Appreciative interviews are the heart of Appreciative Inquiry, and they come in many different formats.
This format is the best I’ve found for business use. As well as looking for stories of success, these 4 questions look for what people value and find motivating about their stories, and identifies the conditions that made that success possible – as well as looking to the future to form a bridge to the Dream stage.
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You will see many different question formats for appreciative interviews in books and articles about Appreciative Inquiry.
All the formats that I’ve seen start with some variation on asking the interviewee for a story about a great experience that they’ve had, related to the topic of the inquiry.
The subsequent questions vary a bit according to which one you read. This is the format that I find works best in a business context, and which also helps with identifying the conditions that enable success, as well as inviting the interviewee to activate their Default Mode or empathetic network and building trust between participants.
In this example, I’m using a fairly generic question that we might use as a warm-up at the start of a meeting or facilitated process:
- What has been your best experience of your professional life – a time when you felt most alive, most engaged, and proud of yourself and your work?
When we are inquiring into what’s working in relation to a particular topic, we could tailor the question to the topic, for example:
“What has been one of your best experiences of a team working together effectively?”
“Tell me about a time when your team faced a challenge and emerged stronger from it?“
The second question looks for what the interviewee finds significant about their story, either at the time, or looking back on it now.
- What’s really important about this experience? What do you value most about it?
This will give you some, at least, of their values. Values are what motivate us, and also our criteria for deciding what is right and what is wrong. If you’re leading a team, this is worth knowing.
By focusing on what’s important about their story of success, the interviewee starts generalising out from the specific experience to the wider significance – to themselves, to their work, and perhaps to the organisation as a whole.
There’s also some evidence that connecting with your values helps to make you more resilient, so it’s a useful question on that level too.
- What made this experience possible? (was it culture, leadership, structures, systems, or what?)
This question is looking for the enabling factors of peak performance.
It has the potential to uncover preconditions for success, best practice, and useful ‘how-tos’ that could lead to a general improvement in performance if they were more widely implemented.
If we identify the enabling conditions for success, and put them in place more widely, we will probably see peak performance happening more often.
When I’m asking this question, and particularly if I’m crafting appreciative interview questions for people who haven’t experienced Appreciative Inquiry before, I usually give a few examples of what I mean by enabling conditions.
The final question of the interview is a bridge to the future, sowing the seeds for the next stage, the Dream vision of a desired future.
- If you had one wish for yourself, your team or your organisation, what would it be?
Of course, you could go for the traditional three wishes. Either way, this question links the ‘Discovery’ stage to the next ‘Dream’ stage by starting to uncover aspirations for the future.
The answers you get to this question will be richer and more imaginative as a result of the psychological priming and direction of attention towards resources accomplished by the first three questions.
You’ve also probably already spotted that this question is also a neat way of handling any unhappiness with the way things are currently.
Whatever the person may be unhappy about, this gives them the opportunity to talk about what they want to change – not by complaining about the problems they face, which will make them feel more negative and helpless the more they talk about them, but about what they want instead of those problems.
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