Thursday, August 19, 2010

Skills vs. Strengths - You Gotta Do the Work

On this blog, I write a lot about people skills and personal strengths. My work is about helping people improve their skills and strengths, to more effectively deal with the challenges of life and work. But are "skills" and "strengths" two words that signify the same thing?

Along the way to an answer, two important thoughts.

First, people skills and personal strengths are not the same thing. They're different types of behavior patterns.

A skill is a set way of doing something. Ideally, it's the best way to do it, a "best practice" as we call it in the learning and development business. Often, this model has steps for doing it properly. For example, there's a best way for a swimmer to do the breast stroke. If a superior technique is discovered some day, every swimmer in the world will learn to do it that way.

Another example. When giving constructive feedback, it's easy to screw it up royally if you don't know what you're doing. You could end up being critical. So there are things you should do and shouldn't do, and the result is a model for a person to follow when giving feedback effectively. You might vary your application of the model, depending on the situation, but the idea is to understand the model and be faithful to it.

Personal strengths, on the other hand, are based on a general guideline rather than a procedure. For example, one important personal strength is honesty. the guideline is to tell the truth. There's no set way to do that. It depends on the situation. The important thing is to be open and accurate, to reveal things as they are, not a false representation of reality, no matter how embarrassing or painful the admission may be.

The other key fact is that the brain doesn't know the difference between a skill and a strength. To the brain, both are behavior patterns. Both require practice, practice, and more practice to ingrain the pattern. In both cases, consistent repetition stimulates the growth of dendrites to connect the enabling brain cells into an efficient pathway to trigger the behaviors efficiently and habitually.

So regardless of whether you're mastering a skill or ingraining a personal strength, there's no magic bullet. Knowing is not doing. You can learn a concept in a minute. But learning a skill might take a year. You have to do the work of consistent repetition before you can depend on the skill or strength to be there for you when you need it.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

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