The material below briefly explains Opposite Strengths theory and describes how people’s patterns of strength influence their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in relationships. It was developed by Tommy Thomas, Ph.D. and Jay Thomas, Ed.D.
It may surprise you to learn that it is absolutely normal and healthy for you to have problems in your relationships. Such problems—or "challenges:"
- occur in every relationship
- are part of the human condition
- provide an opportunity for personal growth and improvement
The Opposite Strengths system can help you solve your relationship problems. It offers you a simple, straightforward, and positive new way of looking at your personality, your relationships, and the process of personal growth.
If you are already familiar with The Power of Opposite Strengths, the material below can serve as a quick review. If our model is new to you, it will provide you with a good introduction. A basic understanding of the theory will enrich your experiences with our Guide to Being Yourself, Guide to Being Flexible and our Relationship Guide.
There are two sections:
1. Four Life Forces identifies the forces—including the inborn pattern of strengths—that shape people’s personalities
2. Relationship Tendencies discusses the three basic kinds of relationship tendencies (behavior, thinking, and attitude) that underlie all eight patterns of strengths
The Power of Opposite Strengths flows from one simple, central idea.
Personal growth, creativity, productivity, and effectiveness result from the blending, or interaction, of two opposite strengths.
The two strengths have equal value and are in perfect opposition to one another—much like the north and south poles.
This insight has historical roots. The ancient Greeks used the phrase "Hieros Gamos" to express it. Translated, it means "the sacred marriage of opposites." Greek scholars say the term referred to the sacred marriage of their male and female Gods.
Prehistoric Chinese people had the same basic insight, which is expressed in the traditional symbol of yin/yang. It is an important element of one of the most popular Chinese religions—Taoism.
We use the Opposite Strengths system to look at people in a completely new way that gives us fresh insights into our relationships. It is a tool that helps us see how to solve relationship problems—both the problems others cause for us and the problems we cause for others.
Four Life Forces
Personality is the unique combination of qualities (i.e., moral, behavioral, temperamental, emotional, and mental) that makes us individuals. It is the essence of each of us as a whole person—the result of all the forces that shape us into who we are. The Opposite Strengths model gives us a new way of identifying and understanding the importance of these forces.
Your personality is formed by four life forces. Two give stability, and the other two bring change. People often ask the question, "Does my personality ever change, or does it always stay the same?" The Opposite Strengths answer is, "Yes, and no." Certain things about you remain constant, but other things about you change.
The first two life forces are
- the pattern of strengths
- innate capacities
These two genetic forces produce your natural self, and they remain the same throughout your lifetime.
The second two life forces are
- personal choices
These two forces influence how your natural self is expressed in the world. They provide for flexibility and change.
These four forces are equal in their potential to shape people’s personalities. Although we give equal status to the four life forces, we will focus on only two of them here—the pattern of strengths, and personal choices. The fact that we are paying less attention to innate capacities and environment does not mean that we view them as any less important.
Pattern of Strengths
The core of your personality is made up of a bundle of six strengths. These are pure strengths: you have no weaknesses. There are three pairs of strengths:
- basic pair—thinking and risking
- thinking pair—practical thinking and theoretical thinking.
- risking pair—dependent risking and independent risking
Although the two strengths in each pair have equal value (i.e., one is just as important as the other), they are never equal in magnitude. In each pair of strengths, one is more dominant than the other. For example, in the basic pair, you are either stronger in thinking, or you are stronger in risking. The same is true in the other two pairs. You have a dominant strength in each of the other two pairs. In terms of your worth as a person, it makes no difference which strengths predominate, since all strengths are of equal worth.
We call your dominant strength in each pair your lead strength in that pair. We call your lesser strength in each pair your supporting strength in that pair.
Your combination of three lead strengths is the basis for your pattern of strengths. Since there are eight possible combinations of three lead strengths, there are eight possible patterns of strengths.
Your pattern of strengths reflects the profile of your strengths relative to each other. Measurements of your innate capacities (such as your I.Q., or intelligence quotient), on the other hand, reflect your standing relative to others.
Your environment influences how your natural self is expressed in the world. Environmental forces can be either "good" or "bad."
People are the primary source of environmental influences, and how your parents relate to you is a particularly important factor. Their attitudes have played a crucial role in shaping their own attitudes. Your education and training also have an impact on you, as does the society in which you live. You, like every other human being, tend to take on the values of your culture.
You have no control over your past environment. It is a fact and it and will remain a fact forever. Also, you have no control over your present environment. It is already here. All you can do is to respond to it.
What you do have some control over is your future environment. You can make a personal choice to get out of a hurtful environment. Sometimes this is a painful and difficult choice. If you make the hard choice, however, you can usually find a way to make the change.
The fourth life force is your freedom to choose. The conscious choices you make in how you think and how you behave make a difference in who you become.
Your power to make personal choices was the last of the four forces to appear in your life. In the beginning, you were created as a natural self. Genetics did its work there. Environment went to work while you were still in the womb, and the influence of environment expanded dramatically at the time of your birth. Your environment will continue to influence you for the rest of your life.
As humans grow, there comes a time when they become consciously aware. Personal freedom is born at that instant. Conscious awareness is what gives people the freedom to choose.
You do not choose this freedom: it is thrust upon you. It comes as the result of the unconscious interaction of your core strengths. Although you are not accountable for creating the gift of freedom, you are accountable for how you use this freedom once you have it. You can make "good" choices, or you can make "bad" choices. It is entirely up to you.
Your first "good" choice is to be your natural self—to express your pattern of strengths. In doing this, however, you will inevitably cause problems for other people. The second "good" choice is to solve the problems you cause. You do so by expressing one of your supporting strengths. When you emphasize a supporting strength we call it being flexible.
You build your relationships by making two "good" choices. You choose to be yourself, and you choose to be flexible.
We have three kinds of relationship tendencies. They concern:
- our behavior as we relate to other people Where some people have a tendency to be quiet and reserved, others a tendency to be active and assertive.
- the way we thinkSome people focus more on the facts while others focus more on ideas. How we deal with our thinking tendencies can make a big difference in how we relate to others.
- our attitudes towards othersWe experience problems when we value ourselves more than we do others. We also have problems when we value others more than we do ourselves.
Behavior is controlled action. Your thinking provides the control, and your risking fuels the action. It takes both strengths operating together to produce conscious human behavior.
In your day-to-day behavior, one of these strengths is always dominant. When your thinking outweighs your risking, you are reserved. When risking governs, you are assertive.
When you express reserved behavior, you focus more on listening. You hold your thoughts and feelings inside. There is a great deal going on inside, but not very much outside.
When you express assertive behavior, you take the initiative. You move into action quickly. You talk a great deal and freely express your thoughts and feelings. There is a lot going on outside.
Your behavior needs to fit the situation. In some situations you should be reserved, and in others more assertive. You can almost take the expression "crossing the line" literally. Imagine a line drawn halfway between you and another person that represents the limit of appropriate assertiveness. If a situation calls for you to assert yourself, the line slides closer to the other person. If it is fitting for you to be more reserved, the line slides back towards you. This dynamic line moves back and forth according to the situation. You express the correct behavior when you go right up to the line and stop. Ideally, you would never cross it.
When you are the parent of a child, for example, it is appropriate for you to be assertive, and the line would be close to your child. When your child grows up, however, the situation changes. You should become more reserved, and your child more assertive, until one day you are equally assertive. Eventually, your child may be taking care of you, and the line would be close to you.
Teaching provides another example. In the beginning, a teacher needs to take the initiative and be assertive, but a time comes when he or she needs to be reserved—to stop talking and listen. This is a time when the students need to ask questions and express themselves. Later, the teacher will have to reassert himself or herself.
by going up to the line and stopping there.
Each of us has a natural tendency to either stop short of the line or go across it. If you have a lead strength in thinking, you tend to stop short. If you have a lead strength in risking, you tend to go across it. It is normal for this to happen.
Tendency To Be Reserved
If thinking is your lead strength, you tend to stay well behind the line. You want time to think before taking action.
When you are being yourself, others tend to see you as stable, rational, calm, thoughtful, careful, prudent, logical, discerning, and composed. If you continue to think when it is time to take action, however, these positives turn sour. Then others may see you as withdrawn, distant, cold, apathetic, uninterested, indecisive, dry, dull, boring, or listless.
Tendency To Be Assertive
If risking is your lead strength, you tend to go across the line, into the other person’s territory. This occurs because you want to get into action and get things done. You want to move and see things happen.
When you are being yourself, others experience you as dynamic, exciting, stimulating, enthusiastic, vigorous, spirited, exhilarating, zestful, and fun-to-be-around. If you continue to engage in action when it is time to stop and think, these positives turn negative. When this happens, others may describe you as unstable, pushy, loud-mouthed, over-emotional, invading, threatening, annoying, nosy, or loose-cannon-on-the-deck.
Your total thinking is composed of two types of thinking: practical thinking, and theoretical thinking. One is just as valuable as the other.
One of these two ways of thinking is always dominant over the other. Sometimes practical thinking has the upper hand. At other times, the reverse is true and theoretical thinking takes center stage.
When your practical thinking is most active, your focus is on the facts. You are most aware of reality—of how things really are. On the other hand, when your theoretical thinking is most active, your focus is on ideas. You are most aware of possibilities—of how things could be.
You think creatively when you use both types of thinking, with one type contributing just as much as the other. The activity of one kind of thinking creates a need for the opposite kind to become active. It is like walking. As you step forward with one leg, it creates a need for the other leg to come forward and do its part. If it doesn’t, you fall flat on your face. It is the same with thinking—you need to use both kinds to move forward. Your thinking is automatically creative as long as you are unconscious. Your "dawn of consciousness" gives you the power to choose the type of thinking on which you focus.
Every human being leads with one of the two types of thinking. This is normal and inborn. This innate leaning creates a natural tendency for us to use one type of thinking more than the other. If you lead in practical thinking, you tend to focus on facts. Conversely, if you lead in theoretical thinking, you tend to focus on ideas.
Tendency To Focus On Facts
If practical thinking is your lead strength, you tend to focus on the practical side of things. You look to the past and seek to know the facts. You want to know how things really are. When you are being yourself, others tend to see you as realistic, down-to-earth, problem-centered, practical, steady, pragmatic, businesslike, fact-oriented, and common-sensical.
When you get stuck on the practical side and stay there, however, others may see you in negative ways. They may describe you as unimaginative, negative, rigid, pessimistic, cynical, gloom, having-limited-vision, disheartening, resistant-to-change, or unable-to-see-the-forest-for-the-trees.
Tendency To Focus On Ideas
If theoretical thinking is your lead strength, you look to the future. You imagine how things could be. You feel comfortable in the world of concepts and ideas. Your thinking is inductive and intuitive. You seek the general principle.
When you are being yourself, others see you as optimistic, imaginative, insightful, hopeful, idealistic, scholarly, educated, upbeat, and perceptive. If you stay theoretical when it is time to be practical, others tend to see you as impractical, naïve, a highbrow, a dreamer, out-of-touch, an incurable optimist, unrealistic, far-out, or an egghead.
Attitude has to do with how we value things. If we have a "good attitude" towards our work, it means we value and like our work. Conversely, if we have a "bad attitude" it means that we don’t value it—we don't like our work.
Your attitude towards others is also a valuing thing. It is how you value yourself compared to others.
The attitude you communicate to others is determined by your strengths. If you lead in dependent risking, you tend to focus your attention on the other person. In doing so, you communicate that you value that person more than yourself. The reverse is true if you lead in independent risking. In this case, your focus of attention is on yourself. This tends to communicate that you value yourself more than the other person.
has a great effect—either good or bad—on your relationships.
Attitude of Equality
People are different, and people are the same. We deal with our differences through appropriate behavior. We affirm that we are the same through developing and displaying an attitude of equality.
When we look directly at another person, we project an attitude of equality. We don’t look "up to" or "down on" him or her—we look straight across, eye-to-eye.
Your behavior should be a changing thing, which you adjust to fit particular situations. Your attitude of equality, however, should stay the same in all situations.
Consider a situation where you report to another person (your boss) in your work. Here you maintain an attitude of equality and adjust your behavior to fit the situation. When you relate to your boss, the imaginary vertical line of appropriate behavior moves closer to you: you are more reserved in that relationship. If you are the boss, the line is closer to the other person: you can appropriately behave more assertively. In both instances, however, your attitude should remain the same. You look straight across at one another. Where the vertical line of appropriate behavior lies has nothing to do with your value as people.
When you have an attitude of equality, you value others the same as you value yourself. This idea has been around a long time. It is expressed in a variety of ways in the Christian tradition. The Second Commandant—"Love your neighbor as yourself"—is a prime example. Another good example is The Golden Rule—"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Every world religion has its own way of saying it. You can also find it in the Declaration of Independence.
of human relations any better than an attitude of equality.
Tendency To Value Others
If dependent risking is your lead strength, you have a natural tendency to value others more than yourself. You value your relationships highly. You seek to be with people. You like people and others feel comfortable with you.
When you are being yourself, others are likely to experience you as warm, accepting, compassionate, caring, helpful, gracious, forgiving, kind, gentle, and easy-to-get-along-with. When you continue to depend on others when it is time for you to be independent, others may describe you as weak, easily led, wimpy, smothering, docile, meek, submissive, timid, lacking confidence, or faint-of-heart
Tendency To Value Self
If independent risking is your lead strength, you have a natural tendency to value yourself more than you do others. You go your own way. You feel a good deal of self-confidence. You keep focused on your own goals. You follow your own convictions.
When you are being yourself, people tend to see you as self-assured, strong, determined, self-reliant, resolute, self-sufficient, independent, confident, poised, and capable. If you continue to stay focused on yourself when it is time to think of others, you may be seen as selfish, greedy, egotistical, self-seeking, arrogant, conceited, contemptuous, stuck-up, snob, or condescending.
After reading through the material above, you should have a basic understanding of our theory. If you have not already done so, we encourage you to use the resources here on our website to learn about yourself, your natural pattern of opposite strengths, and how you can put the power of opposite strengths to work in your daily life. A wealth of information tailored to your specific pattern of opposite strengths is provided in our Guide to Being Yourself, Guide to Being Flexible and Relationship Guide, and a number of books about our theory are available through our Shopping Cart page.