I have yet to meet Appreciative Inquiry (AI) practitioners who don’t incorporate key elements of AI into their personal as well as professional lives . It was a pleasure meeting Jan Somers in 2019 at the World Appreciative Inquiry Conference (WAIC) in Nice, France . He is another wonderful example of living AI. Jan not only uses Appreciative Inquiry (AI) principles and techniques in his work as a personal and leadership coach, but the strengths-oriented nature of AI is also present in his expression as a poet and photographer. He is our Voice from the Field in this issue of AI Practitioner, with a focus on shedding light and finding wonder.
Appreciative Narrative: Shedding Light and Finding Wonder
Jan Somers, based in Belgium, has been self-employed since 1991 as an Appreciative Learning facilitator, personal and leadership coach, photographer and poet. In all these disciplines he practices the principles and philosophy of AI in combination with other strengths-based and forward-thinking approaches.
We are all born students; we all die studying. So we might as well do this in an appreciative inquiring way.
s a new-born child, each one of us comes into a world which can be pretty scary. How have we managed to survive such a scary start and the growing-up phase? Among other factors are our ability to observe and to wonder, our eagerness to study the reality presented to us and its inherent potential, fuelled by our curiosity and longing. Resilience and adaptability require all of that to be in place.
Amin Toufani from Adaptability.org describes it this way: “You have IQ, (intelligence quotient), EQ (emotional quotient ) but also AQ (adapatability quotient)”.
Leon Megginson explains: “According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself”.
Individuals, teams, organisations, communities, families and societies will always benefit from resilience and adaptability. Therefore the capacity – and necessary practice – to learn becomes vital. We can facilitate individuals and groups to develop their learning capacity not just from the strongly embedded notion “we learn from our mistakes”. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) offers us principles, techniques and, above all, a mindset that we can engage during facilitation and coaching. AI practitioners help expand learning capacities by inviting individuals and organisations to learn from what is working, learn from proven success, and learn from the application of strengths. AI requires practitioners to fully study and experience the richness and application potentials of what it offers. The core and emergent principles of AI can be used as a source of inspiration for the facilitation of learning at individual or group levels.
Practitioners can facilitate learning by: helping increase awareness of the words people use; inviting them to inquire into their learning process successes; and asking people to choose where to shed the illumination of awareness. They can also fuel curiosity and longing by asking people to dream their dream and create practices to realise that dream; by guiding them in constructing positive, explorative and generative questions; and helping them identify “converstions worth having”, as inspiringly described in Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement.
When working with organisations, I am a strong advocate of the application of AI principles to daily operational situations as well strategic processes. Here are a few considerations I have come across in my years of practice:
How does a teamleader in an “excellence driven” organisation organise his daily teamboard talk with the members of his team? Will he do it in a “tell & sell” way, or will he try to apply the core and emergent principles of AI in a more collaborative approach?
How will the teamleader handle the discovery of a fault or incident? Will he dig into the situation, taking a root-cause analysis approach, which is often blame-oriented, or will he flip the conversation and look jointly with his team into a more-desired outcome and the available resources and levers to reach that goal?
How much more effective, during a conflict situation for example, is the solution-focussed and strengths-based approach of Appreciative Inquiry? Especially as it focuses on:
what the stakeholders impacted by the situation appreciate about each other;
what has worked in the past;
what aspects they already agree; on
what the desired level of cooperation is;
and what practices will be needed to reach that state.
When an organisation sees talented staff quit their job, does the organisation focus on reparing the “hole in the dike” or will they start an appreciative inquiring quest of finding ways to become a magnet for the right talent to join and stay?
The above are only a handful of examples I have encountered when working with individuals and teams.
When you help an individual or an organisation – big or small – to apply AI, you in fact help them to re-author their story, sometimes “dragging” that story into an alternative generative narrative. By shedding light on their own moments of pride, life-giving energy, glory, success and motivation, you allow their positive generative history-line to surface: a much needed asset to develop managers from being frustrated at times into proud and eager managers looking for the betterment of the whole.
For some time before I became submerged in the fascinating powers and principles of AI, my mission to inspire people was built on the idea and skills of the “telling teacher”. But since AI came into my life, my unchanging mission has become to inspire people and organisations and is now built on facilitating self-learning processes, letting those involved start or continue building their future at an individual or group level.
It may have become clear to the reader that applying Appreciative Inquiry goes far beyond the organisation of AI summits.
AI is one big invitation: an invitation to a different experience that encourages us to meet differently, talk differently, see differently, inquire and explore differently, appreciate differently, focus differently, imagine and dream differently, reflect differently, remember and storytell differently, learn differently, lead and manage change differently. No doubt you will understand why the community of practitioners of AI is such a fast-growing one.
And since we are now facing difficult but clarifying times, allow me to conclude with one of my poems since, yes, AI has also been an invitation for me to observe, to picture and to write differently:
When someone is in a dark room
and somebody opens a door
from a room full of light,
the dark room will lighten up
not the other way around.
So let us all open a door
of a dark room, shedding light
on the beauty and strengths
of the person inside ….
I wish you the light of love!
Jan Somers| Belgium
Megginson, L.C. (1963) Lessons from Europe for American Business, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 44(1), 3–13.
Torres, J. M., Cherri, C. and Cooperrider, D. L. (2018) Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
By Keith Storace
Keith is a registered psychologist with the Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA) and associate fellow with the Australasian College of Health Service Management (ACHSM). He has designed and implemented health and wellbeing frameworks across the community, health and education sectors. Keith’s current focus is on developing his work in Appreciative Dialogue (ApDi) to assist individuals in moving from self-doubt to inspired positive action.