Assessing a client’s strengths is part of the initial evaluation for treatment (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 2013). A clear understanding of the client’s strengths, no matter how small, can help direct treatment options and guide treatment planning. However, in practice assessing the client’s strengths is difficult because the client usually does not answer the question. In discussions with my coworkers and students, I have found that they tend to dislike the strengths questions in the assessments. They say “I dread this part because the client does not know how to answer it,” or “I spend a great deal of time exploring the clients’ strengths because the client doesn’t usually respond.”
Some writers have suggested ways to improve the strengths assessment. Their solutions—such as using a specific strengths questionnaire (McQuaide & Ehrenreich, 1997), using a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach (Graybeal, 2001), or using ecomapping (Laursen, 2003)—are excellent, but they add time to a standard assessment. In an age of budget cuts, short staff, and increased paperwork, counselors simply do not have the time to use additional tools during an intake evaluation.
In an attempt to get better responses from clients; I have been experimenting with different ways of asking the strengths question and have stumbled on one method that seems to work well. I ask clients what they are “passionate about in life.” Usually they do not answer right away, as this question requires a bit of prompting. I follow up by saying, “You can be passionate about something in life, but not necessarily good at it.” For example, “I have a large record collection. I am passionate about my records and spend time looking for obscure records, but I can’t read music, play an instrument, or sing. Even so, that does not mean I am not passionate.” A variation goes like this: “I have a friend who is passionate about race cars. He can tell you the different models, the types of engines, and the makes, but he has never driven one.” This simple change has yielded good results. Clients have told me they were passionate about fixing up old cars, one woman said that she used to make her own clothes, one man reported his love of cooking, and another person was passionate about Tai Chi. One client took a family approach and told me was passionate about getting a good education for her children. Staff and student interns whom I have trained to use this question are also reporting good results.
Why would switching to the word passion make a difference? It is obvious if you put yourself into the shoes of the client. You are a long-term substance abuse user, life is at rock bottom, you have trouble with your spouse, and maybe you can’t see your children anymore. You could even be homeless. Now someone is asking you to list your strengths. At this moment you just don’t see any, and because you have not even begun treatment, or you have relapsed, you see no hope, and the strengths question becomes absurd. In addition, I think when a counselor asks about strengths, the client interprets the question as “What are you good at?” Again, the client feels they are not good at anything. It’s sort of like asking a person who cannot find something, “So, where did you lose it?” The person feels like saying, “If I knew where I lost it, it wouldn’t be lost.” The same with strengths, “If I had strengths, I wouldn’t be sitting here about to be admitted to a treatment program.” However, asking about passion has a different quality, someone can be passionate without actually have a skill or a talent. In addition, if you are passionate, you also are aware of your limitations. The woman who makes her own clothes knows she will never appear on the runway in New York, and the man who likes to cook knows he will never open a restaurant, but there is still that love of what they were doing.
Finding this hidden passion can be used as part of the treatment interventions or added to the treatment plan. The substance abuse treatment motto of “changing people, places, and things,” is not so easily done. It is difficult to change a lifestyle, especially if you are an older adult. Counselors make life-changing suggestions to clients, such as encouraging them to find sponsors and attend meetings, but there are still large chunks of the client’s life that have to be filled with new things. Here is where the passion question works well. Most of the clients might be able to tell you what they are passionate about, but the reality is that they have not followed this passion in a long time. Reigniting this can then become one of the treatment goals: “What are you going to cook tonight?” or “Did you go out and get new material for that dress you wanted to sew?” or “How did it go helping the kids with their homework last night?”
We struggle to bring clients out of the troughs of addiction or abuse. As counselors we must be creative in helping them see their strengths and build on them. Changing the view from strengths to passion might help them on this journey.
Graybeal, C. (2001). Strengths-based social work assessment: Transforming the dominant paradigm. Families in Society, 82(3), 233–42.
Laursen, E. K. (2003). Frontiers in strength-based treatment. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 12(1), 12–7.
McQuaide, S., & Ehrenreich, J. H. (1997). Assessing client strengths. Families in Society, 78(2), 201–2