On Trying Not to Complain (Lessons from Appreciative Inquiry)

Sunflowers rise with the sun (August 2017)

How do you move in the direction of your dreams? And how do you actually discover your dreams?  Though those questions are the topic of many a cheesy self-help book (*judging from the spines of book at the library), they are also questions that are important.  To help develop my skills in supporting others and myself in answering these questions, at the end of November 2017, I spent three days in an appreciative inquiry and appreciative coaching course. It was fantastic.  I’m always hesitant that courses will be not inclusive/not diverse but this course surprised me and surpassed my expectations. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the things that I learnt during that three-day experience:

1. Appreciative inquiry is “The study of what gives life to human system when they are at their best.” In every living system, in every human system, there is something that works, and AI is an approach that is curious about what is working and seeks to study it, devote energy towards it and make it grow. It is based on the heliotropic principle: that people and organizations move toward those things that give them energy and life. 

2. Questions are important. One of the foundational principles of AI is the Simultaneity principle – which says that change happens at the moment we ask a powerful question. Asking generative questions reframes our reality, and changes our focus and our mindset. It determines what we see and what we can discover.  It’s important to follow through with these insights with a careful design process, but the beginning of change is the act of questions. I was unsure about this principle, but then we did a lot of practice during the course coaching each other and through that process I discovered that there is something powerful about asking yourself “what is a peak experience for me at work/at home?”, or “when do I feel the most myself? or “when do I feel the most connected to my partner”, rather than asking yourself the opposite question. The positive question leads to a different conversation and line of exploration because what we focus on, notice and pay attention to grows. (Or as my brother said to me today, “what we do 80% of the time is what we do”. To which I replied, well I guess I work for Facebook then)

AI asks you to think about the metaphors and beliefs that govern your understanding of your life. Do you operate from a belief in abundance or do you operate from a belief in deficit and limited resources? This question made me think of Islamic concepts of doing your best and trusting in the provision of God and that things will unfold in the way that they are meant to unfold. My dad often reminds us to think about the way birds go out early in the morning and come back in the evening with full bellies. Their day is structured and they do what they are meant to do. This course was a reminder that the images, similes and metaphors we carry with us do influence our behaviour, and called us to reflect on the attitude/mindset we bring to any given area of our lives.

In the workshop we looked at the film “Mr Holland’s Opus”, which is about a musician who becomes a high school music teacher to support his family, and is not excited about his work.  He drags himself out of bed, he groans as he gets to work, and he dreads every moment. In contrast, at the core of AI is imagining that something good might happen, because deep change occurs first in our images of the future and choosing what we want more of.

One way I’ve tried to implement this learning in my life after the course is trying to keep a daily gratitude list. Even though I forget often and miss lots of days, it has shifted my focus to create more goodness in my life. The instructors of the course called gratitude a reservoir that you can draw upon in times of adversity and so far I find that the practice has made me more patient about everyday life.

3. Appreciative coaching uses powerful questions in a model called  4- D coaching, which uses stories and questions to grow things you want in your life. Questions are a fundamental component of the AI process, and questions that begin with curiosity and wonder create a more open and less judgemental conversation. Since the course ended  I’ve been trying to genuinely be more curious – whether that’s during advising/coaching conversations with students, in meetings, and in my personal relationships. So often I think I know what the answer to a problem and I rush in with a solution, but reminding myself to be curious and to wonder about something I’ve heard allows me to hear what someone is saying more fully without being defensive.

The 4-D coaching process comprises four steps and storytelling is an important part of the AI process because stories help us connect with values and strengths and engage us through emotion to make changes in our lives that are important to us. Stories open us up to be vulnerable and share with others.

a. Discovery is about being curious and exploring peak experiences (moments/times that are exceptional) to explore strengths and values, and what is important to you. It’s an important step because it helps you understand what you’re starting from and where you want to go. 

b. Dream. This stage is about imagining and envisioning hopes, dreams and goals, and thinking about what is personally meaningful to you.

c. Design is about closing the gap between dreams and reality, and between now and the future. It is about designing the architecture (the habits, practices, and rituals) to achieve dreams. This is an important stage to align values, structures and processes with your dream.

d. Destiny  is about executing results, establishing important milestones, determining resources needed,  and establishing. and concretizing commitments. This stage explores the significance of desired changes.

4. Change begins with you. One of the emergent principles of AI  (there are five foundational principles and five emergent principles) is called the enactment principle, and it calls you to embody what you want and live the change that you want to see, by acting as though the conditions you want to exist already exist. I felt skeptical about this, but then I started to think about how this applies to so many things. Not all things –  ( I think AI is less powerful if you try to apply this framework to social justice issues/equity/systemic issues), but in creating change in your personal life I think it works great. One of the main takeaways for the course for me was a reminder that I am responsible for building a life that comprises the things that are important to me. Some of those elements include exploration, friendship, meaningful work, faith, adventure, love and more, but  the task of building rests with me. It isn’t anybody else’s job. Outcomes are dependent on Divine assistance, but this course was a reminder that nothing changes unless I do.

6. Deep listening is important for meaningful communication. Deep listening is  listening with presence instead of waiting for the other person to stop talking so that you can interject. It is listening without an agenda and without defensiveness. We don’t often have opportunities in our lives to be deeply heard, and in the course as we practiced this skill there was a lot of emotion and warmth in the room. Everyone may have slightly different definitions of what it means to be listened to, but for me, deep listening means having someone’s full attention when you speak. It means no multi-tasking. It means being listened to without being offered solutions, but just being heard.

I recently started watching the show “Parks and Recreation” and in the sixth season of the show, one of the characters (Ann) is expecting, and is frustrated because anytime something that is bothering her, her partner offers her a solution. To be heard, she crashes the office “whine and cheese” party, and doesn’t let anyone else speak because she has so much to get off her chest. To reclaim their space, her colleagues advise her partner that he needs to stop trying to solve her problems, because all she needs is for someone to say “that sucks” and to just hear her words. When I saw the episode, the concept of deep listening came to mind. 

When listening to someone, deep listening is about creating space and being present to not only someone’s words but also their body language and their energy, and following that energy to see where it takes the conversation.

7. In order to hold space for others to engage in the process of making change in their lives, you need to be making change in your life as well and live your life in the fullest way possible. It felt vulnerable to take part in coaching conversations during this course and to share things that are hard to talk about. It made me think about how challenging it must be for students when they come into an appointment to talk about their careers and what they want from their education and it increased my appreciation for their courage. To be worthy of that trust, and to able to hold that space and support others it is important to have a practice of regularly trying to challenge and develop yourself further. We cannot ask others to do what we’re not really doing ourselves.

8. Sometimes by telling stories others can spot strengths that we cannot see ourselves. Strengths can be skills based and values based, but strengths are things that bring us joy and that make us feel strong. Talent x experience + knowledge + practice = strengths vs things that we are just good at but we do not invest in. We can sometimes detect our strengths by times we lose track of time or where there is flow. There is an ease about them. Strengths energise us and make us feel stronger, resourceful, expansive, and creative.

9. Sometimes we need to tell multiple stories to get a sense of our strengths. In the course we learned about noticing high performance patterns, or success patterns. AI coaching seeks examples of successful performance and then probes into the patterns of success. It’s hard to notice the patterns of our own success or the gifts we have, but speaking with others, or a group of people can highlight our strengths to us. To illustrate this point, during the course someone told a story of what energizes them at work, and as a group we called out things we noticed from not only that story, but from other stories that that participant told.  

10. Change needs to be an enjoyable process. The instructors of the course reminded us that we people tend to not like to lift heavy objects routinely, and so  the language of play and experimentation is key to keep us engaged in change.

Have you taken an AI course before? Or is there a book about coaching and advising or self development that you’d recommend? Leave your 2018 recommendations below.


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