Game-Changing Appreciative Inquiry

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“Appreciative Inquiry–based conversations invite meaningful engagement and often lead to action that gives us a sense of accomplishment.”

Cheri TorresConversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement

What is appreciative inquiry? Imagine two scenarios both involving a couple struggling in their relationship and seeking marriage counseling. In the first instance, the couple is asked questions centering on their problems, including their origin and possible solutions. While this traditional approach has merit, consider the second method, in which the conversation is proactively comprised of powerful questions that focus on what can be most generative in the lives of this couple. In the second scenario, the counselor demonstrates appreciative inquiry, or the use of intentional questions focused on what can be most appreciated and life-giving in any situation.

The Past:  What has worked?

The counselor may begin by asking, “can you tell me a story that best describes a time in your lives when you were the most in love, when your relationship was at its best, strongest? What was happening? What were you doing? Thinking? Feeling?  Who was supportive to you? How did you feel physically? What were you saying to each other, and about each other? What were others saying about you? In other words, bring back to life this highly charged positive experience.

The Present:  What is working?

The counselor might also say, “I know you’re here with challenges to work through. For now, can you tell me a story that describes some of the events in your marriage that show how things are working well during this time?” Questions are designed to recreate the experience for each spouse to remember and fully express.

The Future:  What could work?

Forward-thinking questions might include, “Can you tell me a story about what your relationship would look, sound and feel like if you had the marriage of your dreams? What would you be saying to each other? What would you be doing, feeling, thinking? What would others be saying about you and to you? Who would be supporting you?  How would you be supporting each other?”

What Good Happens?

I know in my own life, when I ask appreciative inquiry questions to help me set vision, work through challenges or improve relationships, I always feel uplifted, strengthened and encouraged. Creative ideas flow. Appreciative questions remind me I’m a powerful person who has been successful, is successful and will continue to be successful and that many good things are happening in my life. All of this enables me to discover what is most helpful as I move forward in my life.

A Real Life Application

One of the most powerful demonstrations of this tool was in our work with inner city high school students. We trained over 200 freshmen in emotional intelligence skills including appreciative inquiry so that more of them would be empowered to stay in school and graduate. One day, we invited 50 people from the community who had successfully graduated high school so that students could practice appreciative inquiry.

They asked questions such as, “can you tell me a story about a time you wanted to quit high school and didn’t? How did you do it? What gave you the strength to stay? Who supported you and how?” This process allowed adults and students to bond at a very deep level and many stayed in touch for years. 

That year, the drop out rate decreased and the graduation rate increased earning for my company the Vanguard Award for Innovation in Providing Services that Change Lives from the St. Louis Mental Health Board. What was even more gratifying than any award was the day I coached a family meeting in the home of one of these same students. During it, I watched a tough teenage boy say to his mother and sisters, “I think I’ve got an appreciative inquiry question to help with this problem.”

So…What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?

As published nationally in the column Emotional Intelligence in Women’s Journals, Dec 2009/ Jan 2010

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