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Oops, Did I Just Go Over The Line?

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

Marcus Buckingham, author, business consultant

What’s the root cause of people’s problems lack of success and distress? Usually we point to a weakness, a deficiency in some area. What if we have it all wrong? What if it’s not so much about deficiencies, but rather understanding how to best use our strengths?

In the early years of our marriage, my husband John used to angrily react when I asked him questions. He seemed to feel overwhelmed by what he called my “incessant, probing, intrusion.” In his opinion, it showed a lack of sensitivity and caring. “Sometimes I feel like you are shining a bright light in my eyes and analyzing me.” Some conversations would come to a halt with his hand in the air as he walked away muttering, “Stop interrogating me.”

I was hurt, angry, and at a loss. John thought I needed to work on my lack of sensitivity. That wasn’t it. What I needed to work on was how to properly use the strength of curiosity.

In an earlier post, I recounted the benefits of working with strengths, then left you with two ways to identify your strengths, by reflecting on two questions – what’s good about you and what energizes you.

In this post , we consider the much more nuanced issue of how to use our strengths well. For the rest of our lives, we will need to become more aware, wiser and more prudent, about which gift to use, at what time and place, in what way, and in what amount.

My seven-year-old granddaughter, Anna, has the budding strengths of humor and wit. Sometimes, however, how she expresses those gifts looks more to me like sassiness and even disrespect. But she’s getting the idea. After a recent comment, Anna looked at my disapproving face, and asked, “Did I go over the line with that comment?”

In the past I would have told Anna that her behavior was sassy or disrespectful. She would have hung her head or run out of the room. Then one day, Anna dried her tears and said, “I was just trying to be funny.” Aha! She, like me, was learning how to better work with her strengths.

If we want to develop our strengths, here are a series of related questions to carry around in the back of our minds – Is this the right strength to use, is this the right amount, is this the right way to use this strength, is this the right place and time?

Anna and I are learning about refining the way we use our strengths as well as how much of our strengths to use. Perhaps the easiest thing to finesse is how much of our strength to dish out.

Some people have a wonderful chatty, conversational gift that can be overused so that it becomes excessive. Eventually others stop listening or walk away. When we see that others are not responding well to us, we get our feelings hurt, and decide to teach our friends a lesson. We decide to not talk at all.

The real answer to how much of our strengths to use is to look to Aristotle. Aristotle taught the value of the Golden Mean. The best amount of our strengths to use is right in the middle – not too much, not too little. Think of how Goldilocks evaluated things in the story of The Three Bears. The chairs could be too high or too low, the soups too hot or too cold, the beds too hard or too soft. She looked for the one that was “just right” – in the middle. If we want others to appreciate our gifts, we need to practice dialing the amount we use to “just right.”

Another rather easy fix is around when and where to use our strengths. It takes a little situational awareness and impulse control before we put our mouths in gear. I remember a man, who clearly had the gift of humor, re-telling a well-crafted story about something funny his wife had said. This story was told during a time-crunched business seminar with a bunch of black suits. The man got an elbow to his side from his wife. The speaker gave a “what-are-you-thinking” look, then moved on. When the man was over, the wife was still angry and the man was shunned by participants.

Some people are very thoughtful before they interject their thoughts. Some of us don’t know what we are thinking until we talk. We, of the latter sort, are the ones who need to practice taking a breath, taking stock of where we are, and what’s happening around us before jumping right in. And, yes, I am still working on this. As I get older, it’s harder for me to hold a thought, or more likely a question. I am learning to curb my impulse by jotting the question down and waiting for the appropriate time to ask it.

To sum up the situation, we will not be happy, the world will not open its doors, life will not be good if we don’t learn how to use our strengths well. It’s just as important to note that we may be damaging ourselves (and others) by not understanding that what we are calling a deficiency may be a strength… misused.

While we wait for the world to get that, we can start right now into turning complaints around from being wounds into being a useful mining tool for digging deeper, for chipping away the dross, and for extricating our strengths. We may surprise ourselves as we find the strength of curiosity in interrogators, humor in buffoons and sassy kids, and communicators in chatter boxes.

If you, like me, want to keep polishing your strengths (so that you don't have to ask like Anna if you just went over the line) keep those questions in mind – is it the right strength, in the right amount; am I using this strength in the right way, at the right time and place. Then, as we keep practicing, we will get better at graciously giving our gifts away, and they will be gratefully received.

Then we can embrace the quote from the last post -

“The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the work of life is to develop it; and the meaning of life is to give your gift away.” — David Viscott (psychiatrist, author, media personality)

How might you Journey to the Good Life by learning how to skillfully develop your strengths?


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