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Recently one of my Practical Appreciative Inquiry graduates emailed me an interesting question.

She is using an appreciative interview format in her research working with maternity staff (doctors, midwives and maternity support workers) who have worked through the Covid crisis and obviously been under a lot of pressure.

She was concerned that it would seem wrong to not acknowledge how difficult the last few months have been, especially when as a researcher she hasn’t been through that experience herself.

On the other hand, starting off by asking ‘how have the last few months been?’ is not a great question from an appreciative point of view, as it could derail the conversation into complaints and venting about negative experiences before it even starts.

This was what I suggested:

Explain that you’re using Appreciative Inquiry for the interview.
Check if they’ve come across it, and if they haven’t just in a
sentence say that it’s an approach to change that’s based not on
analysing problems and looking for causes, but instead on identifying
what is working and has worked, and doing more of that.

If they have heard of Appreciative Inquiry already then just add ‘As you know…’ to the start of your sentence.

You could go on to explain that the way it finds this is to ask about
best experiences, times when people overcame challenges, things they
are proud of… even if these best experiences are the exception
rather than the rule.

This is pretty much how you’d introduce AI to anyone. You’ve framed it as a special type of conversation that focuses on the best experiences, even if the bulk of their experiences have been bad or underperforming, in order to work.

But here’s the crucial thing:

Say ‘Before we start the Appreciative Interview, how have the last few
months been for you?

So it’s just two human beings talking rather than interviewer and
interviewee. Saying ‘Before we start’ will hopefully mark the question
as outside of the formal interview, so they can answer however they
like.

Can you learn how to facilitate Appreciative Inquiry processes from an online course?

It turns out you can, as long as the course is live and interactive!

I know this because I’ve run five Practical Appreciative Inquiry courses online with great feedback from participants. The next training starts soon – find out more and book your place here.

Other ways of handling negativity

Here are some other tips for handling ‘negativity’ in an appreciative interview:

Parking the negatives, and coming back to them later:

Say that you will make a note of any ‘negative’ issues and come back to them later. If your closing question is about the wishes they have for themselves, their team, or the organisation in the future, the negatives can be discussed in terms of what the interviewee would like to see instead.

‘Normalising’

Sometimes you need to let the interviewee talk about their negative experiences, accepting their right to feel this way, but without reinforcing the negativity by adding your own judgements.

At the same time, you don’t want to display ‘toxic positivity’, denying, invalidating, or minimising their lived experience.

So to maintain rapport, you can use a method called ‘normalising’. This uses statements like:

  • ‘That sounds tough’
  • ‘I imagine anyone in that situation would feel that way’
  • ‘That must have been a difficult situation’.

What you don’t want to do is go on to add your own value judgement that reinforces the ‘awfulness’ of the situation by agreeing with it or even amplifying their assessment of it:

  • Oh no, you poor thing’
  • ‘You must have felt terrible’
  • ‘What an awful thing to happen.’

Throughout the conversation, it is important to maintain yourself in a positive state so that you don’t get dragged down by their negativity.

(Credit: I came across this idea of ‘normalising’ on Dion Sing’s Solution Focused Leader website)

Returning to the positive:

After listening to a problem, say you are going back to focus back on when things are working at their best, even if it was just a brief moment.

Acknowledging, and flipping to the positive opposite:

Everything that people find wrong in an organisation represents an absence of something they regard as ideal, so you can acknowledge that what they are describing is not ideal, and then ask them ‘What would it look like if this was working at its best?’ or ‘What would you want instead of this?’

Have you tried any of these methods when conducting appreciative interviews (formally or just in conversation)? What results did you get?

Let us know in the comments below.

How To Do Appreciative Interviews With People Who Are Feeling Negative

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