One of the unique features of social work practice is the deliberate inclusion of strengths in assessment, intervention, and goal setting with clients. This framework, known as the Strengths Perspective, empowers individuals, families, organizations, and communities to discover their inner strengths and build on their natural environmental resources to thrive (Saleebey, 2000). Early in my career, I was determined that the strengths perspective would be my professional mantra. However, fast-forward several months into my first job, and it wasn’t too long before my mantra was being crushed underneath a laundry list of pathologies, deficits, and diagnoses. Many clinicians find it challenging to maintain a strengths focus in practice, because the orientation runs counter to the dominant pathology-driven models that identify and define clients as a set of symptoms and subsequent diagnoses (Saleebey, 2000). To some, a strengths focus may falsely appear like wishful thinking or even denial, however it is important to note that strengths-based practice does not ignore the very real problems clients face. This perspective simply chooses not to regulate individuals to a life that will always be less than it could or should be (Saleebey, 1996).
Recently, I conducted a strengths seeking exercise with a group of undergraduate social work students, and the results were very interesting. The assignment was simple. Students were told to interview a partner and explore as many details as possible about a problem. After ten minutes, they were going strong, but I asked them to switch gears and gather just as many details from their partner about something that was going well. Less than two minutes in, they were stumped. Seeking strengths proved to be more difficult than they ever imagined. I wondered, “How can something so foundational to our practice be so challenging for us?” The strengths perspective is not just some catchy social work tagline. It is a purposeful orientation that requires considerable efforts on the part of the practitioner and the client. The truth is- the lens by which we view the world is critical, and we are an incredibly problem focused society. Saleebey (2008) describes this as a “cultural preoccupation and fascination with pathology, problems, moral and interpersonal aberrations, violence, and victimization” (p. 3). We see this phenomenon play out every day. It is embedded in media reports and most often in the language society uses to describe our clients. There is no doubt that we work with clients who are broken and battered. Clients bear the scars of poverty, depression, racism, homelessness, addiction, and trauma. Often these battles produce feelings of defeat, worthlessness, and shame. These problems are real and painful, but how can we empower clients if we view them within the same vein as they view themselves? It is our job to instill hope, power, choice, and inherent worth.
In The Strengths Perspective: Putting Possibility and Hope to Work in Our Practice, Saleebey relates a strengths approach in social work practice to CPR or cardiopulmonary resuscitation- breathing for someone until they can breathe for themselves. Within his strengths framework, this concept translates to believing in someone until they can believe in themselves. He uses CPR to encourage and remind practitioners to explore clients from the following strengths orientation (p.3).
C-capacities, competencies, courage, and character
P-promise, positive expectations, purpose, and potential
R-resources, resilience, relationships, resolve, and reserves
Another useful tool for clinicians devoted to seeking strengths amid adversity is Clay Graybeal’s ROPES (Resources Options Possibilities Exceptions Solutions) model. This clever acronym assists practitioners in shifting the emphasis of psychosocial assessments from being pathology driven to ones highlighting strengths, choices, and solutions (Graybeal, 2001). Graybeal (2001) suggests, “When the practitioner feels stuck, uninspired, or unable to locate useful strengths, ROPES, as a simple mnemonic device, can provide direction” (p. 237). If social workers consistently seek out and explore these core elements with clients, we can transform our focus from problems to possibilities. This enables us to better utilize the client’s interpersonal and environmental resources in accomplishing treatment goals and sustaining positive change. It is true that social workers will continue to see client problems because of the nature of the work that we do. The problems are easy to see, but can we move past the problems and envision a future for our clients of possibility and hope? Can we challenge colleagues and other practitioners to describe clients with positive language that consistently supports dignity and worth? Can we advocate for social policies that enable individuals, families, and communities to thrive and succeed? I believe we can. I am not in denial of the struggles that lie before me, but I choose to see my client as someone who is worthy of my respect, capable of change, and resilient. I am prepared to be my client’s equal and together we will walk hand in hand through her own figurative hell, until she emerges stronger, wiser, and empowered.
Written by: Cayce Watson, MSSW, LAPSW