. Collaborate and support self-determination

Dennis Saleebey (2009), one of the people credited with articulating strengths-based practice, suggests “the role of expert or professional may not provide the best vantage point from which to appreciate [people’s] strengths and assets” (p. 17). If we see people as being the experts of their own situations, then it is important that we collaborate and support self-determination. We need to work with families and respect their capacity to make their own decisions. As Weick and her colleagues (1989) said 30 years ago in the context of social work:

It is impossible for even the best trained professional to judge how another person should best live his or her life. The non-judgemental attitude in social work dictates not only that social workers should not judge but that social workers cannot judge. Instead, the principles of knowing what is best and doing what is best places the power of decision where it should be – with the person whose life is being lived.  (Weick, Rapp, Sullivan, & Kisthardt, 1989, p.353).

6. Work in ways that promote empowerment

Empowerment is related to the ability of individuals and communities to have control over their own lives To be empowered, people need an environment which provides them with options and allows them to make choices (Rapp and Goscha in Saleebey, 2009).  It is both a process and an outcome. We do not promote empowerment if we act as an expert who knows what is best for the people we work with. We need to recognise people’s experience, expertise and ability to make their own decisions and support them in taking control of their own lives. This can be very challenging, particularly in context like when working with people who perpetrate family violence or child abuse. Empowering practice means that we need to be aware of the ways in which we exercise power (which I will return to soon).

7 See problems and challenges as the result of interactions between people rather than within people

Strengths-based practice sees problems and challenges as the result of interactions between people rather than within people. This is a principle that’s not as frequently identified in the literature, but it is a useful distinction. In models of family and community work which focus on deficits and pathologies, the problem lies within the person: the person is the problem. These approaches tend to focus on individualistic rather than social-environmental explanations of human problems. In strengths-based practice, problems are seen as the result of interactions between people, organisations or structures (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994). By focusing on how the interactions contribute to the situation, as well as concentrating on people’s strengths, it is possible to avoid blaming the victim (Saleebey, 2009).

8. Keep a commitment to social justice

The final principle of strengths-based practice I want to discuss is the importance of keeping a commitment to social justice.  A major criticism of strengths-based practice is that it can be aligned with neoliberal notions of individual responsibility and self-help and that it ignores structural inequalities (Gray,  2011). We need to recognise that strengths-based practice is not the answer to everything and we need to not only work with individual families but also address big social issues which impact on individuals and families. 

You may have noticed that this Photo was used earlier in the lecture. It’s a Photo from 2011, of refugees from Libya lining up for food at a transit camp.  Did you notice that they are all men? I reused this slide to remind us that sometimes we also need to address broader issues, like why are they refugees, and where are the women? If we just focus on strengths we may miss important underlying causes of injustice.

Strengths-based practice and power

Strengths-based practice challenges traditional power relationships. We can differentiate between four types of power:

  1. Power-over
  2. Power-with
  3. Power-to
  4. Power-within.

Many traditional ways of working with families and communities are based on power-over where professionals make decisions for others and expect them to comply (e.g., through the threat of providing no further support or removing children from their care). Strengths-based practice turns this on its head because we focus on the expertise, insights, passions and priorities of the people we work with. Our approach needs to be grounded in power-with, power-to, and power-within.

Strengths-based practice does NOT mean having blind optimism and ignoring problems, needs and challenges. In a recent Alternatives to Violence Project workshop with parents, around the middle of a 2-day workshop one of the fathers said:

This workshop is making me realise I’m a better father than some people say I am!

At face value this seems to be a great outcome. But even though we want to increase parents’ confidence, there is a potential dark side to this statement. What if he was an abusive parent and there were significant grounds for being concerned about his parenting? What if it was allowing him to deny the need for change?  There are real risks involved in accepting this statement without question and not exploring it further. What the father’s statement did, however, was allow us to have a conversation in a very different context, it allowed us to discuss what being a “good” dad means rather than suggesting he was a “bad” father.

Strengths-based practice needs to involve more than being positive, encouraging and hoping for the best. We need to be willing to explore difficult issues, ask challenging questions and do more than simply accepting statements at face value.

I want to finish with this acronym that I think applies so well to strengths-based approaches. Strengths-based approaches are about HOPE, helping other possibilities emerge. When our focus is on the problems and deficits of families, we can see what needs to change, but we can often see a whole lot of barriers to change and it can often be really hard to see a way forward. When our focus is on strengths, what is working and aspirations, we have something to work with and other possibilities can start to emerge.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  4. Power and strengths-based practice
  5. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
  6. A strengths-based approach to collective impact

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

References:

  • Gray, M. (2011). Back to basics: A critique of the strengths perspective in social work. Families in Society, 92(1), 5-11.
  • Kral, R. (1989). Strategies that work: Techniques for solutions in the schools. Milwaukee, WI: Brieg Family Therapy Center.
  • Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (2009). The strengths perspective in social work practice (5th ed.).Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Sullivan, W. P., & Rapp, C. (1994). Breaking away: The potential and promise of a strengths-based approach to social work practice. In R. Meinert, J. Pardeck, & W. Sullivan (Eds.), Issues in social work. Westport, CT, USA: Auburn House.
  • Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W. P., & Kisthardt, W. (1989). A strengths perspective for social work practice. Social Work, 34(4), 350-354.

Photo credits

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Families & parenting, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to An introduction to strengths-based practice (a video lecture)

  1. Jarot says:

    This is excellent talk on strength based approach

    Like

  2. pkadams says:

    Can you name one social problem that has actually been significantly reduced or solved since you’ve been in this field?

    Like

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