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What do we mean by 'character development'?

Author

Sandra Bullen – Chief Marketing Officer

If you spend any time dealing with Heartstyles (and we hope you will) you'll notice we're quick to remind people that we're not here to profile personalities. Instead, our mission is to develop character.

But what do we mean by that?

The two-sentence answer

Our character is the sum of our best intentions and deepest values. When we strengthen our character, we're better able to select behaviours that reflect those intentions and values - even in stressful situations. 

Of course, there's far more to say about character development than that. An awful lot. In fact, our founders Mara and Stephen Klemich, have written a book on the subject: Above The Line, Living and Leading with Heart.

Of course, we don't have room to discuss all their ideas here, but we can get a good grasp on character by taking a closer look at the last part of that definition: "stressful situations"...

It's not who you are, it's what's happening for you

Developing character isn't about having better intentions or more noble values. It's about tapping into those things more often. After all, our intentions and values tend to be broadly similar. To quote Above the Line:

"While we universally value humility and love, and all the inner and outer benefits they bring, not one of us is always driven by them."

Well, what are we driven by then? Often the answer is stress, be it the stress of the present or stresses in our past. Let's deal with the present first.

One of those days

You're walking down the street when - smack! - someone, nose in their phone, bumps into you. As an isolated incident, it doesn't take too much strength of character to brush it off. You may even be able to empathise: "He's probably drowning in urgent emails. Who isn't?"

The thing is, life's not a string of isolated events. We experience it as an unfolding story, carrying our feelings and thoughts from one chapter to the next. So consider this scenario:

You've had four hours' sleep thanks to your teething toddler. Though exhausted, you're on track to make the morning meeting - just as well given it's an important one. Then some idiot barges into you, spilling coffee down your front. Now on top of being tired, annoyed and a little nervous, you're also a mess.

How does this play out? Chances are your ability to emphasise has evaporated. Maybe you even give him a piece of your mind (and not the nicest piece either!).  Would that make you a 'bad' person? No. To borrow a line from the book: "It's a very normal reaction but not the most effective response."

Character is having the emotional intelligence to understand what you're feeling and why in a given scenario. But more than that, it's using that perspective to pick effective behaviours. If you can see a trivial little accident for what it really is, you're far less likely to let it derail a moment of actual significance. As a result, you get to the meeting composure intact.

But as we've said, it's not just the present that shapes behaviour. What about the past?

Coping: The opposite of character

You've probably heard the expression 'when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail'. It's a gem of wisdom that points to an unfortunate truth: we tend to fit our problems to the tools at our disposal - whether they're the right ones or not. Why? It's less effort (and less scary) than taking a good hard look at the problem, chucking aside that trusty hammer and saying "it's time I learnt to use something else".

When it comes to behaviours, that hammer - the tool we cling to even when it's wrong - is our coping mechanisms. As we move through life we all face moments of discomfort and pain. Our instinct for self-preservation means we formulate strategies to avoid such discomfort in the future. And that's a problem - because preservation and growth just don't go together. As Stephen and Mara say:

"Negative experiences can become a trap that we live in - they can become stories that we tell ourselves to cope with life."

Character is the way out of that trap. We may have learnt that if life is hard on you, you have to be hard on others. So that guy bumping into you? Chew his ear off, then do the same in the meeting room to anyone who gets in your way.

Depending on who we are and the stories we've told ourselves, our coping tactics will seem normal. But as we know, that doesn't make them effective. With strength of character you have the ability to deal with what's in front of you, rather than what's behind you. But it means stepping out of your comfort zone...

Hitting the emotional gym

So how do you actually strengthen character? The same way you build physical strength. To quote the book again:

"Character development is just like going to the gym. The key is consistency and coaching. Physical strength isn't built in a day and neither is character. And in both cases it's helpful to have someone by your side..."

Just as you'd arrive at the gym with a goal in mind (and a good idea of what you'd need to do to achieve it) when it comes to building character you need to know where you need to place your attention.

Perhaps you overuse sarcasm to deal with uncomfortable conversations? Perhaps that stops you being sincere and authentic at crucial moments? In that case 'hitting the gym' might start with the simple goal of resisting that urge in at least three conversations a day...

Whatever the case may be, moving forward is about having the self-knowledge to know what needs work, and the support to get it done. Above the Line and the Heartstyles programmes are designed to provide both of those things.  

 

 

 

 

 

We’re here to answer your questions. Whatever you want to know, don’t hesitate to ask.

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