Appreciative interviews are the most important part of the Appreciative Inquiry process. Here are the four things you need to know to do great appreciative interviews.
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What do you need to know to do great appreciative interviews?
In their book Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination, Jane Magruder Watkins and Bernard Mohr say this about how to be as an interviewer:
Belief, rather than doubt, is the proper stance. This is not a time for skepticism or for questions that imply a need for “proof”.
So the first thing you have to do is assume vitality and health, rather than ‘deficit’. You’re starting the interview off with the assumption that there are good things there to find, that the person has had some good or even great experiences in relation to the topic you’re interviewing them about, and that some things in the system are working, at least some of the time.
One time I was teaching college lecturers about Appreciative Inquiry, and a lecturer in engineering said to me, “Hold on a minute! We were always taught that when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME. Now you’re telling us to forget that and make assumptions?”
He was right, of course, when you’re looking at solving engineering problems or getting all the facts to design something, you need to look at it objectively.
But human beings are quite different from inanimate machines or systems. As we saw when we talked about the Positive Principle, you can’t gather information from a system that involves human beings without affecting the system that you’re observing.
In practice this means you tend to get what you’re looking for. If you ask questions about problems, you will get lots of information about problems, and the person you’re asking to think about problems will probably end up thinking there are more problems than they thought.
Remember also that because of our inbuilt negative bias, asking ‘objective’ questions will most likely turn up problems rather than things that are working, because that’s what we are ‘wired’ to notice more.
So to find what’s working, we have to ask questions that assume there’s something to find. Our assumptions shape the words that come out of our mouths, without us having to consciously choose them. So if we presuppose that there are good things to find, that belief will be reflected in the questions that we ask, and consequently in the thoughts of the interviewee when their minds get to work on answering our questions.
The initial questions in an appreciative interview will probably be scripted, crafted to relate to the affirmative topic.
After that, you’re in a conversation, and the questions you ask will be guided by where the conversation goes.
Don’t worry about or overthink the wording of your follow-up questions. If you assume that there is something working, and that no matter how bad things have got, there will have been some best experiences, your follow-up questions will automatically be worded in an appreciative way, and even your body language will be encouraging and supportive.
Following on from that, remember the idea that ‘the inquiry is the intervention’.
You’re not just gathering data. The questions you ask impact the emotional state of the interviewee and the ongoing, ever-changing image they have of the organisation and the change process.
Just asking positively-focused questions can change the way that the interviewee thinks and feels about the team or the organisation.
The conversation that follows may also change the emotional state of the interviewer, and consequently the way they look at the world.
Why? Because of ’emotional resonance’ or ‘emotional contagion‘ – the way in which our brains pick up on the emotions of others, as expressed in their words, facial expressions, body language and voice tone, and allow themselves to be influenced.
This isn’t looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. It’s more redressing the balance, and reminding us of positives that we may have forgotten or shoved to the back of our minds.
You’ve probably already picked up that the way you ask the questions is as important as the wording.
Those non-verbal elements of your communication (voice tone, body language, the surroundings in which you do the interview) form a “meta-message” which influences people’s emotional state and shapes their expectations about the value and genuineness of the exercise.
When you are genuinely focused and interested, the interviewee will experience being fully heard and understood, and empathy will develop rapidly.
Four guidelines for giving the right meta-message?
Firstly, be 100% present for that person. Be interested in them. Give them your full attention. They will certainly notice, unconsciously if not consciously, if your mind is elsewhere.
Secondly, as we’ve said, assume that there is useful information there to be found, and that some things are already working.
Thirdly, you wouldn’t ask a question like this in a bored-sounding monotone:
“Now tell me about a time when you felt really energised, really excited, and fully engaged in your work.”
Instead, you want to embody the state you want the interviewee to be in – engaged, energised, interested.
Not so energised that you lose rapport with the interviewee; rather, start by matching their energy levels, be 100% interested in them, and let your unconscious mind do the rest.
Another thing to remember is that you are after stories, not opinions or analysis.
You want the interviewee to be reliving the experiences they are talking about and telling you what they thought and felt at the time, rather than examining them in a detached way and telling you what they think about them now.
This way, you will get genuine rapport and trust developing, and you will get genuine experiences rather than the “official line” or what the interviewee thinks you want to hear.
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