Appreciative Inquiry

4I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge —                                                                                              1 Cor 1:4-5

18 There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health.           Proverbs 12:18 NKJV

Like it or not, we are, to some extent all influenced by our history and culture. In the UK, it is a tradition of the House of Commons at Westminster that front bench politicians are required to speak from behind a red line drawn on the floor, calculated to keep them at a distance beyond a sword’s length from their opponents. This strange tradition is yet another example of the adversarial basis of politics in the UK. Prime Ministers’ Question Time has achieved a huge following among television audiences worldwide. Apparently people love to witness the spectacle of leaders verbally tearing into each other.

Are the decision-making processes in Christian organisations that much better? If so, why is the mere mention of the General Synod or Parochial Church Councils or just the word ‘meeting’ enough to set eyes rolling?

We all long for something different. However all too often, we find ourselves caught up with negative and sometimes destructive ways of talking about ourselves.

From a communication perspective, an organisation is a network of conversations. If we take this as axiomatic, anyone wishing to facilitate change will do well to have some understanding of the role of language in the reality/meaning-making process.

AI is one method of exploring and creating life-enhancing possibilities through constructive and collaborative conversations. It requires a move out of deficit language into an appreciation of what works well in an organisation – with the belief that you get more of what you pay attention to. It seeks the best of “what is” in order to provide a shared platform for imagining “what might be”. For example, rather than asking “What is wrong with your team, what are your weaknesses?” We could instead ask people to “describe a time when you were proud to be a member of your team”, or, “What do you value most about being a member of this team?” “What are you most proud of?”

In a community setting, this knowledge and insight that we all “have been enriched with” is meant to be shared.

‘Knowledge is an aspect of relationship, of interaction between human beings. It doesn’t belong to any one of us’. Stacey 2002

Traditional management focusses on what is wrong, on the negative. In my view, this only serves to make us more eloquent and articulate about what’s wrong with our organisations, families, churches, etc. It also breeds a culture of blame.

To say that “our organisation is a problem to be solved” perpetuates the notion that our organisations are only problematic. This way of thinking inadvertently draws us into a downward spiral of ‘problem-talk’. In contrast, AI concentrates on what works. The idea is that you get more of what you pay attention to.

As Christians we believe in grace, affirmation, encouragement and diversity. AI is one method for putting these values into practice. You would be amazed (maybe not) as to how little we do this. In one AI exercise I was involved with, someone said “this is the first time in 20 years that a colleague and I are talking with the specific purpose of appreciating each other and each other’s work!”

Re-framing

One technique for developing an appreciative spirit is ‘re-framing’… words, issues or situations.

For example, “my organisation is woolly”or “we suffer from paralysis by analysis” can be reframed to… “we are reassuringly diverse, refreshingly balanced, realistically complex, reflective… and proud of it!”

Consider, also how power, control and accountability can be instantly changed by re-framing say, an appraisal or performance interview, by inviting the people instead to an ‘INTER-views’ session.

Of course, in all these examples you have to mean it!

An appreciative spirit is an art. When done well, it can contribute towards an organisation’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and release positive potential.

By first identifying the best of “what is”, it is possible to create a positive framework for working together on “what might be”. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).

Appreciating the Fragile

In my experience the meaning of appreciation must not be simply reduced to the encouragement of positive talk and the discouragement of negative feedback. Rather, genuine ownership of visions, goals and tasks amongst a diverse group of people is more likely to be the outcome when appreciative processes are carried out in the context of, and draw from, the complex, emotional and emergent nature of social interaction and communication in organisations.

Appreciative Leadership

Some years ago, I had the privilege of working with Diana Witts, former General Secretary of CMS on a major ‘Change’ initiative.

Back then the Directors Team thought long and hard about why perceptions of a hierarchical management continue to persist despite various attempts to change this. There was a feeling of ‘stuck-ness’.

Moved by a conversation about the need to value everyone, Diana met with all staff. She told those gathered that everyone had a responsibility to make this happen. She then publicly apologised for the times when she had consciously or unconsciously not valued anyone and invited people to join her in trying to change the culture. This took people by surprise and created a real buzz. Listening to the conversations that followed, it dawned on me that this was a moment of relational action that will facilitate the achievement of organisational goals far better than any institutional mission or value statements.

It was a seminal moment in which a dominant ‘deficit story’ or ‘conversation’ was edited. Leaders have a vital role in co-constructing such practical making of history/ies. The Hollywood film Sliding Doors illustrated how different versions of reality can be created by different actions. The same can be said about conversations.

For AI to flourish, there must be a commitment by everyone to develop an appreciative eye, and an appreciative spirit. Leaders have the added responsibility for modelling this; and creating a safe and supportive environment where life-giving conversations can thrive. You could say that it is about developing a ‘Barnabas’ ministry of encouragement.

… let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24

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