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Advances in brain-imaging technology from the 1990s onwards enabled researchers to discover two networks in the brain that in some ways are in opposition to each other.

The Task Positive Network (TPN) is activated when you engage in ‘cognitive’ tasks – perception, motor control, and problem-solving including logical analysis. It tends to produce stressful feelings, activating the sympathetic nervous system.

The ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN) enables big-picture thinking, engagement, motivation, stress regulation, and social and relationship awareness. It is associated with positive emotion, trust, and feeling supported.

The two networks are ‘opposing domains’ in the sense that when one network is active, it inhibits the other. Analytic thinking fires up the Task Positive Network but also turns off the Default Mode Network. On the other hand, empathic thinking activates the DMN and suppresses the TPN.

The evaluation process could easily activate the TPN if not designed carefully. Side- effects include defensiveness, lack of trust, seeing other people either as a means to an end or as threats, stress, reluctance to try new ways of working, and a focus on short-term results rather than longer-term and bigger-picture aims.

A balance between TPN and DMN is essential for open communication, creativity, and working together effectively. So how to encourage greater activation of the DMN, in the face of the pressures of organisational life?

Appreciative Inquiry Lights Up The DMN

AI encourages DMN activation and positive emotion in a number of ways:

  • Just being listened to with 100% attention activates the DMN.
  • When people are asked about their strengths, their achievements, and things they are proud of, they become less defensive and open up more.
  • It’s easier to like and trust other people when they are talking about their best experiences, their deepest values, and their aspirations for the future.
  • When they reconnect with their values (what is important to them), they become more resilient and have more of a sense of purpose.
  • Emotional resonance (when one person starts to experience the same emotions as another) helps people to bond.
  • Positive emotion helps people to engage their visual creative imagination.
  • Problem-focused approaches emphasise external forces and constraints that can lead to feelings of being judged and self-consciousness. Appreciative Inquiry, by contrast, evokes a sense of safety and self-empowerment that encourages new ideas and scanning the environment for possibilities.

The flipside of this discovery is that if you get too analytical, at least in the early stages of Appreciative Inquiry, you risk flipping your group back into ‘Task Positive Network’ thinking and shutting down the Default Mode Network that they need to find creative solutions and aspirational goals. This could well make the Dream and Design stages fizzle out into disappointing ‘going through the motions’ exercises, leaving your group with an overall feeling of ‘so what’ and no real progress being made.

We’ll explore this pitfall – and how to avoid it – in a subsequent article.

If you’re a facilitator, coach, change agent or business owner, you can learn everything you need to get started with Appreciative Inquiry by attending the Practical Appreciative Inquiry facilitator online training with Andy Smith. This small-group, interactive ‘live’ course starts in February 2020.

“A clear and comprehensive course on Appreciative Enquiry expertly delivered” – Jefferson Cann, International Leadership and Performance Coach

“I really enjoyed the course and feel confident enough to begin using what I have learned with groups in the coming months” – Aoife Collins Coaching & Consulting

“The confidence I gained through attending Andy’s course has re-invigorated my passion for improvement” – Alexandra Robinson, Senior Financial Analyst, Jaguar Land Rover

It’s a small group training with a limited number of places available, so act now!

Source: Richard Boyatzis and Anthony Jack, The neuroscience of coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal Practice and Research 70(1):11-27 · March 2018

Unfortunately, as so often with research, Boyatzis and Jack’s article is hidden behind a paywall by parasitic academic publishing companies – but you can read their 2013 paper that originally reported their coaching and fMRI study here.

Related article: Why ‘Coaching With Compassion’ Works Better Than ‘Coaching For Compliance’ – The Neuroscience Of Coaching

The Neuroscience Of Appreciative Inquiry

2 thoughts on “The Neuroscience Of Appreciative Inquiry

  • Sounds like MBTI application to me. S vs N, F vs T, etc.
    I have used the MBTI for over 25 years in leadership coaching, and it works.
    I stress full-spectrum leadership, utilizing a balanced approach.

  • Thanks Stan! I don’t know enough about MBTI to be able to say much about similarities – but I will say that Appreciative Inquiry mostly focuses on what happens between people, whereas MBTI (as far as I understand it) started out focusing more on what happens within the individual.

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