What defines your identity and moves you to action? What determines your performance and opens your mind? Appreciative Inquiry (AI) posits the same answer for all those questions: the stories we tell and the language we use. When our stories and language are positive, we are more likely to experience flow in our handling of challenges and opportunities. That’s why AI makes the discovery of great stories a mandatory starting point for those individuals and organizations who seek change. Doing so elevates both our attitude and aptitude in life and work.
Tell me about the world in which we live. Tell me, for example, if the USA is a safer or more dangerous place than it was in 1970. If you answered that it is more dangerous, then you have already demonstrated one of the fundamental propositions of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), namely that stories are more important than facts because stories are the stuff out of which the world is made.
- Fact: since 1970, the crime rate in the USA has decreased by 4%.
- Fact: since 1970, crime reporting in the USA has increased by 700%.
Both facts are true, but the stories carry more weight. That’s because the stories we surround ourselves with, the stories we hear and the stories we tell, determine the way we experience, interpret, and shape the world. If we surround ourselves with terrible stories, then we will notice terrible things and be filled with terror. If we surround ourselves with wonderful stories, then we will notice wonderful things and be filled with wonder.
Stories are more important than facts because of how our brains and bodies are wired. Computers are designed to create, store, and retrieve discrete bits of data. Interesting factoids, as Daniel Pink likes to call them, can be recovered instantaneously by anyone on the internet. I first heard about the discrepancy between crime rates and crime reporting from a law professor over dinner. He couldn’t remember the exact percentages, but he knew the crime rate had fallen over the past 30 years while crime reporting had increased significantly. It took Google less than two seconds to find and display the exact data for which I was searching.
Human beings are designed to create, store, and retrieve interesting stories. If I were to ask you what happened on June 2, 1981, it’s unlikely you would remember • even if you were alive on that date • unless something really interesting happened. If that’s your birthday, or if that’s the birthday of your child, or if that’s your anniversary, or if you lost someone close to you or a favorite pet on that day, or if you were in a car accident, then you might remember that date. If I were to ask you what happened on September 11, 2001, you would most likely remember, right down to where you were when you heard the news, because you remember the story.
Stories set the context for facts to be remembered. They also set the context for things to be experienced, relationships to be built, and possibilities to be explored. A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a drumming workshop given by three of The Lost Boys of Sudan Click. Back in 1988, when they were “lost” due to the civil war in Sudan, the boys were only seven years old. To escape the war, which destroyed their villages and killed their families, they banded together, walked more than 1,000 miles, and spent 10 years in Kenyan refugee camps before coming to the USA in 1998. Since then they have been getting an education and making new lives for themselves.
Recently, they made contact with others from their home village in Sudan. Surprisingly, one was able to locate a brother who had also survived the carnage. How did they figure out they were brothers? It wasn’t through DNA testing. It was through the stories they had to tell. The stories of where they had lived and what had happened to their family. The stories of their mother and father, their grandparents, and even five generations before that. At the age of seven, this young man, separated from his family, had already learned the stories that defined his identity. Now, seventeen years later, those stories were sending him back to Sudan to meet up with his brother and to see what else has become of his ancestral home.
That’s what stories do to us. They shape us and move us to action. They root us in history and propel us into the future. Perhaps you have heard the story of the three baseball umpires talking about their work. “I call them the way they are,” boasted one umpire. Shaking his head, the second umpire said, “I call them the way I see them.” Disagreeing with both, the third umpire observed, “They ain’t nothing until I call them.”
So it was the lost brothers from Sudan. Until they could call out and connect with each other’s stories, the two boys were strangers • mere individuals with similar features but no past connection and no shared future. Once the stories came to the surface • the village, the family, the names, the ancestors, and the events • the two strangers became brothers, now and forever. They weren’t nothing, the umpire might say, until they told their stories.
Appreciative Inquiry calls this the Constructionist Principle. That may sound like complicated, post-modern jargon, but it’s really both common sense and a common experience. The stories we tell construct the world in which we live. The Constructionist Principle is no more complicated than that and we’ve all experienced how it works.
Many decades ago, for example, one of my long-since-deceased great uncles was robbed, at night, in a parking lot, by someone of a different race. That story was told, retold, and quietly passed around from one generation to the next as evidence that that race could not be trusted. That around those people you always had to watch your back. That we live in a dangerous, race-based world.
This story was not some isolated description of a past event; it was a generalized description of how the world works. It was a “just so” story on race relations. It influenced the things that people noticed and deemed newsworthy. It both proscribed and prescribed ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It set the limits of what was acceptable and possible in life. Along with other negative and discriminatory stories, which served to confirm the first story, it became the lens through which many people approached, understood, and experienced the world.
Consider, as another case in point, the current conflict between Western and Islamic societies. Think of all the stories we tell, on both sides of the line, to justify massive expenditures of money and to launch both shocking and awesome destruction. Wherein lies the truth? It doesn’t much matter, because the stories we tell about each other determine the world in which we live. Stories are that powerful.
Recently I had occasion to invite a world-renown authority on Islamic history and culture to speak to a local group, including many older, retired US veterans. One person was immediately wary of extending the invitation, pointing out that our invitee had once made someone cry with her analysis of what happened on September 11, 2001. The way she told the story of 9/11 was both different from and challenging to the dominant story line. It might not go over well, I was told, with this audience. As a result, we almost lost the opportunity to hear her speak.
Stories are the lenses through which we see and shape the world. They bring some things into focus while they leave other things out of the picture. They can even turn things upside down. They certainly impact both our attitude and our aptitude for change. Recognizing this, Appreciative Inquiry • as a tool for personal and organizational transformation • makes a modest proposal: why not go looking for the good stuff? Why not go looking for great stories of triumph over tragedy, hope over despair, success over failure, learning over frustration, kindness over cruelty, and life over death.
This assumes, of course, that such stories are there to be found. In fact, that is a basic assumption of Appreciative Inquiry. Namely that in every situation, no matter how difficult or terrible, one can also find positive and inspiring stories of things that are working and that fill people with life. AI makes the assumption that some things are always working even when many things are not. The first step in an AI change process is therefore to discover and to articulate those great stories.
There is no way to overemphasize the importance of this first step. Indeed, AI would argue that the discovery of great stories is a mandatory first step that is totally inseparable and intertwined with efficacious action for change. By elevating the tenor, text, and themes of the stories we tell, by changing the language we use, the scales fall from our eyes and the energy for change becomes palpable. People come to believe new things, to dream new dreams, to embrace new values, and to build different outcomes than when this step is skipped over or shortchanged. It must be done first and it must be done right.
With so much riding on the discovery of great stories, AI keeps this phase going for as long as it takes to get a significant number of positive stories out on the table. Depending upon the degree of fear, anxiety, or discouragement, that can be more difficult than it sounds. In fact, some people may not even be willing to try, seeing it as an attempt to gloss over problems or to put a positive spin on their pain. But AI does not let people off the hook, even when they have the most jaded of perspectives.
Fortunately, great stories are infectious. On the US Thanksgiving holiday, our extended family ended the meal by not only sharing things for which we were thankful but also by sharing some favorite holiday memories. There was a bit of an awkward silence as the process got started. Finally, one person shared a favorite memory which triggered another person to share and then another and then another.
Some of the memories that came forward were not discovered until people started sharing with each other around the table. It was as though one person’s story called forth another person’s story, even when the two stories had nothing to do with each other in terms of their inception and context. As the stories came out, they were being woven together into a positive and family-building tapestry of life.
That is the claim Appreciative Inquiry makes for discovering great stories. The discovery process unlocks hidden potential, even among those who are initially reluctant, and generates a positive base of both affect and wisdom which naturally lead to the construction of a different world.
Many change management systems do not understand this and rush too quickly into problem solving. As a result, they end up with either timid or ineffective solutions. Brainstorming with discouraged, overwhelmed, and / or intimidated people does not produce many brain storms. It produces brain sprinkles that underestimate the capacity for action and fail to muster the resources for change.
The tables are turned, however, when people are first enjoined to discover and tell their own great stories. Indeed, the discovery of great stories is itself an action for change. Suddenly people see both themselves and their problems in a different light. Problems that were once resistant and stubborn become flexible and pliable in the hands of optimistic and appreciative people who are empowered to take bold and courageous action.
One example of an AI discovery process is to ask people to write down the best things that have ever happened to them or to others in a particular context. That context can be personal or professional, individual or collective, recent or distant, first-hand or second-hand, large or small. Each item is written on cards, one item per card, and then read out loud. As they are read, other items that come to mind are also written on cards and added to the list. Finally, they are arranged in chronological order and placed on the wall in a giant timeline of great stories. The process continues until no more great stories come to mind.
This process can be truly transformational. Great stories are often forgotten under the pressures and urgencies of the moment, driven as they are by bad news and deadlines. Taking the time to recover the good news and lifelines unlocks hidden potential and empowers both individuals and organizations to take a quantum leap forward in terms of performance, learning, and enjoyment. When the language shifts to identify specific stories of positive value, we begin to construct a world where work is worth doing and life is worth living.
Coaching Inquiries: When was the last time that you discovered the great stories of life and work? Are there others who could share with you in the discovery process? How could you become a catalyst for positive change? Are there ways you could become more attentive to great stories? How could you increase your capacity for such story listening?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
Welcome back, Bob. The buzz about Appreciative Inquiry has increased on many coaching business websites and newsletters since the ICF convention in California. You present a clear explanation about what is it and why there might be a renewal of interest in it. Thank you.
At this time of Thanksgiving – I share with you how thankful I am. After much organizing, packing, and bracing for hurricanes, dead engines, root canals and even a surgery – I moved this week – this time for good. Everything worked out perfectly. Even Hurricane Wilma added to the blessing, as it meant that I got to know my new neighbors more than if I had been living here for years without it. Getting through this major transition gave me soooooo much confidence. My angels were certainly watching over me. Glad you see life through these lenses as well. Happy Thanksgiving!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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