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Recently I was teaching life and communication skills to inmates at a Jail in south Florida.  The Sheriff’s office decided that this would be a great idea to learn these skills before they were released.  I have facilitated many audiences in my day (30 years) but this group is very different.  I asked the group of men (about 16 that day) to list 4 of their strengths on the handout; then write down 1 thing someone told you that you do very well.  Other audiences have no problem with this task.  Millenials are usually excellent at this task.  When working at the University the young people  would quickly write such things as: organizing, editing, listening or working with people.   As I walked around the inmates tables reading over their shoulders I was shocked to see listed on the handouts:  eating, sleeping, working out.  Most of them had so much trouble with this task.  And they could not think of anything that someone had said positive about their strengths.

What could I learn from this strange occurrence?  Why would they not either know or list their strengths?  What was going on here?  Fortunately this was the third class with this group.  I felt pretty comfortable just asking them.  “Hmmmm” I uttered, “It seems like a lot of you are having some difficulty coming up with some strengths”.  They asked for some suggestions.  So, remembering some of their hobbies and jobs I mentioned, fishing, cooking, working with boats, construction, making things with wood.  Each one wrote down something that they thought they could do well.  But, it took a really long time and a lot of prompting.

After the class, I was mulling over this odd anomaly.  I asked two of the guards and one of the civilian HR people what they thought was going on with their lack of knowledge about their strengths.  “They usually are hearing what they have done wrong”.  “This is a very negative place – Jail is not supposed to be positive – we don’t want them to come back”.  “Most of these men come from families with drug problems.”

Now, I understood a bit more.  Yes, I admit that I am quite naive when it comes to jails and that lifestyle.  I do realize that it takes a positive environment or at least not a negative environment if one wishes to be self-aware.  Also, being on a “substance” is not a true indicator of a strength or a time to be learning about yourself, emotions, or strengths.  Most of these men grew up in homes without resources, positive words or good role models.  They were at Maslow’s lower levels fighting for survival, food and shelter.  Now, in the classroom they had their safety needs met and began to think of self-development.

I have 4 more classes with this group.  They all participate in class and are genuinely trying to learn the skills.  It does take some time to get their thoughts in order – I have found that  having them think about what they want in the future rather than what “is” presently is quite helpful.  One man pulled at my heart strings when he said, “my strength is that I want to be a good father”.  He told the class that right now he is not –  but he wants THAT to be his strength.  We brainstormed on what strengths make a great father.  Consistency, being present, honesty, loyalty and trustworthiness were top candidates.  He decided that he would choose one of these strengths and really think about it and work toward that strength.

Sure, that is not the way Gallup teaches us to teach strengths to others.  But, sometimes, I have learned, I have to go with the group.  What works for them – works for them.  Self-development takes time, reflection and practice.  If we did not have the best past it will be harder and we may have to strive for a future strength. Remembering the young millennials at the university, I am grateful that they had good childhoods, resources and role models.  Most importantly, I am grateful to know these men and work with them.  I am learning so much.

What have you learned lately about yourself lately?

The Journal Book by Lori Ann Roth Ph.D

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