There’s a rather hilarious moment in the video “Trombone Player Wanted” where Marcus Buckingham shares the most common answer he gets when asking people he interviews to share a strength. The answer?
“I’m a people person.”
It’s funny because as viewers we recognize how common an answer this is–perhaps most of us have even said it ourselves when floundering to answer this question in an interview or some other setting. From the voice in which Marcus shares this, we also get a sense of how frustrating he finds this answer because of everything it leaves out: “Which people?” he asks. “What are you doing with them?”
What’s interesting to me is how much easier it becomes to answer the question, “what are your strengths?” as soon as he adds these additional, more detailed questions. Asked the general question, we tend to stumble over our words, trying to think of something to say that offers a decent answer but that also doesn’t make us look full of ourselves.
But asked which people we like working with, or which writing we like to work on, or which teams we are energized by being part of, or which details we like working with–asked any of these things most of us can immediately start narrowing this down and, after offering some descriptive information about times we have and haven’t enjoyed people or writing or teams or working on details, can likely come up with a relatively clear statement that’s far more informative about a strength or talent we have.
The other important aspect of this is that in sorting through elements we like and don’t like about a particular type of task, we end up becoming aware of those things that others might tell us we’re very good at–things we might know ourselves that we’re good at–but that in fact we don’t like very much.
Becoming aware of this keeps us from mentioning them when we’re asked about our strengths! This is key in making sure that we don’t forever get assigned to a role we don’t like in teams we’re part of. Because if I mention that I’m great at tracking budgets, it’s pretty likely I’ll get volunteered to track the budget whether I like doing it or not.
So in thinking about your strengths, bring some detail to the questions you ask yourself. You might start with what you like doing, but then take your answer further. Do you always enjoy doing that, or only under some circumstances? If it’s only sometimes, start listing the circumstances. Who else is involved? Which pieces would you rather not have to handle?
What other questions would be helpful to ask to get at what we love to do? Is there anything you’ve realized that you need to stop volunteering for because, in spite of your skills, you just don’t like it very much?