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  • Writer's pictureNichole Hart

Appreciative Inquiry

Updated: May 10, 2021

"Appreciation can make a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words is all that is necessary." Margaret Cousins

Appreciative Inquiry is often associated with organizational change. The developers of Appreciative Inquiry envisioned a new philosophy for how organizations can approach change.

Traditionally, organizations have (and many still do) approach change through a “deficits approach.” The deficits approach leads people to search out, focus on, examine, and then work on changing what’s wrong.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a very different approach to change.

“At its heart, AI is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. AI is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but AI is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes. ” – Excerpt from: Stavros, Jacqueline, Godwin, Lindsey, & Cooperrider, David. (2015). Appreciative Inquiry: Organization Development and the Strengths Revolution. In Practicing Organization Development: A guide to leading change and transformation (4th Edition), William Rothwell, Roland Sullivan, and Jacqueline Stavros (Eds). Wiley

Another definition states,

“Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way to engage groups of people in self determined change. It focuses on what’s working, rather than what’s not working, and leads to people co-designing their future.” - Positive

I attended a couple’s therapy training earlier this year with Hedy Schleifer. Hedy has developed an approach to working with couples called Encounter Centered Transformation. Through this training, we learned in part how to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to working with couples.

What a difference it makes!

For most of us, it’s second nature to focus on what’s wrong, and then to wish or want what’s wrong to change. We start almost all of our change processes from this place of looking at and focusing on what isn’t working.

We tend to use language that supports this focus…

  • ...if this were different, then...

  • ...I’m not happy with this because…

  • would be better if…

  • ...I’m so aggravated that…

  •’s a problem that…

Our tendency to focus on what isn’t working happens for different reasons.

Sometimes our environment, the nature of interactions with those whom we frequently interact, can become habitually inclined toward noticing what’s wrong or what’s not working.

It’s also possible that in our families growing up, there was more talk and more focus on what wasn’t working well than what was working well.

Additionally, we have this thing that happens in our brain called negativity bias. In short, our attention and energy is most easily drawn toward what we perceive as negative.

Because of all of this, it’s generally easier for us to access negative descriptors (i.e., talk about what’s wrong) than it is for us to access positive descriptors (i.e., what is working, what we want more of, what we do want to happen).

It's unfortunate, but it is easier and requires less energy to focus on and stick with negatives. It requires more energy and effort to remember and keep our focus on positives. The good thing, however, is that just as neuroscientists discovered we have a "relaxation response" (the opposite of the "fight, flight, freeze" response) that can be developed with training, we can also train our brains to shift toward a more positive focus.

In Appreciative Inquiry there’s something called the Anticipatory Principle (it’s one of five principles of AI). The core idea behind the Anticipatory Principle is this: Images inspire action. And going further, this principle suggests:

Human systems move in the direction of their images of the future. The more positive and hopeful the image of the future, the more positive the present-day action. – From Cooperrider, D.L., & Whitney, D. A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry. Taos, NM: Corporation for Positive Change, 1999.

So how does Appreciative Inquiry help with couple’s therapy? And, more importantly, how can it help you in your relationship to take small, concrete positive actions that will make a difference?

At its heart, Appreciative Inquiry helps you do just what it says. It leads you toward inquiring about what you appreciate.

One of the things I do when working with couples is help them talk about what is working in their relationship. You can easily do this now. Talk about what you do well together. How do you do what you do well? What strengths do you see in what you do well? What strengths do you see in each other? Talk about these things together.

Going back here to the negativity bias. Research has shown that we have a harder time keeping positive events in our mind, and an easier time remembering negative events. This is one reason I suggest talking about what is going well, and talking about it often. It requires real effort to overcome our natural tendency to focus on what’s wrong.

Action Step:
Talk about what’s going well!

I also suggest a small shift in language use - that of focusing on exploring what’s happening versus explaining. Almost always, when we are explaining something in the context of relational discord, it has a negative tone. I write about exploring versus explaining here. When practiced, maintaining your focus on exploring does make a positive difference in your relationship.

Action Step:
Explore versus Explain

And, lastly, spend some time listing what positive things you’d like to see more of in your relationship. This would sound something like:

  • We enjoy learning together.

  • We look for ways to build trust.

  • We express affection to each other through physical touch.

  • We maintain our health together.

  • We communicate respectfully.

  • We see conflict as an opening to growth.

  • We enjoy traveling together.

Another process I lead couples through in the work we do together is the creation of a Relationship Vision. The creation of your vision consists of you describing in great detail, in a particular way, three different aspects of your ideal relationship. During this process you use positive language and talk in present tense.

As stated above in the principle of Appreciative Inquiry, “human systems move in the direction of their images of the future.” When you take the time to articulate clear, positive images of your future, you’ve taken a very important and powerful step in creating this future.

Additionally, in the session, I take notes, capturing the details of this vision, and share it with you and your partner. This allows you to refer back often to the vision you are creating.

Action Step:
Create a Relationship Vision

Creating the clear, positive vision of your relationship provides an entirely different context to work through differences you will of course encounter in your relationship. Your vision gives you - “the why” - why you want to work through these differences...what you are working towards...why it’s important to you.

If interested, you can read more about Appreciative Inquiry here. And, remember - small changes, sustained over time make a big difference!

"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."-Albert Einstein

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