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Appreciative inquiry and Robyn Stratton-Berkessel: A conversation

Sunflowers turning towards the light
Sunflowers turning towards the light

As previously mentioned, following is one of two conversations I had with Robyn Stratton-Berkessel re Appreciative Inquiry. The below transcript reflects Robyn's perspective of Appreciative Inquiry as a way of life.

Before we segue into our conversation, I'd like to first provide a definition of Appreciative Inquiry for the purposes of illuminating our conversation.

In Jane Magruder Watkins' book, Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the speed of Imagination, 2001, she says ,"the term 'appreciative' comes from the idea that when something increases in value it appreciates. Therefore, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the generative and life-giving forces to the system, the things we want to increase. By 'inquiry' we mean the process of seeking to understand through asking questions." (Kindle Edition, p. 14).

Keeping the above definition in mind, below is my conversation with Robyn:

PmS: What is it about Appreciative Inquiry that piques your interest?

RBS: What continues to pique my interest in AI is:

  • AI focuses on the best of a situation, not the worst
  • AI is a way of engaging and being in conversation with intention
  • AI's five core foundational principles

AI focuses on the best of a situation, not the worst: It inquires into what already works, not what’s broken. AI is about life, energy and vitality. Increasingly, it’s the values and principles that underpin this worldview that increasingly pique my interest. Once you really understand the principles, they become integrated into your very core. Appreciative Inquiry is a holistic way of thinking and acting in the world.

AI is a way of engaging and being in conversation with intention: When you live your life from a position of inquiry, it means you inquire into, or seek to understand others’ worldviews and experiences. What follows is that you listen truly to the other person’s story. You can cross huge divides when you engage in dialogue or conversation from a position of inquiry, and if you do that from an appreciative stance, it means your inquiry is looking for what to appreciate or value in that other person’s story.

The five core foundational principles are what draw me deeper and deeper into AI every day: They are strongly based in philosophy, and the sciences of psychology, sociology, and neurology. A few examples of the Principles stated very simply are: what you focus on grows; image inspires action; words create worlds; the very first question you ask, shapes the conversation, positivity produces positivity. These are profound truths.

PmS: What would you tell my readers about the general benefits of Appreciative Inquiry?

RBS: My immediate response, AI is a conscious shift to see the world as a place of wonder, beauty and full of possibilities and opportunities where we can all flourish. AI makes it clear that we have choices in life. We can chose to live life as if it’s a problem to be solved, or a mystery to be embraced. It’s not to say that problems, disasters, illness, injustice and tragedies don’t exist. They do. Life is a struggle and people suffer. It’s how we respond to these situations that counts. So linking back to the Principles, we can (consciously or unconsciously) stress out about all the life-depleting aspects that surround us every day and find ourselves in downward cycles of pain that continue to sap us of energy and hope, or we can put our attention to what are the life-giving forces that uplift and inspire us, and seek solutions. AI does the latter. It spirals energy upwards. AI looks for what already works within a system, human and otherwise. When you find that glimmer of life, you can nurture it to allow it to strengthen to see the possibility of a more desirable future.

PmS: You told us why you were attracted to AI, what was the process you implemented to translate that interest into your 2010 book, Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions 21 Strength-based Workshops?

RBS: I was using AI in a variety of contexts from global summits to coaching and training AI. In the literature about AI, there was a growing body of work and number of publications about AI being used in big summit events – of usually 3 days, which have profound impact and produce outstanding results for communities and organizations. I’ve worked on a number of these big events, facilitating both face-to-face and virtually.

In my training of AI, participants would ask about the day-to-day issues that come up in organizations and how to use AI to work through those kind of issues. And, I knew from my own work that is what I was doing as well was designing workshops around regular things that go on in organizational and community life that are often called “training issues.”

There are two important contributors to a successful AI group process, whether it’s a large scale summit or a team training issue:

  1. To be clear about the topic of the inquiry and how you language that – the words you use. For example, think of the traditional descriptions: “Conflict Management.” Remember, one of the principles: what you study grows. So if you inquire into “Conflict Management” you find many stories about conflict, its causes and results. You would be amplifying them, without necessarily finding out how to change anything. Inquiring into “Conflict Management” does not teach anything about “Harmonious Relationships.”
  2. To shine the light on the “positive core” of a systems - strengths, attributes, successes etc. You want to get to the existing strengths early. The classic AI discovery interview does that.

So I found I was reframing a lot of work problems, turning them from focusing on the deficit, or the problems to what was truly desired in a situation – what the solution was. I was approached by Pfeiffer of John Wiley to publish my workshops.

PmS: In my opinion, this book is a crucial resource to those of us who create workshops using AI’s philosophy as a foundation. Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions provides a template for readers to create and facilitate productive AI workshops; in what ways have you been able to expand AI into other 21st century media, such as the Smartphone or iPad?

RBS: My latest excitements. The world is becoming mobile and people access the web via ...

... to be continued

©2012 Penny M. Stein
Readers and media may contact Ms. Stein via e-mail.


Cited Sources: Magruder Watkins, J., & Mohr, B. D. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey-Bass/Pfieffer. Stratton-Berkessel, R. (2010). Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions 21 Strength-Based Workshops. San Francisco, CA, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



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