It’s normal to notice, study, and fix problems. However small the splinter, when it gets inflamed there’s no way to ignore the pain. But what if there was a way to keep from getting splinters in the first place? And what if the occasional splinter could be removed gently, without undue effort or strain? That’s the promise of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). By getting people and organizations to notice, study, and strengthen their positive core, AI assists people to solve problems indirectly and to make pleasure a regular part of life.
If you have been reading LifeTrek Provisions for the past several weeks, then you know we are in the midst of a series on Appreciative Inquiry (AI). This approach to transformational change was designed to assist large groups of people through their problems in a different way. Instead of coming at problems head on, AI suggests that we identify and amplify our strengths as a way of resolving problems indirectly. The more time we spend with things that work, the less time we have to spend with things that don’t work.
This transformational change strategy serves small groups of people and individuals as well as it does large groups of people and organizations. That’s why, for example, there were workshops on AI at two human-development conferences I recently attended: the 4th International Positive Psychology Summit in Washington, DC and the 3rd ICF Coaching Research Symposium in San Jose, CA. People recognize the value of this approach when it comes generating change at every level of human endeavor.
Underlying this recognition is the Simultaneity Principle: inquiry is not a prelude to change; it is part of the change we wish to see. People and systems move in the direction of what we focus on and study. When we focus on and study problems, we find problems. In fact, we often find more problems than we knew we had before we began to study them. And the more problems we discover, the more problems we have to solve.
Eventually, this can become overwhelming. Continuous problem-solving wears people down and burns people out. When that happens, we often find that our problem-solving efforts become counterproductive. As in the case of tightening a screw too much, repeated attempts to fix things can actually break things. The weightiness of the task takes its toll on our energy, creativity, and courage to come up with solutions that work.
AI was developed in response to the conundrum of problem-solving. It offers people a different, more positive, and more effective response to problems. By looking for strengths in the great stories people have to tell about themselves and their organizations, AI shifts the focus from problems to pleasures. Once that happens, the floodgates open and people who have had problems talking or working with each other suddenly discover both common ground and common purpose. Who doesn’t like to talk about and to amplify things that work and bring energy to life!
“That’s all well and good,” I can hear you asserting emphatically, “but we can’t just talk about pleasurable things all the time. The problems are real and eventually they will come to the surface. Eventually they have to be dealt with and solved. You can’t just bury your head in the sand of what works; you also have to face the music of what does not work.”
Appreciative Inquiry does not, of course, deny that problems exist. On the contrary, AI puts itself forward as an effective problem-solving strategy. But it proposes a different handling of problems than your traditional root-cause analysis. Take the recent plane crash on a snowy evening in Chicago that killed one person on the ground and left others injured. For the next year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will be asking the question, “What went wrong?” By interviewing the pilots, studying the voice and data records, and analyzing the wreckage, the NTSB hopes to avoid future mishaps.
This seems so obvious as to make perfect sense, right? Without trying to take anyone’s job away at the NTSB, AI would suggest a different approach. After we acknowledge the problem and grieve the tragedy, AI would suggest that perhaps we could do even more to avoid future mishaps by studying all the other planes that landed safely at the same airport on the same evening. What did they do right? How could other pilots and airlines take their cues from the successful landings of the evening? How could we train people to pay attention to the things that work?
An investigation of this sort would not, of course, reveal the culprit behind the crash. It would not identify where to put the blame and against whom to file the lawsuits. But that is precisely what AI hopes to accomplish. At its core, Appreciative Inquiry seeks to end the blame game by giving people something else on which to focus. It may not be an obvious or even a natural response to problems, but AI suggests that we will do better in our handling of problems if we learn to release rather than to focus on negative accounts.
AI is not so naive as to suggest that problems will never surface in response to open questionsClick, regardless of how positive they may be posed. The more problems we have to deal with, the longer standing they may be, the more personal their import, and the more dire their consequences, the more we are going to think, talk, and hear about problems. But that doesn’t mean we have to approach our problems as investigators, analyzers, scrutinizers, accusers, evaluators, appraisers, marshals, and supervisors. There is another and, AI would argue, a better way.
We have already hinted at that better way in reflecting on the plane crash. It is possible to acknowledge and then to release our problems, as they surface, before returning to our appreciative inquiry into the things that work. Without acknowledgement there can be no release. Without release there can be no appreciative inquiry.
In many respects, the process of acknowledgement and release is similar to the process of mindfulness in meditation. Meditation is the gentle art of sitting, standing, lying, or walking without distracting inputs or thoughts. If you have ever tried to sit still in this way, then you know how hard it is to completely silence your mind. Many find it helpful to identify a practice (such as rhythmic breathing) or a focus (such as a candle) to cut down on the distractions. But even experienced meditators will tell you that they cannot silence their mind 100% of the time. There’s always something that comes up.
So what’s a meditator to do? Many, of course, choose the depreciative route. The berate themselves for not being able to meditate properly. They try different strategies to help them fix the problem. And in the end, if they stay stuck in this place, they usually quit meditating on a regular basis. “If I can’t do it right,” they reason, “I may as well not do it at all. It’s just too frustrating! So forget it.”
But there is another and a better way to handle the distractions. Meditation gurus and systems of every ilk urge practitioners to simply notice the distraction and then to release it. “How fascinating!” might characterize this response. “Instead of staying focused on my breathing, with no extraneous thoughts, I’m thinking about something I have to do tomorrow or I’m worrying about something I said or did yesterday. How fascinating!” Such acknowledgment breaks the power of the distraction, enabling us to mindfully come back to the task at hand: breathing in and out with no other focus or concern.
Jon Kabat-Zinn writes of this process in terms of noticing the “weather patterns in the mind and body.” No matter what the pattern may be, stormy or calm, overcast or sunny, violent or peaceful, becoming aware of the pattern is the heart of meditation. It is also the key to wholeness, Kabat-Zinn writes, since “that dimension of ‘you’ that already knows that you are doubting, unhappy, confused, anxious, in pain, resentful, is not any of those things and is already okay, already whole.”
When we hold these weather patterns lightly and gently in awareness, Kabat Zinn continues, we avoid feeding them by inflamed thinking that is continually judging them, fighting with them, wanting to change them, surrendering to them, or complaining about them. Instead, we come to appreciate them for what they are: the passing states of mind and body. They come to be seen as gifts rather than as obstacles to practice.
Appreciative Inquiry believes the same thing about people and organizations. At our core, we are not our problems. At our core, we are loveable and capable. At our core, we are already okay and already whole. Whatever may be currently going on, no matter how difficult and no matter how terrible, we can still look for strengths and still find things that work. How good and pleasant it is when that happens! We can release negative accounts in order to embrace and to build upon our positive core.
One image that may be helpful is that of a hot air balloon. In the process of discovering great stories Click and asking open questions Click, when problems get put on the table, acknowledge them for what they are: a passing state of feeling, being, and doing. They are not our true identity and they will not always be with us. But they are with us now. “How fascinating!” Depending upon their severity, such as the plane crash, it may even be necessary to say, “How sad!” Give them the acknowledgment they deserve.
But don’t go on to study them, as though you were the NTSB conducting an investigation of them. Instead, put them into the gondola of a hot-air balloon in order to watch them rise gently into the sky until they disappear from view. This can be done mentally and / or visually. As part of an AI group process, problems that surface can be written on cards and dropped into a basket. With or without the help of a balloon, the basket can then be taken to another room in order to bring the group back to its primary mission of finding, studying, and amplifying its positive core.
This is very much like gently bringing yourself back to the task of meditation. We notice distractions only to let them go and to get back on track with our meditation. So, too, with Appreciative Inquiry. We notice problems only to let them go and to get back on track with our appreciation.
Experienced AI practitioners have discovered that even very troubled individuals or organizations are usually able to identify more pleasure points than problems, more strengths than weaknesses, more victories than defeats, more possibilities than dead ends. It’s not uncommon for people and organizations to end up with a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative things. And at that point, it becomes much easier to release negative accounts. When the positive core has been adequately lifted up and embraced, there’s no way for negative energy to rule the day.
So let that be your approach to problems. Don’t study them to death in an attempt to fix them. That only leads to a lot of dead energy and half-baked solutions. Instead, release them to life in an attempt to displace them from the driver’s seat. Once you put them in the back seat, once you let them disappear in the balloon over the horizon, there’s no telling what great stories have yet to be written.
Coaching Inquiries: Do you tend to tackle problems head on? Do they haunt you with their negative energy and negative messages of failure and defeat? How can you become more aware of your own and your organization’s positive core? Who could you talk with to help you release negative accounts? What are the strengths that you celebrate and build on today?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
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..
You’re poem, Passion Click, is very moving at this time of my life. I’m 42, midlife crisis-ing, marriage failing, ambivalent yet desperately wanting passion. Not sexual passion, but the verve-for-life passion. The kind of passion for life someone who was near death and got the second chance feels. Your poem, Passion, conveyed that to me. Well done. Thanks.
I just wanted to say thank you for your wonderful AvantGo channel. I really enjoy reading all of your positive, helpful, inspiring information!
Great newsletter! I am in El Salvador, so please add my country to your list.
In your last Provision Click you wrote that, “It is much more rewarding and productive to be in a conversation with someone who asks great questions and allows the answers to emerge slowly, without presumption or condescension. If you want to develop this capacity, then read on to discover yet another dimension of Appreciative Inquiry.” How true! I wish your missive included instructions on locating people who converse that way! I’ve always done it, perhaps by instinct, from my exceedingly inquisitive mind. It’s pretty frustrating most of the time, but the moments of breakthrough to genuine give-and-take conversational exploration (open speculation on and consideration of a subject) are truly cool.
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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