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Listening for Strengths and Values (S.5, Ep.2)

January 11

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About This Episode

When people feel that they are being listened to empathetically, attentively, and without judgment, they enter a safe state that enables them to delve deeper into their consciousness and discover new insights about themselves – even those that may challenge previously held beliefs and perceptions.

In this practicast, Jessica Beckendorf talks about the listening practice, Strength Spotting, and guides us through how to do it.

“Practicasts” are shorter episodes of the podcast highlighting a specific practice to help empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness.

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Bob Bertsch: When people feel that they’re being listened to empathetically, attentively, and without judgment, they enter a safe state that enables them to delve deeper into their consciousness and discover new insights about themselves, even those that may challenge previous held beliefs and perceptions. Hi everyone. This is Bob Bertsch and welcome to this week’s Practicing Connection Practicast, where we highlight a specific practice you can use in your life and work.

This week’s practice is a listening practice called Strength Spotting. This practice can help you learn to listen more deeply to anyone you encounter while building deeper relationships through this validating practice. My Practicing Connection co-host Jessica Beckendorf will be guiding us through the practice in a few minutes, but first, let’s learn more about it. Hey Jessica. I’m really interested in the benefits of Strength Spotting.

Jessica Beckendorf: The beautiful thing about character strengths is that they’re both deeply personal and internal and they’re social. We’re all constantly expressing our strengths, whether we know it or not. They’re part of our contributions to the world. Knowing and using our strengths is actually connected with improving our well-being and resilience. What’s interesting is that many people don’t know their own strengths. I don’t mean that in the physical sense, like we don’t know our own strength, but no, we don’t know our strengths a lot of times.

In fact, it’s actually often a lot easier to spot strengths in others than it is to spot our own strengths. For this reason, I do recommend taking the free VIA Character Strengths Assessment, which we’ll provide the link in the show notes. You don’t have to know all about strengths or even to know your own strengths in order to do someone the kindness of noticing and appreciating the strengths of others.

We all have language that we already use around strengths. A lot of us might recognize things like being organized as a strength, which maybe isn’t the best example, but things like being organized or being brave or exhibiting kindness to others as a strength. You don’t need to know all of the language of strengths in order to do this. It really is a kindness noticing and appreciating someone else’s strengths.

In the context of relationship building, this noticing and appreciating I’ve been talking about is often called strength spotting. It’s a validating activity that can help the people around you identify their strengths. Remember I said that most people don’t know their own strengths? Well, you can help other people identify their strengths by pointing it out to them when it. This strengthens the relationship and contributes to improving their overall wellbeing, particularly as the folks in positive psychology might say, their basic psychological needs for autonomy, relationship, and competence. Those are all related to using strengths.

Even the US Army has recognized the power of character strengths by embedding it as a core part of their comprehensive soldier fitness program and as part of their global assessment tool. They emphasize not only identifying your own strengths, but also identifying strengths in others, which is what we’re talking about today, and using those strengths in practical ways on teams. If you go to the website of the Directorate of Prevention, Resilience, and Readiness and search on the term character strengths, a whole bunch of articles and resources actually pop up. It’s a really great resource for that.

I could talk all day long about how using our signature strengths in different ways every day increases things like work satisfaction and our sense of meaning, and it increases happiness and decreases feelings of depression, with the effects lasting sometimes as long as six months. This particular practicast is all about the benefits of reflecting back the strengths of those we engage with in conversation. I really want to keep it focused there because I really could talk about strengths in many different ways.

Bob: When we’re strength spotting, what kinds of things are we listening for? You gave a couple examples in your previous answer, but I’m wondering if you could go deeper on that.

Jessica: Yes, this is a really good question. Something I’ve noticed because I do a lot of interpersonal communication kinds of workshops, and this comes up a lot. While in conversation, our brains are doing so many things at once that when you try to break it down and talk about all the things our brains are doing at once in a forum like a podcast episode or a blog, it can feel oddly detailed and overwhelming.

I literally have different steps that you can go through to think about an interaction with somebody else. But for the purposes of what we’re talking about today, I’m going to keep it really simple and say that your first just listening for what you admire about the other person in relation to what they’re saying to you.

Don’t make it weird and they’re telling you about their day and you’re like, “Whoa, I really admire what an upstanding citizen you are,” when they didn’t talk anything at all about their volunteering or whatever. No, I’m talking about thinking about what you admire, what you’re finding out that you admire in what they’re saying to you, and in relation to what they’re saying to you. What was interesting to you about their story and what is it that you appreciated within that story about that person? That is the first thing I would say you’re looking for.

The second simple piece of advice that I would have is to observe and listen for their energy level. What did they get more animated about and what strength might be attached to that? For example, if they’re describing a difficult week for them, but they sounded a little lighter or more energetic when they spoke about how they came up with a new idea to present to their team, you might say something about their creativity for coming up with a new idea or their bravery since not everyone is comfortable with sharing their ideas and it’s a brave thing to share an idea because it could be rejected. Those are the two main things I would listen to; their energy and then your own energy, what you’re noticing that you admire in the other person.

Bob: What about actually paying attention? Are there tips for us to stay focused on what the other person is saying? Because honestly, I find myself thinking about what I’m going to say next or what I have to do an hour later.

Jessica: Oh yes, there are absolutely tips for staying focused. Two words, stay focused. No. Seriously, listening is a social mindfulness activity if that can be considered a thing. I’m going to make it a thing. It’s a social mindfulness activity. A let go of where you want the conversation to go. Let go of thinking ahead, trying to guess where they are going with the conversation because we love to do that, don’t we? Just be with the person or people. Frankly, you can do this in a group too. I know we’re talking about one-on-one here. A lot of our language has been around one-on-one, but you can do this absolutely in a group as well.

Just be with the person or people and keep bringing your mind back to the conversation because just like in mindfulness practice, your mind’s going to wander and it’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up for it. Just like we talk about in mindfulness practice, don’t beat yourself up for your mind wandering, just keep bringing it back. That is my main piece of advice for staying focused on what another person is saying. I’m sure that there’s lots treasure troves of advice out there, but this really is about us being together and this is an episode all about listening and so really it’s just focus and do your best. Just do your best as a human [chuckles] to be present with another human.

Bob: Awesome. Well, can you walk us through this? What does it look like in practice?

Jessica: Yes. There are three main steps. I want to recognize that our brains are doing a lot of different things all at once in the middle of a conversation. I recognize that what I’m going to break down to you in a second here is a detailed list of– it might be hard for you to initially think, “Wait, how am I going to do this in the middle of a conversation.” Like, “I want to pay attention to what they’re saying. I don’t want to be doing all these different tasks while I’m doing that.” Don’t worry about it. I’ll give you some tips after.

It’s a three-step process. The first one is labeling. Name the strength or strengths, it could be more than one, name the ones that you notice. What did you observe? That’s what you’re answering here is what do you observe? What strengths are you observing in what they’re saying to you? The next one is explaining. There’s first labeling, now there’s explaining, and this is about giving rationale for the strength that you labeled.

You could just say to someone, “Oh, I really appreciate your bravery,” and leave it there, but you really need to give it a little rationale. “I appreciated the bravery or how brave was for you to share that idea in a team meeting. I have a really hard time with that myself. I’ve just had some bad experiences and I’m not sure that I feel safe sharing my ideas. I think it’s really brave of you to do that,” right? Giving that rationale. This one’s all about answering the question, what’s the evidence that you observed for that strength? I think this is sometimes the hardest part for some people because we can recognize something and have a hard time just articulating what it was. This is about showing your work, which we have another episode on. This is sort of about that show your work like you were told in school.

Okay, so labeling, then explaining. Now the third part is appreciating. This can be, if the moment has passed, this can be about thinking about your appreciation and just noticing what it was that you appreciated and why, but hopefully you really do need to express this back to the person. I just, I do want to mention the fact that it does happen that the moment passes sometimes, but you know what you can do? You can write them a note later. You can send them an email. You can say, “Hey, you know what? I was thinking about what you said and I really appreciated the bravery that it takes for you to share an idea like that. It’s something I struggle with myself,” right, so appreciating.

Express appreciation, affirmation. How will you share that you value this person’s strength? One last time, labeling, name the strength or strengths you noticed, explain it, giving the rationale behind what you noticed, and appreciate. Express that appreciation or affirmation to the person. If the moment has passed, consider writing an email to them at some later time.

The more you practice this, the faster you’ll get at it, I promise. At first, you might only be able to label the strength you noticed and possibly not even until after the conversation is over and reflecting it back to the person feels a little impossible. It’s okay if at first you’re just noticing it after the conversation’s over, just keep practicing. It’ll start to happen. It’s really helpful to start by downloading the list of character strengths in the link that we provide in the show notes. It’s a way to learn to get to know some of the language around strengths so that you can spot it a little bit more frequently or a little more often, or you can spot new ones sometimes maybe that you don’t normally think about.

It’s also really helpful to start by practicing on characters in television shows. Start by watching a character on a television show, label a strength that you’re noticing, give it some rationale, and imagine how you might express appreciation or affirmation of the strength to the character in the show. It’s a really helpful activity that will help you get faster and better at recognizing strengths. That is how I started.

Bob: Wow, Jessica, it’s very apparent from this conversation that you are super passionate about strength spotting, and I really appreciate that passion. I appreciate it that you took the time to share that with us.

Jessica: Well, you’re very welcome. I always have time to talk about character strengths. I learned about them a long time ago, and they’ve been an important part of my work for almost a decade now.

Bob: That’s it for this episode. Thanks for joining us. We hope you’ll give this practice a try and share your experience in the Practicing Connection LinkedIn group where people supporting military families practice the skills that empower us to work together so that we can positively impact our communities and help families thrive. You can find the link to the group on our website at oneop.org/PracticingConnection. We’ll be back next week with a practice to get yourself a little bit better and also connect with others. That practice is called Asking Powerful Questions. Until then, keep practicing.

[theme music]

Kalin Goble: The Practicing Connection podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award numbers 2019-48770-30366 and 2023-48770-41333.

[00:14:47] [END OF AUDIO]

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January 11
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