There is surprisingly little literature on strengths-based approaches to group work. Most of the available literature focuses on groups as part of a broader strengths-based approach to a particular issue or target group, rather than a strengths-based approach to working with groups.
The following are seven principles that underpin my strengths-based approach to group work.
- Focus on strengths, abilities & potential rather than problems, deficits & pathologies. This nearly goes without saying: it is the basis of strengths-based approaches.
- Recognise the strengths and expertise of participants: Everyone is a teacher and a learner. In strengths-based groups, everyone has something to contribute, and everyone can learn. Rather than being the expert, a facilitators role is to recognise the expertise of participants and are open to learning as well.
- Actively involve participants in decisions about the programmes and projects they are to be involved in. Strengths-based groups are unlikely to run to a set agenda with a pre-determined outcome and instead are iterative. Because we recognise the strengths and expertise of participants, the group often plays an important role in shaping what happens.
- Focus on the whole person and recognise their social context. Rather than focusing on ‘deficits’ strengths-based groups focus on the whole person. People have a range of skills and knowledges based on their multifaceted identities and experiences.
- Use language that is strengths-based, non-judgemental, inclusive and future oriented. Clearly our language must be consistent with a strengths-based approach. In particular, when describing people and groups (under-represented or excluded rather than vulnerable) or when asking questions, we need to ask strengths-based questions that focus on the future rather than focus on the problem.
- Encourage experiences where group members can be successful. Working in groups can provide people with a range of opportunities to be successful. By creating supportive environments, participants can try new skills, activities, or behaviours without being ridiculed or reinforce assumptions of helplessness. Opportunities can include acknowledging insights and experience within the group, encouraging participants to take on new roles in the group or creating more complex hands-on activities.
- Recognise complexity and have a commitment to social justice. Many under-represented or excluded communities or groups face a range of complex structural, political, institutional, economic, and representational challenges that cannot be simply addressed by focusing on people’s strengths. A major criticism of strengths-based practice is that it is closely aligned with neoliberal notions of individual responsibility and self-help and that it ignores structural inequalities. We need to recognise that strengths-based practice is not the answer to everything, and we need to address the broader issues that impact on under-represented communities and individuals.