Appreciative Questions as Initiators of Positive Change

September 15, 2015 by ECPC

In our previous discussion regarding Appreciative Consulting tools were mentioned that facilitate the consistent results Appreciative Consulting is able to deliver.  One of these tools is the Appreciative Question, which is the gateway to positive change occurring in an organization and/or individual.  In our work, we are frequently asked about our ability to identify key topics and achieve high levels of engagement when initiating change – the answer is the Appreciative Question.

What is an Appreciative Question and what makes them so powerful – that is the focus of today’s conversation.  There are three key components to an Appreciative Question:

  • Curiosity
  • Positivity
  • Future-focused

While we could spend hours discussing each component, I will do my best to identify the essential aspects.  In my experience, curiosity starts the process and it is borne within each person.  As an appreciative consultant, it is imperative that I have a sense of curiosity and wonder about any engagement and situation.  This curiosity is genuine and leads to questions that are not ‘normally’ asked.  A sense of wonder is fueled by the desire to learn more about any given situation with which we are presented understanding when a client presents a situation we are hearing only their perspective from their frame of reference.  While their frame of reference is accurate for him or her it is only one view and each person or entity involved in the situation has a point of view, which needs to be included in the conversation.  My curiosity is about what framed each person’s perspective to a situation and do I fully understand the elements that contributed to their framework.  Curiosity requires having an open mind and leaving all pre-conceived notions about an engagement at the door of the dialogue regarding the engagement.  It is a skill, which can be developed and nurtured by looking at every situation as an opportunity to learn something new.  This curiosity allows us to ask questions to which we do not know the answer thus opening up a whole new world of possibility.  When we think of the questions we ask, often they are biased toward the answer we believe is needed or correct – this limits learning and gaining new information which is needed to develop an impactful outcome.  The ability to be curious and look for additional information regarding a situation is a key part of Appreciative Questions.

Positivity addresses the reality that there are no neutral questions and every question we ask has either a positive or negative bias embedded in it.  The structure and nature of questions is directly related to the answers we receive – if we look for problems in our questions we find them and it does not mean we have answers or solutions.  Likewise when we look for solutions we find them and need to structure our questions to find solutions.  Having a positive bias in our questions fosters the questions providing us actionable answers.  This positive bias in our questions is based on curiosity and a belief that the issue is not occurring 100% of the time thus it is necessary to explore when it is not occurring.   Inherent in the questions will be the assumption of success or a positive result.  An example of such a question is “This is an interesting perspective and walk me through a successful application”.  Notice the question implies a successful application and frames the concept as interesting y- this allows the recipient of the question to respond in a manner that is engaging and open to answers that provide information.  When such a question is asked, it limits the defensiveness of the person responding and allows them to formulate answers that are filled with possibilities and potential.  Questions that have a positive bias enhance the creativity of responses by encouraging new thought and ideas around a topic.

The future-focus of Appreciative Questions is designed to move the person from the current state into the future state when the issue is successfully addressed.  When a person is knee-deep in a situation of topic it is difficult to see new possibilities or solutions.  A future-focused question moves the person hearing the question out of the present and into a state where the desired results are being achieved.  Answering a question from that perspective allows for new ideas to be developed.  An example of such a question would be “In two years, as we enjoyed a successful growth in our customer base, what have been the primary drivers of that growth?”  Notice not only the positive assumption – successful growth – the future-focus is simply saying “in two years” – both of these items will help frame the answer to be more inclusive of potential as opposed to asking – “How do we grow our customer base?”  The recipients of the two questions would likely give very different answers around the same topic -growing the customer base.  The future-focused nature of Appreciative Questions seeks to place the conversation in a framework where the issue has been successfully addressed and the environment is desirable.  The brain has a wonderful ability to respond to such questions in a manner as though they were reflective of reality.

The ability to consistently ask Appreciative Questions is one of the traits of an Appreciative Consultant.  This skill allows us to build generative relationships that are solution focused and creative bringing forth new ideas.  This is a learned behavior and start today by being curious and giving your curiosity some wings by exploring the source of your curiosity with some Appreciative Questions.

Image courtesy of markuso at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By: Ralph Weickel

President, European Center for Positive Change &  Performance Management


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