Framing Affirmative Topics As Questions Makes Them More Engaging
Questions are more engaging than statements. If someone asks you a question – any question – a part of your mind starts looking for an answer.
That’s why I encourage my Appreciative Inquiry clients and students to craft their affirmative topics (the frame that we set at the start of an Appreciative Inquiry process that defines the scope of what we will be inquiring into) in the form of questions rather than statements. If what we want to encourage is improved performance, how to we get to that improved performance? If we’re starting (as many Appreciative Inquiries do) with a problem that we want to solve, how to do we get to the opposite of the problem?
This isn’t the way affirmative topics are always done. Recently I had an email discussion with a real thought leader in the Appreciative Inquiry field, someone who I admire immensely and is the author or co-author of several well-regarded books.
She pointed out to me that typically affirmative topics are typically not formulated as questions; rather they are statements about the desired future state, that questions then flow from.
She gave an example of having an affirmative topic in this form: “We delight our customers!” rather than as a question “How do we delight our customers?”
The rationale being that asking “how” makes people immediately narrow their thinking and jump into finding solutions. Framing the topic as a statement allows you to ask questions like “Who is already delighted and what is it that delights them?” that widen the lens.
My response was along the lines of:
“The reason I usually go for questions is that questions are more engaging than descriptions or statements. The aim is to spark curiosity. If they get ideas to make it happen at that early point, that’s OK – as long as we don’t skimp on the Discovery and Dream stages.
Also, a topic as a statement like “We delight our customers!” if encountered without much pre-framing or explanation might prompt cynicism – ‘No we don’t!’. It looks more like a provocative proposition to me.”
I don’t think I managed to convert her to writing affirmative topics as questions, but she did respond that she understood the rationale for what I was saying. She also emphasised the need for a cautionary flag around making the affirmative topic a question, so that people don’t immediately begin to drive towards it without broadening the view first – a caveat that I totally agree with.
With a bit more time to think about it, I would now add that if the we preframe an affirmative topic statement so that its audience understands what it’s supposed to do, so they don’t instantly respond “No we don’t!”, the very next thing that pops into their minds when they hear it will be the question ‘How do we get there?’ or ‘How do we make this happen?’ – so why not just ask the question up front anyway? Especially as the question can prompt further, more detailed discovery questions just as well as a statement can.
Also, if we accept David Cooperrider’s idea that “we become what we most deeply, frequently, and most powerfully ask questions about”, let’s start by asking a question that directs our collective attention towards where we want to get to.
Looking into the how questions affect the brain, I found some neuroscience research that suggests that when you are asked a question, your brain instantly jumps to answering it.
We don’t need a lab to verify this. Let me ask you: what colour is your front door?
My guess is that your brain immediately started looking for the answer (or if you’re good at visualising, got it immediately). Questions are more engaging than statements, which you can choose to engage with or not.
Secondly, it turns out that just being asked a question about a behaviour significantly increases the chance that you will carry out that behaviour in future – the ‘mere measurement effect’. Researchers have found this applies in studies related to new car purchases, voting, blood donation, and exercise frequency.
So I believe that framing affirmative topics as questions is the way to go, because they’ll be more engaging and generate less resistance than framing them as statements. If the question immediately gets people thinking about solutions and having ideas to get there, we can capture those ideas and add them to what comes out of the Discovery, Dream, and Design stages.
If we add in the appropriate cautionary flags to prevent premature conclusions, there’s no apparent downside.
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