If they’re the right kind of questions, that is

The traditional idea of change in organisations starts with diagnosing the problem, then prescribing a solution – and only when you start to carry out the prescribed remedies would you expect change to start happening.

The change philosophy known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approaches things differently. According to AI’s Simultaneity Principle, change starts as soon as you start asking questions.

Why? Because when you ask someone a question, they move the spotlight of their attention to a different part of their experience as they look for the answers. Their emotional state may change, depending on what the question invites them to think about or remember; for example (assuming a ‘neutral’ emotional state to start with), they will feel happier if asked about pleasant experiences, and more stressed if asked about problems or bad experiences.

The brain networks that they use to process their experience are also affected: considering problems, threats, or deadlines will activate the analytical or ‘Task Positive’ network, while thinking about their strengths, achievements, and good experiences will activate the empathic or ‘Default Mode’ network.

Activating the Default Mode network changes not only how the person feels, but how ready they are to trust others, how creative they are, and how open to new ideas they are.

So the questions we ask are important not just for the answers we get, but for their effect they have on the relationships between people, what information they register and assign significance to, and for their morale and information.

I found several illustrations of this principle in a new paper by Rachel Arnold et. al. in the European Journal of Midwifery, Why use Appreciative Inquiry? Lessons learned during COVID-19 in a UK maternity service.

Rachel is a graduate of my Practical Appreciative Inquiry course, and this paper demonstrates how she’s taken what she’s learned on the course and really integrated it into her research methods, with positive results that (reading between the lines) surprised even her.

Rachel and her team undertook a study into the wellbeing of clinical staff in a maternity unit in the South-West of England. The research was done in the form of an appreciative interview:

Staff were asked: ‘Tell me about one of your best experiences working here’, ‘What made this such a meaningful experience?’, ‘What do you value about your work?’, and ‘What helps you to thrive and stay well despite the challenges?’. Staff were then asked to imagine how these strengths could be enhanced and built on in the future.

I’ve pulled out some of the most interesting results from the paper. I hope they show you how Appreciative Inquiry can change how people feel about their situations, and how, individually and collectively, they can gain a lasting sense of empowerment and connection.

One midwife in our study talked about a group of women that she particularly enjoyed supporting. Probed for details, she became increasingly animated. A few days later she emailed explaining that following our interview she realized how much she cared about this area of practice. She realized that she would like to specialize in it and had approached her line-manager to discuss this. For this midwife, the interview questions had helped to initiate change because through them she had identified the part of her role that she loved the most and wanted to do more of. Inquiry and change had happened simultaneously.

One participant was unhappy with her work environment and colleagues. I asked what was important to her and to describe how she would like things to be. She wrote a few days later saying that she had thought about the interview a lot. She had realized that she could be part of the solution rather than a victim and had decided that she was going to do this. This participant had imagined a better future, realized that this was what she wanted, and that it was within her power to do something about it.

As part of the feedback and co-analysis many of the positive, ‘best of’, stories have been anonymized and widely shared with maternity staff. This has generated many comments, similar stories and conversations about the things that make a difference, what colleagues appreciate about each other and what helps them to do a great job. These conversations and stories are helping to shape the constantly evolving identity of the maternity services.

As reported elsewhere, being asked positive questions appeared to surprise staff. They particularly struggled when asked to talk about challenges they had overcome or things that they were proud of. Despite initial hesitation, midwives, doctors and maternity support workers shared personal stories of achievements and the determination that kept them going. They talked of deeply held values and their sense of privilege knowing they made a difference to the women in their care. One participant later commented, that, after some unsettled years, the positive questioning finally made her realize how content she was in her job.

One of the considerations that Rachel and her team thought deeply about was “Is AI appropriate for staff under pressure?” – as the decision to use AI in the study had been made before the COVID-19 pandemic started.

I’m impressed by how fully Rachel understood the suggestions in the course for how to conduct appreciative interviews with people who have been through a hard time, and how she was able to implement them sensitively.

Reservations about whether AI was appropriate in a ‘crisis situation’ were answered unequivocally by the participants. I was overwhelmed by the reaction of the midwives, doctors and maternity support workers as they told their stories, ‘relived’ events, and spoke with passion, commitment, enthusiasm and joy about their work. Many reconnected with the values that had inspired them to work or pursue a career in midwifery/obstetrics. Several staff concluded the interview by saying they felt like they had had therapy; the literature refers to the therapeutic value of qualitative studies.

We concluded that AI may be an excellent tool to use in times of turmoil because it is a time when people are dealing with change, rethinking approaches and priorities in their work and private life. This may be a good time to ask questions.

There is a lot of useful material in this paper, both as an introduction to the concepts and principles of Appreciative Inquiry for researchers who may want to try it, and as a source of practical tips for conducting appreciative interviews with hard-pressed staff. Rachel can be contacted by interested researchers (correspondence details are in the paper).

It’s heartening to see a useful academic research paper that’s not hidden away behind a paywall – here’s the link again. You can also download a PDF version where I’ve highlighted the extracts quoted above.

If you would like to start using Appreciative Inquiry in your work, whether it’s organisational development, team or one-to-one coaching, or research, why not join the next Practical Appreciative Inquiry course – there’s one starting soon!

How Change Happens As Soon As You Start Asking Questions

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