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The science behind Strengths and Shadows

Strengths and Shadows is a program of emotional mastery and skillful communication
created by Dr. Steve Mortenson at the University of Delaware. Combining insights from 30
years of teaching and researching skills-based education, emotions, social psychology and
communication studies, Dr. Mortenson developed a course of study for empowering learners
and improving their communication skills. He has taught Strengths and Shadows in university classrooms, leadership programs, and professional organizations and published his research in scientific journals and books.


The Problem


Communication science shows us that emotionally supportive messages are the best ways to give advice, comfort, confront, and hold others accountable (Mortenson, 2006, 2009, 2017). Unfortunately knowing the right thing to say and being in the right frame of mind to say it are two different things (Mortenson, 2009). Often times, we are too angry or upset to be skillful with others. When that happens, we need more than just messages, we need the emotional tools and strategies to center us and enable our skills (Mortenson, 2007).

When people are unable to control the shadow sides of their personalities, they get in more conflicts with others and engage in toxic behaviors that make conflicts worse (Mortenson
&;Creasy M., 2020). When team mates are unable to control the shadow side of themselves, it leads to more conflicts, less trust, and an erosion of team performance: Some people try to
take over the team or project while others drop out of sight and “free ride” on projects or team endeavors
Mortenson, S. & Luchey, S. (2021); (Mortenson, 2017; Shi & Mortenson, S. (in press).


The Solution

Strengths and Shadows begins by helping people identify and manage their difficult
emotions. Building upon this awareness, Strengths and Shadows then provides the emotional strategies to deal more effectively with challenging situations and people. Finally the program introduces scientifically tested message strategies for supportive confrontation, advice giving, comforting, and holding others accountable. Armed with emotional awareness, behavioral skill, and effective messages, individuals find themselves better equipped to meet their own challenges (Mortenson, 2017; Shi
& Mortenson, S. (in press). Strengths and Shadows has shown to help individuals gain emotional control and communicative skill where it counts the most – when the stakes are high and a change needs to happen Mortenson, S. & Luchey, S. (2021). After a Strengths and Shadows course, participants reported that were better able to, hold boundaries with others, give effective advice, confront and manage conflicts, express their own thoughts and feelings, make decisions with confidence ((Mortenson, 2017; Shi & Mortenson, S. (in press).


With project and athletic teams, the Strengths and Shadows program helped team members
work through conflicts more effectively, distribute responsibility better, have more open
dialogues, and bond together better as a group (Mortenson S. & Luchey (2021) Mortenson, in
press). Team members felt better equipped to discuss difficult topics and hold each other
accountable (Mortenson, in press).


The Strengths and Shadows program also helped participants develop a better sense of
emotional resilience during the Covid 19 Pandemic. Participants reported that the program
helped them deal better with the difficult emotions, get along better with roommates and
family during lockdown, and develop healthy ways of cultivating gratitude and emotional well-being during a difficult time (Mortenson, in press).




Shi, X. & Mortenson, S. (in press) Unquestioned Ease: Confronting Automaticity in Everyday

Communication. Lexington Books, Lanham, MA.


Mortenson, S. & Luchey, S. (2021). Student Affairs and Faculty Collaboration: Impacting Team

Effectiveness in Group Leadership Projects through Application of Strengths and Shadows. Invited Presentation to the National Association of Student and Professional Administrators.


Mortenson, S. & Creasy M. (2020). Interpersonal Projections Escalate Negative Conflict

Behaviors Among College Roommates. Paper presented at the Eastern Communication Association Conference, Baltimore, MA.


Mortenson, S. (2017). Confronting Implicit and Benevolent Bias in Teams: Concepts and

Communication Strategies for Women in Leadership. In C.M. Cunningham, H.M. Crandall and A.L Dare (Eds.), Gender, Communication, and the Leadership Gap (47-69), Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing


Mortenson, S., Luchey S., Creasy M. (2015). When the Rubber Hits the Road:

Tools and Challenges for Student Leaders. Invited Presentation at the Association of Leadership Educators Conference, Washington D.C.


Mortenson, S. (2013).  Transformative education in the interpersonal classroom.     

Invited presentation at the National Communication Associations Conference, Washington D.C.


Mortenson, S. (2009). Interpersonal trust and social skill in seeking social

support among Chinese and Americans. Communication Research, 36, 32-54


Mortenson, S. (2007). Raising the question: Should we teach personal

transformation as a part of interpersonal communication? If so, how is it done? Communication Education, 56, 401-409.


Mortenson, S., Liu, M., Burleson, B. R., & Liu Y. (2006). A fluency of feeling: Exploring

cultural and individual differences (and similarities) related to skilled emotional support. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 366-386.

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