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Sometimes it’s easy to ‘flip’ a problem statement into an affirmative topic. But for some problems, perhaps vaguer or more complex ones, it can seem harder.

Here’s a process you can use when none of your attempts at an affirmative topic seem to come out quite right.

Let’s say the issue you want to improve is that you want better work/life balance.

Following our normal ‘quick and dirty’ formula for arriving at an affirmative topic, we’d flip the ‘problem’ wording to what we want instead of what we don’t want. In this case, there’s no need, as ‘work/life balance’ is already positively stated – or appears to be, at least.

Then we might turn it into a question by adding “How do we…?” or “How can we…?” to the statement of what we want. In this case, because it’s a topic for an individual, you could say “How can I achieve work/life balance?”

But for some reason, it doesn’t feel quite right. We’re getting internal signals that we’re not fully congruent with this statement of our topic. Maybe we’re thinking something like “but if I did get work/life balance, they would think I wasn’t working hard enough and not taking it seriously.”

(By the way, this is just an example – some people might be happy with this statement of their affirmative topic, but in this case it doesn’t quite fit for our hypothetical person, as we’ll see)

So the person in our example tries a few different wordings – but none of them are quite right:

  • “How do I get more done at work?” – but the only way I can think of is to put in longer hours and work even harder, and I feel tired just thinking about it
  • “How do I build relaxation into my day?” – but then the work won’t get done!
  • “How do I work more efficiently?” – but even if I could do that, they’d just pile more work on to me

So these attempts at wording the topic are all getting somewhere close to where the person really wants to get to, but none of them are quite landing.

Here’s what you could do in this situation:

For each attempt at wording the topic, ask “If I had that, fully and completely, what would that get me that is even more important than that?”

So what achieving each topic would get you might be:

  • “How can I achieve work/life balance?” – a de-stressed life, and I would at my most effective at work.
  • “How do I get more done at work?” – I would be at my most effective at work.
  • “How do I build relaxation into my day?” – a de-stressed life
  • “How do I work more efficiently?” – I would be at my most effective at work.

Already we are seeing some common factors emerging – and we seem to wanting two things at the same time: a destressed life, and being at my most effective at work.

Our finalised topic wording would take into account both of these motivations.

We can check if there’s anything else we need to take account of by running a similar process of searching for what’s behind a statement on the objections. Because objections are usually expressed in terms of what we want to avoid, we probably need to word the question a bit differently:

“What is the positive intention of that objection? What is it trying to do for you?”

And the answers might be:

  • “But if I did get work/life balance, they would think I wasn’t working hard enough and not taking it seriously” – to be respected and allowed to do my job in the way that’s best for me.
  • “But the only way I can think of is to put in longer hours and work even harder, and I feel tired just thinking about it” – to have a destressed life.
  • “But then the work won’t get done!” – to be at my most effective at work.
  • “But even if I could do that, they’d just pile more work on to me” – to be respected and allowed to do my job in the way that’s best for me, and to have a de-stressed life.

So now we have three motivations, that both the topic wordings and the objections to them are different ways of expressing:

  • To be respected and allowed to do my job in the way that’s best for me.
  • To have a de-stressed life.
  • To be at my most effective at work.

So now we ask the same question again regarding each of these motivations:

“If I had that, fully and completely, what would that get me that is even more important than that?”

And these are the answers we might get:

  • “To be respected and allowed to do my job in the way that’s best for me” – to be my best self so I can make the maximum difference.
  • “To have a de-stressed life” – to be my best self so I can make the maximum difference.
  • “To be at my most effective at work” – to be my best self so I can make the maximum difference.

Yes, what’s really behind each motivation turns out to be the same thing! This is because each time we ask “What will that get you?” or “What is the positive intention?”, the answers we get tend to be more abstract (therefore capable of being fulfilled in many different ways) and at the same time carrying more emotional charge and therefore being more motivating.

Usually, the different expressions of what someone wants turn out to be different routes to getting to the same ultimate purpose. This is true even when the initial expressions seem to contradict each other – like “getting more done at work” and “building relaxation into my day”.

So in this case, the finalised affirmative topic might be “How do I become my best self?” or even “How do I make the maximum difference?”

The solutions that come out of the Appreciative Inquiry process framed by this topic might turn out to be quite different from building in relaxation, or even working more efficiently.

A couple of notes: the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that what I’ve taken as the final purpose, “To be my best self so I can make the maximum difference”, is actually two purposes run together – “to be my best self” and “being able to make the maximum difference”. Perhaps the second is the ultimate purpose of the first.

This is OK, I think. In the real world, human beings quite often give answers like this, and the motivating power of the topic for them comes from having the two purposes linked.

Secondly, you may wonder how this might work with a group. In fact it will be easier, in one respect at least: the ‘objections’ that one person raises to the topic statement made by another person will be explicitly worded, rather than implicit, as often happens when a person isn’t fully congruent about something they say they want. It can take some work for an individual to articulate the beliefs and motivations that give rise to their feeling of unease or opposition about something that part of them also wants.

When working with either a group or individual on clarifying an affirmative topic, it can be well worth the time to discover the ultimate purposes behind both differing statements of what they want, and any objections. Each one will be a marker for a value held by some or all of the people in the group.

As our values are what motivate us to act, and are also our criteria for how we evaluate if something is right or wrong, it’s worth finding out all the motivations involved – otherwise people won’t be as engaged with the Appreciative Inquiry process, or any proposed change, as they could be.

Note: the questions in this process are heavily influenced by an excellent book about personal development and therapy, Core Transformation: Reaching The Wellspring Within by Connirae and Tamara Andreas.

What To Do When It’s Hard To Get Your Affirmative Topic Wording Right

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