What if everyone knew their character strengths from an early age, and learned how to apply them and recognize them in others? That’s the world that Sonya Tinsley-Hook, founder of All Our Strengths, imagines. Her mission is teaching people how to become strengths champions—what she calls “strengthskeepers”—in their own communities, families, schools, and organizations.
Sonya shared her vision for strengthskeeping as part of WBI’s lunch-and-learn webinar series, co-presented with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. She spoke with Caroline Kohles, the JCC’s Senior Director of Health and Wellness.
Visit All Our Strengths to download resources for becoming a strengthskeeper.
Highlights from the Conversation
Caroline: Today we’re discussing the art and urgency of strengthskeeping with Sonya Tinsley Hook. And we’re going to discover what strengthskeeping means! Now more than ever, we need people who help us stay connected with our strengths, the inner resources we each have that help us survive, thrive, and successfully navigate life’s challenges. Sonya is the founder of All Our Strengths, and we’re going to talk about what it means to be a strengthskeeper in these challenging times and how we can encourage this practice, not only in ourselves, but in our families, our partnerships, our communities, and our organizations.
Sonya is a coach with a passion for helping people know, grow, and show their own strengths. All Our Strengths’ mission is to teach people how to become strengths-keepers in their schools, families, communities, and organizations, so that everyone’s strengths can be nurtured and people can work together more effectively. And now more than ever, that is so important. She is passionate about supporting positive change in our schools, and helping our communities focus on their strengths. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Psychology and Leadership Coaching. Welcome to the call, Sonya. Thank you for being here today.
Sonya: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here. It’s fun. I’ve so often attended these, and I’ve learned so much. And so it’s fun to be on the other side now.
Caroline: We’re delighted to have you here. I’m excited to hear what strengthskeeping is—is this something that you have created? Can you tell us more about it?
Sonya: Strengthskeeping is a term I have coined, and I’m just so grateful to the work of the VIA Institute, because all of this work is based on the science of character strengths, and using that survey. It’s one of those things I just felt was so life-changing for me that I started thinking, Well, how do we get this to everyone? How can everyone have this? What if there was a way to attach it to babies, when they come home from the hospital? I would, because I just think this work is so important for what people need to grow and to flourish, and to help us do good things in the world. And so really strengthskeeping is just about, how do we make sure that happens? You know, what are the practices that we use to make sure that people learn about their strengths and [help] strengthen one another?
I just feel this so, so deeply and truly, that we each have something that the world needs, that is expressed through our strengths. And it’s just so important for us to be helped to offer that—to not just hope that people figure out their strengths, and are able to offer them, but that they’re actually helped to do that. I think that one day, we are really going to be amazed that we ever tried to raise kids, teach kids manage people, lead people, marry people, without knowing their strengths, without leveraging their strengths. Now the way we look back at things like hand-washing—how did we ever not know that?—I feel like in terms of our mental health and our psychological development, that strengths are similar, that we’re really going to be amazed that they were not our starting point all of the time, whenever we’re trying to cooperate or work together, or make something positive happen in the world.
So our question for today is, what is strengthskeeping? Why is strengthskeeping important? Where do we need strengthskeepers? Who can be a strengthskeeper? You know, how does one even begin strengthkeeping? And then when should we practice strengthskeeping, is there a right time and place?
So, we know strengths as our inner resources, those positive qualities that we each have inside. Positive psychology researchers have developed this list of 24 universally valued strengths. And we know that we each have all 24. But yet, we also have five to seven of those 24 that are the ones we rely on the most often, that really shine through in us. And those are our signature strengths. And we’re talking about those qualities like bravery, creativity, leadership, love, really the things people do all around the world, anywhere in the world, when they are trying to be their best selves. And have this wonderful tool—the character strengths survey that’s freely available, a youth version and an adult version, and takes just a few minutes to help you figure out your signature strengths.
In spite of all the tools and resources that we have, we forget to use our strengths all the time, and that includes people who are strengths coaches, people who are counselors and therapists, people who really love this work, because we’re human and it’s just really difficult for us to keep all the important things we have going on top of mind. Strengths can get lost in the background. And I tie so much of what I do to lessons I’ve learned in my community, as a mom, as a PTA president, and really being involved in my local school community. Because one of the lessons I learned there is that if you want something done, it has to be someone’s job. So we really can’t hope that someone brings refreshments or hope that someone will remember to facilitate the meeting. We plan for it. And we create signup sheets, we make sure that all the important roles are covered. And a lot of us talk in our organizations and in our communities about how important strengths are, but we go back to just hoping that people will remember that. I like to use the example of, in any organization or any endeavor, keeping track of the money is really important. But imagine if we each treated that the way that we often treat strengths, so that would look like, “Maybe I’ll have a workshop at the beginning of the year on the importance of keeping track of finances. And maybe I’ll have some people do some team-building exercises about how to track receipts and keep track of money. And then everyone will be really excited about it. And then for the rest of the year, I’m just going to hope that they do that, I’m going to hope that they keep track of expenses, I’m going to hope that they plan well, to use the funds wisely.” No, we need a treasurer. We need someone to take notes. We need that all-important hospitality chair to make sure the refreshments show up. And so really all I’m asking us to think about in terms of strengthkeeping is to apply that same type of thinking to strengths, because we know strengths are essential to people being energized, engaged, motivated, thriving, to being able to work well together. So because we know how important strengths are, why don’t we take this opportunity to just make sure that there that people are paying attention to that.
So strengthskeeping is basically combining those two things—strengths, the inner resources that we have inside of us to help us survive and thrive, and handle life’s challenges—and then keepers, people who have the job of taking care of something important. We have timekeepers, housekeepers, peacekeepers, goalkeepers in sports. So we know that things that are important have to be guarded and monitored and protected to make sure that they happen. And so that is what strengthskeeping is—it’s bringing that same energy to this idea of strengths, making sure that the people in our community of concern recognize and remember the strengths in themselves, but really just as importantly, in each other.
Caroline: That’s amazing to consider and to think about. I hear so often that people will take the character strengths survey, and then they’re not really sure how to apply it. It’s like, “Oh, that’s nice that I have these accessories but how do I actually apply them?”
Sonya: Yes, absolutely. The other piece of this is that strengths are too important to be forgotten. Hope is a wonderful strength. But we don’t want it to be our only strategy—we don’t want to just hope that people are in touch with their strengths and are using them in our families, and our schools and our communities, in our neighborhoods. This idea of keeping is such an old idea in humanity, all the way to Cain and Abel—”Am I my brother’s keeper?”—this idea that there is a role to be played in taking care of something or someone important.
There are so many ways to help, and our strengths help us help, in all our special ways. Who reminds us to be forgiving, who in this community reminds us to be kind, who helps us to be brave, who helps us be prudent and make good choices? What I love about the whole science of character strengths and using the VIA character strengths survey is it helps people figure out how they can help and how they’ll be energized through helping. Strengths are essential to our individual and collective well-being and resilience, and are too important to be left to chance, so strengthskeeping has to be someone’s job. But another lesson you learn pretty quickly [in the PTA] is that if something is everyone’s job, it’s actually no one’s job. And so if we’re just gonna hope that everyone remembers to bring something, you know, to the potluck, or to whatever it is you’re planning, then chances are, you’re either going to end up with nothing, or you’re going to end up with seven desserts and a bag of chips. So it’s really important for someone to have a defined role, and I think this very much applies to strengths.
Keeping a lesson I learned from being a PTA co-president, I assumed that because I was already a strengths coach that I had so many big ideas about how to help people find volunteer opportunities that match their strengths. But the other thing I learned is that I already had a job and it was called being co-president, and it had a lot of responsibilities. And to be honest, even though I came into it as a strength coach, sometimes I just didn’t care about people’s strengths. I just needed a fall festival chair, and we don’t care if you’re strengthened by it, because we need it quickly. And so you will find when you just assume that strengthskeeping is something that can be thrown in with any role, that it might not happen. Because even though you care about it very deeply, you get busy. And so the same respect that we give to those other things, like keeping track of minutes and keeping track of money, keeping track of the facilitating, or decorating or whatever we’re doing in our collective work together, recognizing that it’s important enough that people know their strengths, and are continually reminded to be using those and developing those that that’s an important job. And so just like another form of keeping housekeeping, we can all help with the job, we can all help the housekeeper, we can all help with housekeeping. But that still doesn’t mean that it’s not someone’s job, to monitor it and to make sure it’s not being forgotten.
I know that a lot of people will think that this is a job just for positive psychology practitioners, therapist or coaches or counselors, but you really don’t need to be an expert to be a strengthskeeper. And in fact, that’s what’s important about it, this idea that you can learn as you go, your job is not necessarily to be the strengths expert, but to but rather your job is to be the person who is devoted to the strengths in your community, to be the person who does not let people forget that they have strengths that they can share with one another and to see the strengths in one another. And so it’s really not about being an expert. There’s so many great resources and ideas to help you learn. What’s important, really, is just that you’re willing to make sure it gets done the same way. You would raise your hand and say, Oh, yeah, I can be the timekeeper. I you know, I can be the scorekeeper. There’s another keeper. There’s so many keepers in our society. It’s a job that you can step into and grow. It’s more important that someone is doing it than that person be an expert. It’s really anyone who cares about helping the people they care about stay focused on personal and collective strengths. The really important thing is remembering that it’s a job in and of itself. And so it should be treated as a separate role and respected as that role.
We talked a lot about the why, the what, and the who. So here’s some of the how. How do you begin strengthskeeping? Well, strengthskeeping is an art. And so that’s where the art in the title came from, but it’s based on science. And so it’s all about using these proven, evidence-based practices that we get from character strengths. But there’s no one right thing you have to do to get started. The best way to begin is just to begin. More about making sure that in your community, in your family, in your committee, your team or organization, that strength is not that one-and-done activity that you do as an icebreaker at the beginning of the year, or is that one team-building exercise, but that it’s something that you keep bringing people’s attention back to—having a strengths question at every moment, at every meeting, spotlighting someone’s strengths, asking people, making sure everyone takes the VIA survey. And people know each other’s strengths—keeping a chart of strengths, there’s so many great activities that people can do.
Another lesson learned from PTA is that people always have time for fun. And so the same person that tells you, they do not have time to come to your 30-minute or 45-minute meeting, about something that needs to get done, has time to come to the cookie break, or the pizza gathering. Because it’s fun. That’s not to put people down, we have a lot going on. And sometimes we’re overwhelmed. I go back to a story from when my daughter was little, when she explained to me that she had different buckets inside of her, in her tummy. And that sometimes her vegetable bucket is very small and it gets full, but her dessert bucket was still ready to be filled. And it was also a much bigger bucket than the vegetable bucket. And so that’s the way we all are. So make things fun. It’s not about having these super serious sessions with people all the time. It’s about finding fun ways that can be incorporated into what people are already doing. There’s so many great resources already out there for people, some awesome tools from Dr. Ryan Niemiec. I love this book, 30 Days of Character Strengths, there are so many great activities [to use] if you’re acting as a strengthskeeper in your organization, in your family. That’s part of what my mission is, to keep giving you fun ideas and fun activities, ways to keep this alive. You know, strengthskeeping is a little bit coaching, a little bit facilitating, a little bit activity director, a little bit event planning—all of those strengths can come into play. You’re just trying to find memorable, fun ways to keep strengths alive so that people keep paying attention and growing this way.
Caroline: I remember the first time I did my character strength survey, and then it stayed in the drawer for a year. I didn’t apply them, I didn’t even know what to do with it. So this is really, really helpful.
Sonya: Exactly. So this is that idea that, like for pretty much any of important things that we do in life, it’s something you keep going back to. If you’re a teacher, you teach the same concepts over and over in different ways, and just keep bringing it to life. And even when we go back to the same topic, when we revisit it through different activities, we learn something new. You know, every time I go to one of these lunch-and-learns, or so many of the great workshops and resources that are out there, I learn something new, even though I’ve read so many books about strengths and done so many trainings, and I have a lot of passion for the subject, I still always come back with something new. You have to do a little bit of that as a strengthskeeper to keep it fresh for people so that they think about it again.
Caroline: Could you give us an example of asking strength-based questions?
Sonya: It could just be, What strength would you like to be known for? We did that at my daughter’s middle school. In fact, it can be fun to ask a question like that before people do the survey and then let them compare what they picked to what their results are. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Which strength do you think the world needs more of? Usually, it’s going to be one of your signature strengths. And why do you think that? So those are just some easy examples. You know, tell me about one of your strengths, when and how it showed up in you.
So how do you begin strengthskeeping? Remember that people always have time for fun. Now, it could be because humor is one of my signature strengths, I want it to be fun. And so maybe if prudence was a higher strength, maybe I would not need things to be fun. But I think that’s kind of common in humanity. So when should we practice strengthskeeping? This is where we get to the other part of the title of this workshop. I picked two quotes I wanted to share to get us thinking about what I feel is the urgency of strengthskeeping.
One of them is from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. These words come from the 1960s but they feel like they were written yesterday: “These are revolutionary times all over the globe. Men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy and complacency.”
Because I am here in Atlanta, a native Georgian, I feel a special pride in Congressman John Lewis, who of course is a national hero. Right now, as we are here, [his memorial service] is happening here in Atlanta, and so that’s very much on my heart and mind. So these words from him really resonate with me today in particular: “We all live in the same house. We all must be part of the effort to hold down our little house. When you see something that is not right. Not fair. Not just do something about it, say something, have the courage, have the backbone, get in the way, walk with the wind, it’s all going to work out.”
There’s a fierce urgency of now that many of us are feeling right now as we live our lives in the midst of this global pandemic, as we see the heightened impact of systemic racism during this pandemic. There are so many pressing things that really rely upon our ability to be able to cooperate and collaborate in a way that we never have before. And one of the reasons I think strengthskeeping as a practice is so important is because we have to have a consistent, reliable way of calling out the best in each other, of seeing the good in one another, of helping people develop positive relationships, and be able to create the trust that they need in order to work together. And as we’ve been talking about during this entire session, that’s really what strengthskeeping is about, creating that practice, not unlike housekeeping. And so that’s kind of a tie-in to the quote from John Lewis, about holding down our little house. Strengthskeeping is a way for us to take care of our house, wherever we are, whatever we call that, whether it’s our team, our community, our family, how are we consistently facilitating positive relationships, helping people call out the good in each other in so that we can face these challenges? That is just the starting place for beginning to work together.
There’s another wonderful quote from the iconic African American author James Baldwin, something along the lines of, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And seeing strengths in one another is part of helping us be able to face things together and to have that trust in one another. And so this is part of the reason that I feel passionately that this is a time for strengthkeepers and strengthskeeping, that this is not something that we need to hope happens but this is something that we really need to facilitate happening, this active, proactive practice of developing, identifying, and using strengths, especially now, as together we face this pandemic, systemic racism, climate change. I mean, how’s that for the shortlist? This is the time for us to be able to see and summon the good in one another.
And so our call to action? Where will we be the strengthskeepers? Where is your little house? Where’s that place where you’re going to help the people in that place? See their strengths, share their strengths with each other? How can you help make sure that strengthskeeping is happening where you are, is in your organization, in your child’s school, or maybe you’re a teen or a kid, and maybe you can plant the seeds in your school by being a strengthskeeper?
[I took] my daughter and her best friend to this historic march and Sophie and Addie wanted to see John Lewis. And as I explained, prudence is not my signature strength. But when you’re a mom, in a crowd of 30,000 people, you get very prudent, whether it’s your signature strength or not. And so, I wisely advised them that it was unrealistic to think that they would meet Congressman Lewis at a march and that the best course of action was to stick with me, and maybe we’ll be able to step outside of the march and grab a photo. At least they would have that. And so … they did not listen to me. One of my daughter’s signature strengths is bravery. And so I thought they agreed that we would stick together. But instead, they just kept letting the space between us grow wider and wider. And I lost them in this crowd. And where I found them eventually, after much panic, was at the front of the march. As it turned out, they had made their way forward just by tapping each person on the back and saying, “Excuse me, we’re trying to get to the front to meet John Lewis, we want to see John Lewis,” and person after person kindly let them through until they got all the way to the front. And there was a woman right behind John Lewis, who, when they asked her, she said, “I want to help you do that,” and pushed them forward. And next thing, you know, they were right there, linking arms and walking the rest of the march [with John Lewis]. And it was like one of those highlight experiences of life. But just a reminder of what can happen when people act on their strengths. And the other cool thing about that moment is that they had no idea who it was who let them through to him right at the end. But it turns out, the woman that let them through, Nikita Williams, is the same woman who is going to be taking his place in his congressional seat. So there’s just all kinds of history wrapped up in that moment. So that is kind of my proud mama moment. And just an example of encouraging people to follow that passion and act on their strengths.
Caroline: Absolutely. I thank you for that. There’s many ways to honor someone’s memory. And we’ve just done that [for John Lewis]. I wanted to go back to something that you were talking about in terms of collaboration and cooperation, especially at this time. And how strengthskeeping was a way to create trust. We’ve been talking about this in a lot of conversations that I’ve been in when we’ve been talking about racial injustice, and how to bridge the gap. And it seems to me that you’re suggesting that this is a way to start doing that. Can you talk more about that?
Sonya: Well, when we see strengths in one another, we appreciate people, sometimes even a behavior that we interpret negatively. When we see it as an example of someone using their strength, then we see that strength in different ways. So creativity is one of my signature strengths. And I get excited aboutnew ideas, and so you bring me a new idea a nd I’m most likely going to say, “Yes, we should do that”—unless, of course, you’re my kid, and you want to get away from me at a 30,000-person march! And I came to realize that I need people with prudence around me, for example, and before I started appreciating the strength of prudence, I might have seen those people as wet blankets raining on my parade, because often it’s the person with the character strength of prudence, who’s going to be like, “Do we have the money to do that? Is that in the budget? Exactly whose job is it going to be?” All those complicated questions that have to come after the Yes. If you just stay in that space of “Oh, this is great, this is wonderful,” then you can have a negative experience of that person who’s asking you to stop and say more about the details. When you reframe that through a character strengths lens, and say, “Oh, thank goodness, this person is exhibiting prudence to balance the zest and creativity that I was leaning into.” And that begins to create trust, because I’m appreciating you for what you are bringing into this interaction, as opposed to judging you negatively, or seeing it as a weakness or fault. That’s just one of the ways that we use strengths to deepen our relationships and develop trust. Being reminded of what there is to appreciate in someone and seeing them through that positive lens of strengths is such an amazing tool for developing positive relationships and creating trust. Because you say, “I know where this person is coming from.” In the example I just used, they’re not judging me or trying to poke holes in my idea. They’re exercising some prudence and helping me think about how to make this work.
Caroline: Brings gratitude right in there, right? The mother of all the virtues.
Caroline: A [listener] asks, how do we use our character strengths to heal systemic racism?
Sonya: Oh, an easy question for the end. Strengths, in part, prepare us to do this difficult work together. So it’s a tool in our toolbox, is one of the main things I would say. Because we are going to need all of the character strengths that we have to tackle something that’s so entrenched in our society, we need to be able to see good in one another. Our strengths are basically our tools for cooperating and collaborating. And what job is more challenging, and what job is going to require more coordination and collaboration than challenging something like systemic racism, and trying to turn that around? One of the primary things I see is that it’s that tool that enables us to be able to work together to build the trust with one another, so that we can do hard things together. Having that positive foundation in our relationships, being able to relate to each other and have that positive place we can continue to get back to, is what enables us to do something difficult together. And I think we all agree, no matter where you stand, that tackling systemic racism is going is tough.
Caroline: Absolutely. And what I love it, I don’t know if I can say this, but it feels to me like the strengths are colorblind. You know what I mean?
Sonya: Well, they’re universal. We don’t want to be colorblind, we want to see that strengths are in every color, and so we want to see color, we want to respect the history and the experiences that people have endured because of their color, and what’s been projected onto that. But we want to realize the universality of those strengths in every aspect of humanity. Because again, that’s so much of what racism and really any ism takes away from us—we don’t see individuals, we see categories, and we think we know what those categories are about. Strengths bring us back to looking and saying, she has a love of learning, she has leadership, he has such a sense of fairness, or bravery, and not just see a Black person.
Sonya Tinsley-Hook, founder of All Our Strengths, is a coach who helps people “know, grow, and show” their own strengths. Sonya believes each person’s strengths should be nurtured and cultivated because the world needs all our strengths. She loves to work with nonprofit organizations, congregations, schools, and community groups, taking strengths coaching to people who would not ordinarily have access to it. In addition to coaching, Sonya’s varied professional experiences have included directing an inner-city youth program, community organizing, and being a performing singer-songwriter. She currently works in human resources and talent delivery within a global professional services organization. An active and committed volunteer and former PTA co-president at her daughter’s elementary school, Sonya is passionate about the way engaged parent and community groups can create and support positive change within our public schools. She holds a BA in English and a Master’s degree in Psychology and Leadership Coaching.