Appreciative Inquiry (AI) does not seek to appreciate the best in life and work as an academic exercise. It’s not an end in itself. It’s rather the foundation for inspired action in the world. When people are discouraged and depressed, their actions are small or nonexistent. When people are energized and hopeful, their actions are large and courageous. If you are ready to stop going through the motions of life, if you see the need for transformational change, then perhaps AI is the tool you need to get things moving.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) may sound like rather sophisticated, stuffy, and heady stuff. You may connect it, for example, with art appreciation which conjures up images of looking at a work of art and forming opinions as to its relative merits. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
One reason is that Appreciative Inquiry is not evaluative. It is not an attempt to take stock of things, both positive and negative. AI is narrative. It is an attempt to tell stories about our best experiences. For another reason, AI is not about forming opinions. It is not an attempt to understand how one feels about something. AI is about taking action. It is an attempt to create even better experiences in the future.
The best way I know to describe what happens through an AI process is in terms of inspiration. Telling and listening to stories about our best experiences inspires us to take bold action for transformational change. It is a common, human experience that has been developed into a formal process by AI practitioners.
Who, for example, has not been inspired to take action by the exciting report of a friend or family member? That is a nearly universal human experience. I can remember a time in college, more than 30 years ago, when a friend came back to campus after summer break telling stories about his great experiences with the Appalachia Service Project. He could hardly contain his enthusiasm.
The houses that were repaired, the people whose lives were changed, the fun everyone had working together. The mission was impossible • to address the housing needs of an impoverished region of North America known as Central Appalachia • but this fellow was on fire for the cause. He was pumped up and he got the rest of us pumped up, such that several more people joined the effort in subsequent summers. His stories led to our own stories with a project that continues to this very day Click.
That was how the Appalachia Service Project or ASP came into being and worked. Inspirational stories led to inspired action. The founder and first director of the ASP, the Rev. Glenn “Tex” Evans, was a consummate story teller. From tall tales to hardcore reality, Tex had more stories to tell than anyone I have ever known. And he told every story with a glimmer in his eye and appreciation in his voice. Consider, for example, Tex’s keen eye for the life-lessons imbedded in one simple act of kindness:
At the turn of the last century, Tex writes, “in a small Piute Indian village, a baby boy was born. It was an isolated community where only a few Indian families lived and no white people. The mother, for some reason known only to her, was angry with the father of the child, and at the birth of the child rejected it. No doctor was present, but a neighboring Indian woman came over and helped with the delivery of the baby.”
“Nearby, a kindhearted good man was anxious and kept watch over the event. He had sensed the attitude of the mother-to-be and he would not go any place that day because he wanted to be around just in case there was something he could do. From his own front door he was watching the house while the baby was being born.”
“When the baby had come, the midwife wrapped the boy in newspaper and walked out into their back yard. There stood a small shed with a wall just a few inches from a fence. She folded the paper and pressed the little package down between that shed wall and the fence.”
“The older Indian man, who had been anxiously and fearfully watching, came hurrying across the short distance, entered the backyard, and reached in between the wall and the fence and brought out the package. He unwrapped the package and found the newly born little boy breathing and, seemingly, in good shape.”
“He hurried with the baby to his house where his good wife bathed it. She then found a way to feed the child and dressed him in suitable clothing. Then they gave their attention to what was to become of this little boy.”
“Later on, they got in contact with the mother who assured them that she did not want the child and that they could have him. Nothing could have pleased the new ‘parents’ more than having the darling baby boy. They decided to name him Roger Rock.”
“Roger grew as many strong little Indian boys grow. He was vivacious and full of energy. At times he didn’t like to work, but his father helped him to grow and told him the legend associated with their tribe.”
“Years later, I came to know the good man who had rescued the baby. The mother had been dead for many years. I also came to know Roger Rock. The father has long since gone to join the Other Land and now Roger Rock has joined them both in the next world! But you know, Roger Rock became the father of eight or nine children. And, now, no fewer than thirty grandchildren are still living.”
“I marvel sometimes at how our whole existence rests on such narrow foundations. Here is a whole family of strong people whose very existence hung by the slenderest thread, like a silken spider web.”
“What if the good man had not been concerned? What if he had been away at the time of the birth? What if he had not lived there? It seems to be almost unbelievable that the lives of so many people, so many splendid and strong people, hung by the slenderest threads. I’m proud now to know many of Roger Rock’s grandchildren. I know his children! They’re proud and strong and gifted, and as I ponder the event which took place so many years ago, I’m glad that that kindly man and woman saw the plight of the newborn baby and did precisely as their noble hearts instructed them to do.”
“Aren’t you glad too?”
Someone else might have told that tale from a totally different perspective. It could have been told with judgment and condemnation for the birth mother. It could have been extrapolated into all manor of racial prejudice. But that was not the way of a man who had learned “to accept people right where they are and just the way they are.” In every situation, Tex could find reason to look up and give thanks for the life-giving and life-entertaining spirit of love.
“Aren’t you glad too?” Doesn’t that story, and doesn’t that question, just make you want to go out and do something good yourself? Doesn’t it make you want to be a better person? If so, then you are right now experiencing the power of Appreciative Inquiry. As people share their “best-so” stories, which are stories of how things are at their best, it generates an upward spiral of inspired action encompassing both the storyteller and those who hear the story.
That partly explains why coaching works. If coaching is anything it is the appreciative sharing of stories. Most of the time, the clients tell their stories and the coaches listen. Some of the time, it goes the other way around. Regardless of who is speaking and who is listening, however, the conversation becomes most powerful when both the coach and client become inspired to take inspired action.
Lance Secretan defines inspired action this way: It is the passionately held Cause of one person which becomes the Cause of many. That’s not because they are good salespeople for the Cause. It’s not because they are impatient, aggressive, and competitive in pursuit of the Cause. It’s because the Cause serves and ennobles others. It connects us with the path from present reality to a richly imagined future. It draws people, like a magnet, with a compelling vision of who we are and who we can be at our very best.
The world’s great leaders have all known the power of storytelling to craft and communicate the Cause. “When the legends die,” muses Tecumseh of the Shawnees, “the dreams end; there is no more greatness.”
Unfortunately, it’s easy for that to happen. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life and work, we forget all about the legends and think only about the problems. But the energy for change does not come from the problems. It comes from the legends. When Oprah asked Bono where his commitment and passion for Africa comes from, he described his experience of going to Africa being overwhelmed by the problems. So overwhelmed that he was, at first, unable to respond.
But as he experienced the people of Ethiopia, even in the desperation of a refugee camp, he connected with the royal part of their blood • a connection going back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. “It was extraordinary,” he told Oprah, “this royal thing was all around. And when I came back, I realized that what I saw in Ethiopia wasn’t just about people falling on hard times. It was a wider problem • political, not just social.” So the royal legend inspires political action and $40 billion worth of debt gets canceled to 18 African nations.
Now that’s inspired action, and that’s the kind of action • bold, courageous, fearless, transformative action • that Appreciative Inquiry seeks to muster in organizations and people. By structuring a process for remembering and sharing the legends of “best-so” stories, AI equips people with both the inspiration and the activism to change the world. No matter how difficult or discouraging the challenges, AI uses positive stories to change how we work together and what gets done.
It may not be as immense as saving Africa from debt and AIDS, it may be no more than saving one small child or reengineering one vital process, but it will matter just as much in the end. And doesn’t that make you glad?
Coaching Inquiries: What are the most inspired actions you have ever taken? Who have they touched and how have they changed the world? How could you become more bold, courageous, and fearless? What is within your power to transform? What inspired actions are you ready, willing, and able to take?
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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..
I want to thank you for sending me your e-newsletter. I must confess that I am not totally convinced about the approach of AI, but I am challenged to read and think about it.
Thanks for continuing to emphasize AI. I wish I were better at it, but your encouragement helps me keep trying. And thanks for your concern about cancer, the older we get the more omnipresent it seems to be. What a world in which we sojourn.
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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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