I love listening to podcasts – if you select them carefully, they can be a real source of learning and new ideas. That was certainly true of Professor David Cooperrider’s recent interview on the Inspiring Impacts podcast.
Although I’ve been working with Appreciative Inquiry for over 15 years, I learned a lot from this interview. It inspired me to think some more about the principles and basics of Appreciative Inquiry, and to write some articles expanding on these thoughts. First, let’s consider the power of questions.
Near the start of the episode, the interviewer, Dr. Lindsey Godwin, asks David to describe Appreciative Inquiry in his own words. This is what he says:
“Appreciative Inquiry is all about the search for the true, the good, the better, the possible. And I like to use the language of life. It’s a search for what gives life to living systems, not just human systems, but living systems, when they’re most alive, and most effective, and most filled with potential. And as it relates to organizations and organization development, it’s all about the study of what gives life with the premise that we grow, and we become what we most deeply, frequently, and most powerfully ask questions about.”
“We become what we most deeply, frequently, and most powerfully ask questions about.” If you think about this idea for a moment, you realise that it has profound implications.
Questions change us, even if only for a moment or in a small way. Why? Because when someone asks us a question (or if we ask a question of ourselves), it invites us to look for an answer – to turn our attention to somewhere new.
How Questions Change the Way People Think
A long time ago I used to be a hypnotherapist, using among other methods Ericksonian hypnosis. One of the metaphors that Dr Milton Erickson used for the unconscious mind (the part of our minds that operates below our conscious awareness) likened it to a big, dark storehouse, full of all kinds of objects and treasures.
Our conscious awareness is like a person shining a narrow-beam torch around the storehouse. It’s tempting to believe that what we can see in the light of that narrow beam is all that there is, and forget about all the other stuff that’s there in the dark waiting to be discovered.
When someone asks us a new question, it’s asking us to shine the beam in a new direction and discover what’s there. If the question is about something we don’t care about, we might just flick the torch beam over quickly and then point it back to where it was before. It won’t change our thought processes and beliefs much.
If the question is about something important to us, and it’s asked in an engaging way, and it’s followed up with more questions in the same vein – if the questions are ‘deep, frequent, and powerful’ in Cooperrider’s words – we keep looking in the new direction. We think about different things, and in new ways.
This helps the individual to interpret the world differently, accessing resources they had forgotten about, finding new coping strategies, or reframing problems so they cease to be relevant.
This can be very useful with ‘second order’ problems, where the individual’s previous way of trying to solve the problem was what actually kept it going (for example, if someone’s fear of loneliness and rejection leads them to behave in such a way that it stops people forming close relationships with them). Noticing different aspects of the world, and new ways of thinking, can reframe problems so that new solutions can ‘reroute’ around the problem so it loses its power.
In a very real way, changing our thinking does change us. We respond in different (hopefully more resourceful) ways to challenges, we feel differently about ourselves, and we expand our mental maps and our sense of self. In this sense, we do become what we ask questions about.
This idea may remind you of the life coaching / motivational speaker mantra of ‘you get what you focus on’. I think ‘we become what we ask questions about’ adds a little extra empowerment: sometimes, as with obsessive thoughts or critical internal dialogue, it can feel like we don’t have much control over our mind’s focus. But we do have some intentionality about the questions we ask. Rather than telling ourselves to ‘think positive thoughts’, we are more likely to get useful answers if we ask ourselves ‘What’s going well?’ or ‘What was the best thing about work today?’
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