Appreciative Inquiry and Authenticity

Gloria DeGaetanoOver the last six months, I had several opportunities to provide workshops and consultation on Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to organizations. In every instance a few participants told me about their experience with AI and what made them skittish about using it.

One corporate executive told me that after a three day training in Appreciative Inquiry, her team of fifty all received small mirrors to put on their desks to look at themselves while saying a positive affirmation—mandated every morning. Another explained how timers were distributed to remind his staff to “To say something nice to others.” at regular intervals. While disturbing, these stories were unfortunately, not new. I have heard such examples for the past fifteen years now. Yet, whenever another such instance crops up, I still shake my head in amazement, wondering how Appreciative Inquiry can be so misunderstood and its implementation bemusedly misguided?

While not the perfect answer to all our problems (what is?), AI can be a dynamic process for discovering and amplifying what gives life to any living system—whether a corporation, family or individual. In adapting AI for a coaching process in our Parent Coach Certification® Training Program, I have seen first hand its effectiveness to help parents make long-lasting positive changes. The Parent Coaching Institute has conducted several studies demonstrating that the PCI Coaching Model™ with its emphasis on the four-phase process of Appreciative Inquiry works to reduce parental stress and helps moms and dads deepen their parenting skills.

However, to harness AI’s considerable power, there is a major pre-requisite.

And that pre-requisite is authenticity. Obviously, you can’t dictate or impose appreciation. For appreciation to be appreciation it has to be genuine.

In his now classic motivational book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie made a point to explain how important sincerity was in expressing appreciation. In fact, his second principle states: “Give honest and sincere appreciation.”

Dale Carnegie quote Give Honest and Sinceere Appreciation

While this may be common sense from the ages, much time and too many resources can be spent on “making Appreciative Inquiry happen.” And in the midst of forcing those disingenuous smiles and half-hearted acknowledgements, an authentic orientation gets muddied or completely lost.

In developing the PCI’s parent coaching program, I wanted to guard against AI’s Pollyanna propensity. I decided that the best way to do that is to make sure that the concept of “positive core” is clearly understood as the authentic vehicle it is.

Writing in Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organization Toward a Positive Theory of Change David Cooperrider and Dana Whitney (p. 5, published in 2000) define AI as follows:

“Appreciative Inquiry is about the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential…AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of the “positive change core” – and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.”

The “positive core” comprises “the life-giving forces within the individual or the organization.” (Cooperrider, Whitney, Stravos, in The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, p. 30) And those forces must be accurately defined and genuinely understood if their energies are to catalyze a deep change process.

In order to focus on relating to and amplifying the positive core within the clients we coach, I introduce the work of Martin Buber during Course 1 of the Parent Coach Certification® Training Program.

Martin Buber’s beautiful book, I and Thou (Touchstone, 1971, translated by Walter Kaufmann) explains a way of communicating with others that honors their human essence, their positive, or authentic core. He calls that type of communication “I-Thou.” Communicating with others as if they were merely objects, without honoring the authentic core, he calls “I-It.” In an “I-It” relationship neither positive core of the individuals is seen, nurtured, accepted or expanded.

An authentic I-Thou relationship poses such questions as:

  • Is the uniqueness of the person appreciated?
  • Are human needs being met? If not, how can I help?
  • What do I have to do within myself to relate compassionately to this person? To this group?

By grounding ourselves in an I-Thou stance toward any relationship, PCI Parent Coaches not only tap into clients’ positive core, but also reveal theirs as well.

Then both client and coach co-construct a meaningful coaching process, thriving on AI’s rich principles and positive direction, while keeping it all real.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2015. All rights reserved.

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I found the PCI course to be well researched and put together. I learned so much through the course, the reading materials and the interactions that I had with PCI instructors. It has been an incredibly enriching experience completing this course.
Laura MarkowitzCape Town, South Africa

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