Recently I was interviewed by Robyn Stratton-Berkessel for her ‘Positivity Strategist’ podcast about the relationship between Appreciative Inquiry and NLP. During the conversation a couple of connections occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of before.

Firstly, let’s look at the Appreciative Interview process (in which the interviewee tells the story of a time when they had a great experience relevant to the topic of the Appreciative Inquiry) in terms of ‘state-dependent memory, learning and behaviour’. What this means is that our ability to recall memories, our unconscious ability to access skills, and even our beliefs and consequently our behaviour may vary depending on the emotional state we are in.

For example, when we are happy, it’s easier to recall memories of other times when we were happy. If we’re miserable or depressed, those memories won’t come to mind so easily.

The researcher Barbara Frederickson has established that positive emotional states make it easier to think creatively and strategically. I believe that one of the things that makes Appreciative Inquiry so powerful as a change method is that if the Appreciative Interview is done well, the interviewee relives their great experience and goes back into the same emotional state they were in at the time. Thus they don’t just consciously remember the conditions enabling success that were there at the time, and the strategies and ideas that they had which contributed to the experience; they also re-enter the emotional state that went with the success, enabling them to see new possibilities and connections.

So the job of the Appreciative Interviewer is not just to get the facts of the story, it’s to guide the interviewee back into reliving the experience and re-accessing the emotional state they had at the time.

This is not going to happen unless the interviewer establishes rapport with the interviewee. Psychologists have established that there are three components to rapport: mutual attentiveness, positivity, and ‘synchrony’ (unconscious matching of posture and gesture). There’s a useful summary of the research in the introduction section of this recently published paper.

‘Synchrony’ means that two people in a conversation tend to fall into a rhythm with each other, so that their posture, gestures and voice tones start to match each other through unconscious mimicry.

NLP has a useful lens through which to view this process – the ideas of ‘pacing’ and ‘leading’. The founders of NLP discovered that the process of achieving rapport can be helped along with some intentional ‘pacing’ (matching the posture, voice tone and even values and beliefs of the other person).

Now, if you’ve ever met a badly-trained NLP practitioner, you will know that if this matching is done crudely, it won’t work. Too much deliberate matching of posture, gesture, words used and so on comes across as clunky and jarring, or worse, as sinister attempted manipulation.

Rather, ‘pacing’ happens naturally if you are genuinely interested and paying attention to the other person. It is worth doing a quick conscious check to make sure that you’re not doing anything that would get in the way of establishing rapport with the other person; for example, talking loudly where they are quiet, moving fast where their natural pace is quite slow, and so on.

‘Leading’ refers to harnessing the tendency of the other person to unconsciously mimic or reflect your actions when the two of you are in rapport. Once rapport has been achieved, you can ‘lead’ the person in the direction you want them to go by initiating a change that they will then unconsciously match, as long as the change is not so abrupt or drastic that it breaks rapport.

In particular, in an Appreciative Interview, you can lead the interviewee towards a more positive or resourceful state by going there yourself. This can be very useful if the interviewee starts off in a somewhat negative or bored state. Match their initial energy levels (as shown in their voice tone, speed and expansiveness of gesture, pace of speech and so on) in your outward behaviour, and once you have rapport with them, gradually put yourself into a positive state. If your rapport is deep enough, they will follow you. If they don’t, go back to being interested in them and deepen the rapport.

This won’t work if you start off being so positive, bouncy and enthusiastic that the interviewee feels they can’t relate to you. Inwardly, you should be in a positive emotional state from the start, but ‘pace’ the interviewee until you have rapport and then gradually allow your positive state to be outwardly apparent.

One final point: you don’t want to overdetermine what positive state the interviewee goes into, by imposing your idea of a positive state on theirs. You want to allow the emotion present in the interviewee’s story to emerge as they relive the experience. So move towards a state that is compatible with whatever positive feelings emerge. You can best do this by trusting that the interviewee will find great experiences relevant to the topic, and that they have all the resources within them that they need.

Genuine rapport is a two-way process. You may be ‘leading’ the interviewee to allow their own positive state to emerge, but the sign of a good Appreciative Interview is when the interviewer starts to feel the same empowering emotions that the interviewee has accessed through reliving the experience. This is why the atmosphere and energy levels in a room can change so quickly during the Appreciative Interview part of an Appreciative Inquiry process.

Practical Actions

1. Listen to my conversation with Robyn Stratton-Berkessel about the connections between AI and NLP here:

2. Being aware that you can ‘lead’ another person into positive, resourceful and empowering emotional states is useful in other situations too. How might you be able to apply this principle, ethically and effectively, in your own life and work? For example:

  • in appraisal interviews
  • in sales
  • in job interviews
  • in coaching
  • in parenting
  • in relationships

3. If you want to get to a level of knowledge and confidence to be able to use Appreciative Inquiry effectively in team-building, in organisational change, or in one-to-one coaching, why not attend the next Practical Appreciative Inquiry online facilitator training with me?

Full details and how to book are here:

What Appreciative Inquiry Can Learn From NLP: How To Be A Better Appreciative Interviewer

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