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Understanding Appreciative Inquiry
Great coaching relies upon our ability to ask the right questions.
Powerful questions not only shape the direction of a coaching conversation, they also allow clients to explore how taking a new perspective might catalyze better outcomes.
This is true not only at the individual level, but within organizations as well!
A recent crossover from the field of Organizational Development into the world of coaching that is taking the art of questioning to new heights is Appreciative Inquiry (AI).
The Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry, based in the Robert P. Stiller School of Business at Champlain College, calls AI "the best large-group method in the world today.”
“The hallmark of AI Coaching is robust awareness and appropriate engagement of the social network of which the client is a part and which is relevant to the objectives of the coaching.” - International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry
What are some of the benefits corporations, organizations, and nonprofits can expect to experience from implementing AI methods and coaching?
According to the Cooperrider Center, AI outcomes include:
- Increased profits, while at the same time improving the world.
- Shows businesses the bigger picture, including their place in the world from a sustainability point of view.
- Allows employees to be more creative and to have more buy-in with the company's strategic plans.
- Improves efficiency and output due to the revitalized commitment and enthusiasm from both employees and management for the company's mission.
- Engages entire communities in creating improvements in their region.
- Works across all types of organizational sectors, from for-profit to the social sector.
In their foundational paper introducing the field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called for the promotion of ‘positive institutions’. In their view, positive institutions move individuals toward better citizenship, responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance and work ethic.
Attributes of positive institutions include:
- Valuing the collaboration process
- Learning from colleagues
- Appreciating one’s colleagues
- Connecting with staff around shared values
- Feeling energized and passionate
- Having a clearer vision of the organization’s future direction
One way to cultivate these types of institutions is through… you guessed it… Appreciative Inquiry! AI is all about making a commitment to look for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them.
So how does AI work?
The AI method involves facilitating a respectful inquiry into a topic of interest. This creates a framework where a specific set of questions is asked in order to help participants identify solutions that already exist and are working in a given system. Working with the question sets, participants explore ways to reflect and amplify those “working” aspects in order to move the system in positive directions (A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001).
In other words, AI facilitates an intentional examination of the aspects within an organization or person that help a living system to function at its best.
AI represents a paradigm shift in the world of work and community development.
Rather than focusing on “what’s not working,” it adopts a strengths-based change approach. A similar paradigm shift can also be seen in the world of psychology. In traditional psychology, the focus is on correcting weaknesses, whereas in positive psychology and coaching, the focus is on building strengths.
Implementing the AI Method
Appreciative Inquiry utilizes storytelling to achieve its results. The process of sharing positive stories opens people up to their past and present capabilities, such as: achievements, unrealized potentials, strengths, values, motivations, hopes, dreams, innovations, traditions, and visions of possible futures.
Within this context, people listen to one another, share information, generate meaningful discussions, and ultimately produce new knowledge.
The 4-D’s of Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry consists of four key stages: Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny.
AI is designed to help both individual and organizational clients examine important personal relationships using the following 4-dimensional process:
- to discover what is working well in the relationship;
- to investigate the client’s hopes and dreams for the relationship in the future;
- to design plans to realize part of all of the hopes and dreams;
- to implement those plans and actions.
Tip for Coaches: The emphasis in Appreciative Inquiry is on imagination and innovation rather than intervention. This may feel tricky at first, but instead of focusing on negativity, criticism, and diagnosis, the focus is on the discovery, dream, and design. When applying the AI Model, make sure that your language and the tone of the session are encouraging, optimistic, and inspirational.
Exercise: Test Drive the AI Model!
Step 1: Choose a focus
Identify an important relationship or team in your professional life. Describe the current state of this relationship, including how you feel toward the other(s) and the relationship in general.
Step 2: Discover
Celebration: Within important relationships, each person makes meaningful and purposeful contributions that should be celebrated and acknowledged. Think about a moment or experience with this person or team that is worth celebrating. Consider the following:
- What was it about this moment that made it worth celebrating?
- What qualities did you bring to this moment?
- What qualities did the other person (people) bring to this moment?
Maintenance: Maintaining an important relationship is a collaborative effort. Consider:
- What do you value most about yourself that contributes to the healthy development of this relationship? In other words, what is your greatest strength in this relationship?
- What do you value most about the other person that contributes to the healthy development of the relationship?
- Describe a time when you worked well together to come to a solution in a way that made you both feel respected.
Step 3: Dream
By thinking about and visualizing an ideal future, you can begin to make positive changes to help achieve that future. For the next few minutes, close your eyes and visualize your ideal relationship with the person you selected for this exercise.
- How would you like your relationship to be?
- What would you like to see more of in your relationship that would create a greater feeling of harmony and peace?
- What words could the other person use to describe you that would make you feel proud?
- What hopes and dreams do you have for this relationship?
Describe or write down what you visualized.
Step 4: Design
Now let’s look at what you can do to move the relationship closer to your newly envisioned ideal.
- What concrete steps could you (as an individual) take to move towards your ideal future relationship? What strengths could you use to help realize your hopes and dreams?
- What concrete steps could you take together with the other person to help you realize your hopes and dreams for the future?
- When you look back on your relationship with each other 1 year from now, what actions and behaviors would give you the greatest sense of pride, meaning, and fulfillment?
To learn more about Appreciative Inquiry, check out:
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