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Appreciative Inquiry is an organization development process that permeates the coaching world. The process starts with the belief that whatever we put our attention on appreciates (grows and develops). When we focus on clients’ problems, those problems become more entrenched and difficult. When we focus on strengths, creativity, aliveness and movement, those parts grow and get stronger.
At the core of Appreciative Inquiry is the choice to view human beings as mysterious, moving, changing, expanding, life-affirming, creative, spiritual beings. Once we make this choice, we no longer see people as problems to be solved or issues to be fixed. Together with our clients, we look deeply, call forth and nourish the life-generating forces already in existence to create a present and future that is more joyful and fulfilling.
To create that present and future, the coach uses the following principles of Appreciative Inquiry:
Focus on anything that is working, creative and alive.
Include failure and breakdown.
Rather than analyzing problems, look at the positive that is available.
Find the positive in the negative. “When you say that communication is terrible with your boss, I see you have an image of what great communication looks like. Can you describe that?”
Build the positive image rather than trying to solve the negative image.
Focus on “what do you wish for?”
Listen without judgment. You grant power to clients by holding them whole and creative even
when they experience a breakdown.
Use stories to explore the strengths and abilities they tapped in the past and anchor them in the reality of their power.
Recognize themes and choose topics to explore further.
Use the strengths and dreams, by developing images and visions, of the life people want and
create innovative ways to make it happen.
Four phases of Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry summits are usually held over several days where the entire organization comes together to explore the four phases of Appreciative Inquiry. Colleagues from all levels of the organization interview each other and discover each other’s stories, dream about the future, design how they want to work together and deliver the desired results.
In the discovery phase, we clarify values and use storytelling to capture the best of what is. We discover what gives life and energy to the organization. We start by asking people to interview each other in pairs, gather stories that capture memorable experiences and discover organizational strengths and assets. Sharing and collecting these stories helps build organizational capacity by valuing and expanding on the best of what already exists.
As stories are collected, ask the following questions:
When it comes to your organization, what do you take pride in?
What energizes people?
What are the best stories about the organization?
In the dream phase, we get out our magic wands and imagine what might be. Together we think big and share our hopes for our work and our relationships. We look at individual and organizational calling to explore our greater purpose and deepest wishes. In this phase, we act out our dreams to dramatize the possibilities and stretch the imagination.
Questions for this phase:
What is the world calling your organization to do?
If you had no constraints, what new possibilities would you explore?
If you surrounded yourselves with life-giving forces, what would that look like?
In the design phase, large numbers of people come together to co-create the future organization. In small groups, we explore the lofty images of the dream stage and determine what’s possible. We align values, structures, systems and mission with the ideal by talking about what should be. In this phase, the team crafts provocative propositions which stretch the organization. We design by exploring possible actions and making choices that will create a more desirable future.
Questions for this phase:
What choices can turn our dreams into reality?
How does each piece look in an optimal system?
To create a more desirable future, what actions do you choose?
In the delivery phase, we develop action plans to realize the provocative propositions. In an open forum, we ask employees to determine their contribution and how they wish to serve. We establish personal and organizational commitments to fulfill these contributions and determine what will be. Small groups collaborate on the new initiatives that grow out of this process. Because people are deeply involved in the first three phases, commitment and alignment come easily in the fourth phase.
Questions for this phase:
What action plan do you need to put into place to create a wonderful future?
How can you bring about lasting cultural change?
What do you need to do to sustain your preferred future?1
Appreciative inquiry questions
These questions can get to the heart of the life-giving qualities of the client.
Tell a story about a time when you faced an obstacle and you overcame it. What did you find inside you that allowed you to overcome the obstacle?
Talk about a time when you were proud of yourself.
Tell a story about alignment—a time when you experienced a depth of connection to yourself, your work, Spirit, another person or nature. Connect with the place in your body where the energy lives while telling the story.
Where are you, what are you doing and who are you with when you “come home” to yourself? Imagine you receive a letter from your guides, reminding you what you have forgotten about yourself and what is possible for your life. What does it say?
Tell a story of a time when you felt deeply supported. Talk about a time you surprised yourself.
What delights you? What engages your senses? What makes you laugh from your belly? What do you love? What makes you want to get up and dance?
What things do you value most about yourself, the nature of your work, the organization?
What do you consider the core factor that gives life to the organization?
Put yourself in the customers’ shoes. What would they say makes us unique?
Consider the best strategies, structures, operating procedures and processes that have brought us to this point—the things that make this the kind of company you want to work for. Which of these must we maintain and preserve, as we continue to grow?
You may notice that many of these questions involve telling a story. Storyteller Laura Simms says, “Storytelling has the capacity to directly engage the heart and imagination in such a way that a deeper level of listening is activated, which opens the eyes of perception. The deepest learning happens in the unspoken story that is generated in the mind mixing the images called forth in the telling. The thinking mind is kept entranced by the content, while the images dip down and uncover and awaken the dreaming imagination and intuitive intelligence of the listener.”2 Stories engage the imagination and bring information from places other than the thinking mind.
To use Appreciative Inquiry to generate stories about the future, consider this scenario:
You wake up five years from now, and this organization is wildly successful.
What do you see going on? What are people doing and saying?
What is different from today? How has technology advanced customer service?
What decisions need to be made today to create this future?
What are the three actions we should begin now in the present to make this future image a reality?
As coaches, we can use storytelling questions with our clients to awaken possibility based on what has worked before. We can interrupt the stories that are re-runs of their failures.
How appreciative inquiry works with negativity
Appreciative Inquiry is not a Pollyanna approach. We address things that do not work, but from the viewpoint of creating from the positive. We can use negative data to uncover what people want: “You say that your relationship with your new employee is difficult, that you are angry a lot and end up acting in ways you don’t like. This tells me you recognize what you want that relationship to be like. Tell me about what you wish for in your relationship with your new employee.” There is great power in listening to the negative in order for there to be space for the positive. We can focus on the “wishes” questions to segue from the negative to what is possible.
1 Lasley, Martha (2010). Facilitating With Heart: Awakening Personal Transformation and Social Change. Discover Press.
2 Watkins, J. M. & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
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