This past July was the third time I attended The Colorado Health Foundation’s Health Symposium in beautiful Keystone, Colorado. I showed up ready to learn from other health care wonks like myself. However, this year’s conference was a bit different; it was jam-packed with moving personal stories from inspirational speakers and messages that resonated with me both personally and professionally. One message I took home was that within our work, we should start from a place of assets and strength, rather than deficits and weakness.
As our organization’s name indicates, our work focuses on Colorado’s most vulnerable populations and the gaps that exist in our health care system, which makes the deficits a regular part of our vernacular. A few keynote speakers highlighted this use of language and the value that can be found from flipping those deficits to strengths. Symposium keynote and author Paul Schmitz spoke about a different intake process where caseworkers ask their clients what their strengths are, which changes their conversation into a more positive one. This is especially important for populations who focus daily on merely surviving, and are often operating in a space of deficits. In health care, many of us are working on big, complex issues and facing significant barriers, in the form of resources, funding, and political or public will to drive change. However, if we start focusing on our assets—what we can bring to the table and what we are capable of doing—we can better tackle the issues we’re working on, rather than feeling stuck by the problems that we face.
A growing body of evidence supports this idea, especially in school and at work. For example, studies show that employees who focus on using their strengths every day feel more engaged and fulfilled, and experience faster growth and development. If we can apply these principles to the work we do in communities, we can go further. We should recognize the promise they hold, rather than focus on the problems they face. Each of Colorado’s communities are unique and have a lot to offer, and residents are experts in their own lived experiences. That’s where we should start the conversation.
This is an important shift in how we think and talk about local health systems change. The words we choose shapes the kind of conversations we have and the progress we can make. The Colorado Health Foundation’s CEO, Karen McNeill-Miller, challenged us at the Symposium to stop using words like “at-risk” and starting using words like “at-promise.” In the coming months and years, I look forward to taking this message to heart and bringing attention to the promise and assets that Colorado communities hold to lead needed change.