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THE HIGHER GROUND OF UNITY

How Character Strengths Build Compassionate Communities

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By Fatima DomanAuthor, Speaker, CEO AuthenticStrengths.com, Positive Psychology Coach

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

—Dr. Martin Luther King

As we’ve seen in recent years, disconnection from others can come at a high cost, evidenced by growing stress, anxiety and depression around the world. [i] It’s healthy and necessary to care for and honor oneself, however just focusing there, without seeing the larger picture of our interconnectedness, can take its toll on relationships and communities. In her book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become,renowned researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson explains the price we can pay when we lose connection with others: “one unfortunate side effect of rugged individualism can be a thick cocoon of self-absorption that all but blinds you to the concerns, gifts, and welfare of others.”[ii]

How do we break out of this confining cocoon and expand our awareness to stand on the higher ground of unity? By placing our attention on the virtues of others, which can lower the divisive walls of race, religion, gender, politics, class, etc. When we do this, we see the human being rather than the label. In addition, appreciation of others (gratitude) has been shown to consistently produce positive emotions,[iii] which expands our ability to notice the many facets of others, and even to better see and recognize their unique facial characteristics. So, rather than classifying people into a particular “other” group—we see the individual. [iv] This injects positivity into our relationships, our communities, and the world at large. Dr. Fredrickson continues, “Becoming more aware of the inherent value of positivity resonance can help you break free from this life-limiting cocoon. Indeed, study after study suggests that positive emotions, in and of themselves, unlock your ability to really see other people. When feeling good, then, you’re far more likely to approach each new person as an opportunity for connection and growth.” [v] [vi]

Seeing and appreciating character strengths in each other (such as love, leadership, teamwork, bravery, fairness, kindness, forgiveness, creativity, perspective, perseverance, etc.) fosters connection, brings people and communities together, and can even heal past wounds. I received this email (condensed below) from a college in Romania that I’ve worked with. It summarizes their move to unity and authentic connection:

“We live in a world where many believe it is easier to judge, criticize, punish and see the weakness in others. A world where the mentality of scarcity is taught and even though we connect to different devices and technologies, we have begun losing signal for connections with other human beings. 

We have built a school in Romania that challenges the paradigms that many of the adults in our school grew up with. We believe in a community that continuously evolves and sees the value of synergy…We model empathy, wholehearted apologies, value the teachable moments and strive to live a life of courage and consideration. We recognize that change is inevitable, and that we must work from a place of authenticity, integrity and responsibility.

We have been implementing cultural change with leadership principles and well-being interventions for healing from our country’s past…the lens of working with our character strengths is giving us the motivation to become a school of transformation for our students, parents, teachers and staff…”—Ruxandra Mercea, Executive Director, Transylvania College, Romania

Elevating Relationships 

Perhaps my most valuable insight from the many years I worked with the late Stephen Covey came from witnessing his commitment to move from “independence” to “interdependence,” what I call the higher ground of unity. In his words: 

“Interdependence is a far more mature, more advanced concept. If I am physically interdependent, I am self-reliant and capable, but I also realize that you and I working together can accomplish far more than, even at my best, I could accomplish alone. If I am emotionally interdependent, I derive a great sense of worth within myself, but I also recognize the need for love, for giving, and for receiving love from others. If I am intellectually interdependent, I realize that I need the best thinking of other people to join with my own.”[vii]

Expressing gratitude and appreciation when we witness others expressing their character strengths does not diminish the self, but rather builds people, relationships, families, organizations and communities. Gratitude and appreciation are “social emotions” because these positive emotional states enhance relationships, inviting us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people. 

When we each strive to develop what is noble and best in ourselves, others will catch the vision and want to do the same. In fact, when we use our characters strengths, it has been shown to inspire others to rise to the example that has been set, to match the tone of the behavior: Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Christopher Peterson assert: “In many if not most cases, onlookers are elevated by their observation of virtuous action…because character strengths are the sorts of characteristics to which most can—and do—aspire. The more people surrounding us who are kind, or curious, or full of hope, the greater our own likelihood of acting in these ways.”[viii] All benefit when one acts in accordance with his or her character strengths. 

Respect is “To Look Again”

Our choice to appreciate the character strengths in others can build a bridge of understanding and respect between our differences. Respect comes from the Latin word “spectare,” which means “to look,” and “re” in this word means to “do again”—so to “respect” another is “to look again,” making the effort to show deference to the uniqueness and value of another human being. And when we extend such respect to others, people often respond in a similar manner—viewing us in a more positive light as well, looking for our best intentions.[ix]  No one can see the highest intentions of our minds and hearts unless we share them, or if they learn to spot our character strengths and to key into what matters most to us. The reverse is also true.

Look around you and you may see evidence of a much-needed change in the collective mindset. People are taking the time to understand others, choosing to stay in that space as long as is necessary to help others feel understood. More people are looking again at those who have felt “unseen,” in an effort to genuinely see others more, to value and understand them more fully—until they say, “Yes, you are seeing me.”  Many are hopeful that through their personal acts of compassion and unity, standing with people while they hurt, trying to hear and understand their pain, that collectively we are moving to the higher ground of unity, and connecting better than we’ve done before. 

Learn to Spot Strengths

Our unity and collective resilience increase when we learn to recognize and appreciate character strengths—in ourselves and in others. This not only gives us a renewed positive sense of self, but it also provides a boost to our relationships, in turn creating greater connection and satisfaction for all. It is an act of generosity to spot strengths, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Increase your awareness of these observable verbal and non-verbal cues that arise when you or others are engaging character strengths:

Verbal Cues Non-Verbal Cues 
Clearer/Faster Speech More Direct Communication Larger Vocabulary Stronger Voice Increased Energy Improved Posture Increased Eye Contact Eyes Light Up Increased Animation  

The comment below is typical of how connection is increased when people feel truly “seen” for their strengths: “It feels good to be recognized by others for who we are at our core; and when people make the effort to see these parts of us, we feel closer to them and more likely to return the favor by seeing what’s best in them.” —Edwin Boom, Netherlands 

Positivity Journal 

As you explore the higher ground of unity, I encourage you to create your own “positivity journal” and capture your insights. Consider the following questions and how strengthening your relationships can boost unity and compassion in your community:

  • What character strengths can you use to better listen to and understand others?
  • What strengths have you noticed and appreciated in others? How will you make a habit of recognizing character strengths in others?
  • What strengths have others noticed in you? How did it feel when you were acknowledged and appreciated for your strengths?

Written by Fatima Doman, Author of Authentic Resilience and Authentic Strengths,  Speaker, Positive Psychology Coach, and CEO of Authentic Strengths Advantage.

Disclaimer: Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, abuse, etc., are best addressed with the help of a medical professional or licensed therapist. Please seek appropriate help.


[i] Ranasinghe, Eshanthi. “A Mental Health Pandemic: Is the World Getting More Addicted, Anxious, and Lonely?” Medium, March 27, 2019. https://medium.com/positive-returns/a-mental-health-pandemic-is-the-world-getting-more-addicted-anxious-and-lonely-4e45bf533ae5.

[ii]Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D. (2013).  Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects

            Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, New York: Hudson Street Press, 2013. 

            Page 161

[iii] “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier – Harvard Health.” Harvard Medical School. 

Accessed September 13, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier.

[iv] Johnson, Kareem J., and Barbara L. Fredrickson (2005).  “We All Look the Same to Me:

             Positive Emotions Eliminate the Own-Race Bias in Face Recognition.” Psychological

             Science 16:11(2005): 875-81

[v] Fredrickson, Barbara L., Ph.D. Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We 

            Feel, Think, Do, and Become, New York: Hudson Street Press, 2013. 

[vi] Johnson, Kareem J., and Barbara L. Fredrickson. “We All Look the Same to Me: Positive 

    Emotions Eliminate the Own-Race Bias in Face Recognition.” Psychological Science 16:11(2005): 875-81

[vii] Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Anniversary edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[viii] Peterson, C. and Martin Seligman. Character Strengths and Virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press and Oxford University Press, 2004.

[ix] White, Chris. “The Deeper Meaning of Respect.” Essential Parenting. Accessed September 8, 2019. http://www.essentialparenting.com/2014/10/11/the-deeper-meaning-of-respect/

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