Home All Using the Power of VIA: An Interview with Practitioners

Using the Power of VIA: An Interview with Practitioners

written by Kathryn Britton 22 February 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Jan Elsner

Jan Elsner

Interview with Jan Elsner and Barbara Heileman, Executive Coaches and Corporate Advisors in Australia.. Jan and Barbara have been selective practitioners of positive psychology for several years, since participating in one of the early Authentic Happiness coach training groups. I saw them speak at the Symphony of Strengths conference and the Gallup Well-being Forum in 2007, and have been curious ever since about their practical experiences using positive psychology to make a difference in business.

What is the most burning thing you want to share with us?
We have many years of experience selecting and applying the teachings of positive psychology in business settings, and we strongly believe that outcomes can be measured in these environments, but the measurements are different from those done in academia. We do not focus on single constructs such as gratitude or hope. As we evaluate, we are interested in organizationally relevant outcomes, not whether we are making people happier. Happiness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Barbara Heileman

Barbara Heileman

What is your mission with positive psychology?

Our mission is to increase the population of women at high levels in organizations, particularly in our niche of financial services and professional services, by helping companies retain senior women as well as add to their ranks. We are working towards “critical mass” — the point where biases toward women are lost in awareness of the differences between individuals and where the number of women becomes self-sustaining (Kanter, Tiao). Barbara spent years studying the defection of women from senior management positions asking questions like “What created your dissatisfaction.” She now sees that she was asking the wrong questions. Today, we look for women who are staying and thriving and ask them questions about their successes in order to find ways to replicate them.

What aspects of positive psychology do you find most helpful working with senior women?
First, senior women are very drawn to the science around satisfaction and well-being, which creates interest and openness to the ideas.

We find the distinction between traits and states to be very helpful as we select and implement applications.

For traits, which tend to be very stable, we help clients leverage them to full advantage rather than trying to change them. For this, VIA strengths are particularly effective.

For states, which tend to be based on habitual thinking patterns that are more malleable, we help clients acquire tools and techniques and build habits that lead to greater satisfaction and better business outcomes. These tools and techniques are based on Hope Theory (Snyder and Lopez), Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan), Self-Efficacy research (Bandura), Psychological Capital (Luthans) as well the work of Losada and Fredrickson.

We are very pragmatic. We try various ideas with an eye on business outcomes, such as retention, promotion, and equivalent remuneration for our clients. We change our approach based on what we see works. For example, we’ve found that intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, hope theory, and VIA strengths are particularly useful. Focusing on optimism and resilience leads to smaller positive outcomes, perhaps because this is already a very high-functioning population.

What is the single most effective tool you use?
Our approach is very grounded in appreciative inquiry; that is, that the questions we ask tend to shape the outcomes. So when we used to ask about how to fix problems and reduce frustrations, we got energy-depleting discussions of deficits. When we ask about what is already going right and how to replicate it, we see energy and confidence go up. Being careful about the questions we ask is an important aspect of everything we do.

For helping people focus on what’s right, the VIA is the most effective tool that we’ve used. People identify with their top 5 VIA strengths, they build confidence when they use them, and their VIA strengths form a lens through which they can look at themselves in new ways. We work together on how to use the VIA strengths in business, so they aren’t just inflicting their top 5 strengths on the world willy nilly. People build ongoing habits for using these strengths in their day-to-day life.

For one example, take a woman in a leadership position for whom the Leadership VIA strength was one of her bottom strengths. We helped her look at how she could shape her leadership style around her top strengths such as Curiosity and Social Intelligence.

We have created VIA strength cards that people use for playing with ideas for using their strengths more and for reminding themselves at crucial points about their strengths. The card for a particular strength includes an explanation that is very closely based on Character Strengths and Virtues — somewhat adjusted for business environments and with some of the North Americanisms toned down a little. It also includes descriptions of when people are at their best and when they are thwarted when using the strength. (Readers, click on the image below for information about ordering the VIA cards.)

There is a lot of laughter as our clients work in groups on ways to increase the use of their strengths. Over time, we see rising confidence and a greater tendency to take responsibility for their own satisfaction.

We make it very clear that VIA strengths are not skills, not talents, not specific behaviors. People see them as characterizations of what they are like when they are most like themselves, when they tend to feel great at work. Focus on strengths helps them get back to what drew them to their careers and rekindle that early energy by rediscovering their intrinsic motivations.

We are careful to explain that the VIA strengths are not intended to be the 24 characteristics of people who are happy. What they can be is a diagnostic tool to help people discover what is right about themselves.

Thank you for exploring your use of the VIA. Now to close, what is one small thing that has a big impact?

We work with our clients on simple mindfulness, meaning the ability to control where they focus their attention. We have found that a 10 to 15 minute training can have a very large impact … partly because it’s based on chocolate!

   Fine Chocolate

We give each person in the group a piece of very fine, beautifully wrapped chocolate. Then we guide them through the process of enjoying the chocolate enjoying everything about it — the initial appearance, the feeling of the shape in the wrapper, taking the wrapper off, the scent, feeling it on the tongue…

Then we help them see that they have been able to direct their thoughts away from work worries. We tell them about work by neurologist and lecturer Craig Hassed at Monash University that practicing this kind of intentional direction of attention twice a day for 5 minutes can have a substantial impact, for example making it possible for people to let go of habitual responses and choose new behaviors.



Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Perspectives in Social Psychology). New York: Plenum.

Hassed, C. (2008). Essence of Health. Random House Australia.

Kanter, R. M. (1977, 1993). Men and Women of the Corporation: New Edition. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Kanter (1993) proposed that women as tokens (the only one or fewer than 15% of the group) in leadership have a hard time changing the management culture. She added that once women reach a critical mass (more than 35%), the chance for them to use collaboration to increase their influence on the management culture increases. The best situation exists when women compose 40% to 60% of the leadership team and become a social group equal to men. Kanter as cited in Tiao (2006, p. 188).

Luthans, F., Youssef, C., & Avolio, B. (2007). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Snyder, C. R. (2000). Handbook of Hope : Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Tiao, N. (2006). Senior Women Leaders in Higher Education: Overcoming Barriers to Success. University of Michigan dissertation.

From the abstract: The purpose of this study was to obtain a deeper understanding of what it takes for women to succeed as cabinet-level higher education administrators. The results confirmed Kanter’s (1993) theory about the impact of the proportion of women on management culture and on individual leaders’ experiences. Obviously, placing more women in powerful leadership positions will foster a more diversified, inclusive management culture and improve executive women leaders’ experiences at work.

Images are from the Positive Leadership Website, except
Want one?(chocolates) courtesy of Marcel Germain

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WJ 22 February 2009 - 3:48 pm


Is it possible to get the peer reviewed paper on the Hassed research – I can’t seem to find it in the databases.

WJ 22 February 2009 - 5:03 pm


I am intrigued that the samll big imnpact item (savouring a chocolate) is ultimately a focusing technique that activates the calming response. This sort of reinforces the point thaT I continuously make on this forum – that calmness is a foundation of the good life.

Any thoughts?

Kathryn Britton 22 February 2009 - 7:39 pm


Yes, I think the chocolate approach is right in line with what you talk about — it’s a way of teaching people to refocus attention, which is a large part of mindfulness, no? I think it is a small thing because it doesn’t take a big time investment but a large thing because it helps people see that they can calm themselves by the way they focus attention.

Here are some references that I’ve found to Hassed:

Allen, N. B., Blashki, G., Chambers, R., Ciechomeski, L., Gullone, E., Hassed, C., Knight, W., McNab, C. & Medows, G. (2006). Mindfulness-based psychotherapies: A review of conceptual foundations, empirical evidence and practical considerations. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 285–294.

I found a citation of it in Chambers, Lo, & Allen (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research. Vol 32(3), pp. 303-322.

I also found Hassed, C. S. (2004). Bringing holism into mainstream biomedical education. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10, 405-407.

wayne j 22 February 2009 - 9:07 pm

Its interesting – I do the chocalte exercise in my workshops on HRV software. The software shows that the exercise only works if people are fully engaged. If they think the exercise is stupid then it doesn’t work. Interestingly different senses work for different people. Again one size doesn’t fit all.

Thanx for the references.

Kathryn Britton 22 February 2009 - 11:09 pm

Makes sense. I was telling a friend about this, and she said that she has always done it with raisins. Then she commented, “What was I thinking?”

WJ 22 February 2009 - 11:11 pm

Kathryn – chocolate coated raisins?

Elizabeth 24 February 2009 - 6:05 am

Hi, thanks for this interesting interview that provided a great overview of the power of VIA as a coaching tool. I found myself attracted to positive psychology intuitively and now understand why!
On the chocolate theme — I live in Italy and appreciate the art of wine tasting as an exercise in focusing attention through all the senses: defining the color, the density, the aroma and its “retrogusto” or the elements behind the taste such as bread crust, wild berries, pine, etc. The aroma must be taken in and resonate in the back of the throat to be fully appreciated. Then, almost as an afterthought, there is the taste.

Kathryn Britton 24 February 2009 - 1:11 pm


Glad you enjoyed the interview. As for wine, exactly!

With wine, there’s also the joy of learning. Paying close attention forms memories. Sharing the experience with someone means forming a vocabulary.

I know that is true for chocolate as well. I just haven’t had as much practice at discrimination.


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 February 2009 - 10:07 am

Hi Kathryn
Great article, thanks!

Chocolate works for us, although not in the summer…Also you have to remember not to hand it out at the beginning of the workshop! Handing out simple ‘Thank You’ cards and asking people to write one works a treat too.



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