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The first in a series of short videos where we introduce the basic principles underpinning Appreciative Inquiry.

The first, and the one from which I think most of the others flow, is the Constructionist Principle. This says that the language we use and the conversations we have shape our social reality.

See below for the video transcript.

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Video Transcript

Let’s take a look at the principles that Appreciative Inquiry is based on. There are five basic principles.

The first, and the one from which I think most of  the others flow, is The Constructionist Principle.

This says that the language we use and the conversations we have shape our social reality.

We make sense of things through conversation, and what emerges as knowledge is a broad social agreement created among people through communication.

The Constructionist Principle recognises that there are many different ways of viewing social reality and many truths, rather than just one truth that claims to be absolute.

What does this mean in practice? Life is full of ‘social constructs” – concepts and categories which exist because people agree to act as if they exist.

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin would be a good example. In 2011 you could get one Bitcoin for thirty cents. In December 2017 it hit an all time high of $19,783.06.

Why was it worth 30 cents in 2011 and nearly $20,000 in 2017? Because that’s what people decided it was worth at those times.

Actually, that’s true for all currencies, not just Bitcoin – they are worth whatever people decide they are worth. If you’ve ever visited Scotland, then gone to England and tried to spend a Scottish pound note in an English shop, you will probably have found the shopkeeper won’t accept it – even though technically it’s legal currency in the UK.

‘Social status’ would be another example. The elevated status accorded to the British royal family exists because enough people agree that it exists.

When people decide to change their beliefs around a particular social construct, reality changes. Just before the 2008 financial crash, the balance sheets of banks were bolstered by valuable assets called ‘credit default swaps’. Then one day the market decided that these credit default swaps were worthless, so the banks suddenly had net deficits and started calling for bailouts .

Organisations are made up of social constructs: conventions, rules, and assumptions that usually go unchallenged and unreflected on.

Although those social constructs don’t have a physical reality, like buildings, computers, or people, they do make up the ‘social reality’ of that organisation.

People make decisions on the basis of those social constructs – as reasons to do things or constraints on what they can do. People interpret information and shape their expectations of the future within the frame of those unchallenged assumptions.

But there are many other possible interpretations of any belief system or way of looking at things. Social constructionism doesn’t judge them on how ‘true’ they are – in fact it doesn’t have anything to say about ultimate truth. Instead, it looks at how useful they are.

As the founder of Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider, says, the Constructionist Principle means that we can replace “absolutist claims or the final word with the never-ending collaborative quest to understand and construct better options for living” (David L Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution In Change)

So what are the Implications? If social reality is shaped by how we talk about it, it makes sense to talk about what is working, what we are proud of, what gives life to the organisation, and what we want.

This will help us to notice options and find solutions that we would never have even seen if we stuck with talking about gaps, deficiencies, problems to be solved, and what we want to get away from.

Let me end with a question:What changes could you make to what you talk about, or the way you talk about it, to get the best from your team, your colleagues, or your  boss?

What specific changes will you try out in:

  • the questions you ask;
  • the stories you tell?

Principles of Appreciative Inquiry 1: The Constructionist Principle (video)
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