“We can choose what we focus on”

When I was studying hypnotherapy 30 years ago, a common metaphor for the unconscious mind likened it to a vast, dark storehouse full of treasures and memories, and our conscious awareness as being like a narrow-beam torch that we shine into one corner or another. We only see what we shine the torch onto, and although intellectually we may be aware that there is a load of other stuff out there in the darkness, it’s easy to think that whatever currently appears in the spotlight of our attention is all that there is. The role of the therapist was therefore to help the individual to shine their light in new directions, and so discover the resources that they needed to solve their problems.

Appreciative Inquiry, of course, grew out of the organisational development field, so its focus has mostly been on collective rather than individual change. For example, the classic explanation of the Poetic Principle describes organisations as being like open books that can be endlessly reinterpreted and learned from. But this applies just as much to our individual experiences of our own lives. We make sense of our lives as narratives or stories, that highlight some events and themes as significant, and ignore or downplay others.

This is inevitable – our attention is not infinite, so we can’t be aware of everything all the time. The stories that we tell ourselves, and that we maintain through our internal dialogue and our conversations with others, act as mental filters that help us notice some aspects of our experience, and ignore others.

Once these filters are in place (and we all have them), they tend to become more entrenched as we take notice of and amplify any evidence that confirms our existing belief systems, and downplay, explain away, or just ignore any evidence that contradicts them. This ‘confirmation bias’ means that whatever our beliefs are, we will find evidence that seems to confirm them.

This includes our self-image, our judgements about ourselves, our beliefs about our own capabilities, and our expectations of what the results of our actions will be in the future. As we act in line with these expectations and get results accordingly, our beliefs can become self-fulfilling.

Our belief systems are constantly being updated, mostly in small ways and in line with our confirmation biases, but sometimes evolving so that we see things differently. This can happen either because something happens that is so significant that our confirmation biases can’t explain it away, so we have to change our beliefs to accommodate it; or because we change the narratives that make sense of our experience.

Our minds select certain memories as significant events in the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we can expect. These reference experiences support our beliefs, like the legs of a table support the tabletop. We ‘prove’ that our beliefs are true by referencing these memories.

The Poetic Principle reminds us that we can choose what we focus on. Some people go through life believing that our abilities are fixed, we can’t change, and nothing we do will make any difference. If we think about it (not for too long, please), each one of us can probably find evidence in our own lives for that belief. However, you can also find evidence when you look for it, that life is good, you can achieve anything you want, and you can make good things happen. Both beliefs are equally ‘true’, in the sense that you can find examples to back them up. The question is, which belief is going to help you thrive and flourish? Which would you rather have?

One of the ways that we can apply the Appreciative approach in coaching is to ask questions that invite learners to redirect their attention to what’s working in their lives, what they have achieved, what they are proud of, and experiences that show their strengths. As they remember and tell stories about these experiences, they can become reference experiences that anchor different and more positive narratives, and form the foundations for more empowering beliefs about themselves and the possibilities open to them. Their current situations will start to look different, new choices start to emerge, and they can have new ideas about how to act on those opportunities.

Nothing needs to change in reality in order for our view of it to change for the better. This isn’t about instilling an ‘unrealistic’ belief system; it’s more about rescuing our view of the world from the brain’s habitual tendency to pay more attention to negatives and threats. By reminding ourselves to look at positives as well as negatives, we actually end up with a more realistic and effective worldview, that helps us make better choices and gives us a firm foundation to build on.

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Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Coaching: the Poetic Principle

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