As a young student, I did okay at school. I regularly scored well on tests and the like and would come home with excellent reports.
Yet, a frequent refrain from my parents when I got 9 out of 10 on a test, or a Distinction rather than a High Distinction as a grade was “What did you get wrong or could have done better at?”
On the face of it, this seems like a fairly obvious question to ask (note, let’s overlook whether this is a good or useful question to ask or not another time.)
But an interaction I observed at summer camp turned all of this on its head.
In my first year as a cabin counsellor at a US summer camp, I was paired with an experienced co-counsellor, Jeff. The kids loved him and I liked him a lot. But my estimation of him soared soon after I observed him work with one of our campers to encourage him to make his bed.
Let’s call this camper Josh. He was having a bad day, and like most of us, Josh didn’t much like making his bed, especially while at camp. But it needed to get done, so at some point I overheard Jeff ask Josh, “Out of a score of 1 to 10, with 10 being really high, tell me how enthusiastic you are feeling right now about making your bed?”
Josh answered “3” which seems about right.
Now, following in the path of my parents if they were in control of this conversation, it would seem fair to follow up and ask Josh why he didn’t rate his enthusiasm higher to explore what was getting in his way.
But what Jeff did next stopped me in my tracks.
Jeff asked, “Tell me why you didn’t rate your enthusiasm a 1 or a 2?”
This was way counterintuitive. Jeff asked Josh why he didn’t go lower, implying that Josh did (in fact) possess a least a little bit of enthusiasm for the task at hand. That is to say, he must have a little enthusiasm for the task otherwise, he could have responded with a zero.
Having discovered a glimmer of enthusiasm, Jeff was able to work with Josh to find a path forward by focusing on what he liked about the task (eg pulling the sheets tight) rather than the parts he did not like. A few minutes later, the bed was made.
I have employed this counterintuitive strategy ever since, attracting much success. I think it works because people do not expect it. They just expect to be asked why didn’t they rate it higher, so when they are asked to focus on the alternative, you can visibly see a refreshing path of exploration and reflection on the person’s face.
As they say, often the simplest strategies are the best. It is certainly true in this case, but I think the most powerful lesson baked into Jeff’s interaction with Josh was his counterintuitive approach to the conversation.
I think this is a beautiful example of the principle that when we focus on building our strengths, even our weaknesses become stronger. All ships rise on a rising tide. Besides, the reality is, that no matter how much energy and time we may devote to building up our weaknesses, they are highly unlikely ever to become a strength.