Cooperrider mentioned in passing Wittgenstein’s idea that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. Unless we have the language to talk about change, especially talking about it in groups, we can’t conceive of it and it won’t happen.
The human brain has a tendency to focus on threats rather than opportunities, negatives rather than positives. This might have been useful in survival situations where our ancestors were dodging predators, but it means that when faced with problems we can miss potential solutions and forget about previous times that we have solved similar problems. Focusing on the negatives only gives us half the picture.
When we talk about problems with other people thinking the same way, our conversations can reinforce our perceptions and make the problems feel even harder to solve. In order to loosen up our collective thinking, we need to reframe our conception of the current situation and look at it in a different way.
Questions about what’s working, about our best experiences in the past, and about our strengths, can act as a corrective to our brains’ negative bias, reminding us to lift our attention from analysing problems to notice potential solutions and remind us of reference experiences that reinforce our sense of agency and give us relevant information for making things work better more often.
If questions like these are asked of a team or a group of people (or if, even more powerfully, we invite the people in the team to ask those questions of each other), they’ll be having conversations about new things, and in new ways, finding new resources or remembering previous successes as they are illuminated by the redirected ‘torch beam’ of their collective attention.
Collectively, they’ll be activating their Default Mode or ‘empathic’ brain networks and switching out of the habitual Task Positive or ‘analytic’, problem or task-focused mindset that we have most of the time at work. This enables them to form stronger, more trusting relationships, feel more open to new ideas, and be more able to come up with new creative solutions.
Appreciative Inquiry’s ‘Constructionist Principle’ explains that many of the constraints and limitations on what people in an organization believe they can change, and how hard it will be to change them, are ‘social facts’ – things that become true because people believe they are true, beliefs that are socially constructed and maintained through the conversations people have. If we change the conversation, social reality changes – often very quickly.
So change starts as soon as the question is asked. In the phrase often associated with Appreciative Inquiry’s ‘Simultaneity Principle’, ‘the inquiry is the intervention’.
Given that, in Cooperrider’s words, ‘we become what we most deeply, frequently, and most powerfully ask questions about‘, how could you reframe the questions you ask your team, or your coaching clients, or perhaps the questions you ask yourself, to get different and better results?
Practical Appreciative Inquiry: How to Use This Leading-Edge Coaching Method Confidently with Teams and Small Groups by Andy Smith is available to order in paperback or Kindle format to download now.
“This is a great how-to book on using Appreciative Inquiry. Andy does an excellent job weaving the what, how, and why into a step-by-step guide” – Cheri Torres, co-author of Conversations Worth Having