Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

Appreciative interviews

Inquiry is intervention.

David L Cooperrider

The appreciative interview has been described as ‘the heart of Appreciative Inquiry’. It is the key activity of the Discovery stage.

Appreciative interviews are designed to collect rich qualitative information in the form of stories that carry a wealth of meaning, and often a powerful emotional charge, rather than dry quantitative data consisting of figures and statistics.

The aim is to uncover the forces that give life to the organisation.

Why use appreciative interviews?

  • Appreciative interviews gather new information about what is already working well in relation to the chosen topic.
  • Appreciative interviews raise people’s morale by valuing their own personal experiences and contributions, making them more open to change and less guarded with each other.
  • Appreciative interviews prime participants for the Dream stage by giving them concrete examples showing where solutions are already happening, even in part, making it easier to come up with convincing visions for the future.
  • As they tell their stories and associate into their own positive reference experiences, people are more likely to come up with fresh insights than if they are asked for abstract lists of principles.
  • As appreciative interviewers, you can actively engage large numbers of people at all levels of the organisation, helping them to internalise an appreciative mindset.

What appreciative interviewers need to understand

Belief, rather than doubt, is the proper stance. This is not a time for scepticism or for questions that imply a need for ‘proof’.

Jane Magruder Watkins and Bernard J Mohr,
Appreciative inquiry: change at the speed of imagination

1. Assume vitality and health, rather than ‘deficit’

You are looking for incidents and examples of things at their best, rather than for problems.

2. The inquiry is the intervention

You are not just gathering data. The questions you ask impact the emotional state of the interviewee and the ongoing, ever-changing image they have of the organisation and the change process.

3. It’s not just the questions, it’s how you ask them

The non-verbal elements of your communication (voice tone, body language, the surroundings in which you do the interview) form a meta-message which influences people’s emotional state and shapes their expectations about the value and genuineness of the exercise.

When you are genuinely focused and interested, the interviewee will experience being fully heard and understood, so empathy will develop rapidly.

4. You are after stories, not opinions or analysis

You want the interviewee to be reliving the experiences they are talking about and telling you what they thought and felt at the time, rather than examining them in a detached way and telling you what they think about them now. This way, you will get genuine rapport and trust develops. What’s more, you will get genuine experiences rather than the ‘official line’ or what the interviewee thinks you want to hear.

5. Once you have the story, move on to values and wishes

The motivating power of values, life-giving factors and wishes comes from their emotional charge. The emotions that the interviewees’ stories awake in them will enable them to identify both what is really important about those experiences and what they want for the future.

Appreciative interview questions

A typical set of generic appreciative interview questions, present with minor variations in many AI textbooks, will work in many contexts.

  1. What has been your best experience of your professional life – a time when you felt most alive, most engaged, and proud of yourself and your work?
  2. What’s really important about this experience? What do you value most about it?
  3. What do you value most about your work?
  4. Without being humble, what do you value most about yourself and the way that you do your work?

You can never predict what reservations people are going to have to particular wordings. A couple of years back, running an AI workshop for a Church of England diocese, the rural deans and lay church people balked at the word ‘humble’ in question four because, of course, humility is a Christian virtue they were enjoined to develop.

Tip

If you’re using AI with a church group, change that question to start ‘without being modest’ or ‘overly modest’.

Business version

In a more ‘hard nosed’ business context, the interviews may go more smoothly if you use the following slightly-amended version. In this version, questions 1 and 2 remain the same (although, of course, if the AI exercise is based on a particular topic, you can relate the first question specifically to that topic). The difference here comes in the third and fourth questions:

  1. What made this experience possible? (Was it culture, leadership, structures, systems or something else?)
  2. If you had one wish for yourself, your team or your organisation, what would it be?

The standard questions go deeper into what the interviewee values, generalising out from the specific experience to his or her work and him or her self.

Question three of the ‘business friendly’ version, by contrast, looks at what had to be in place for the great experience or excellent performance to happen. It can potentially uncover preconditions for success, best practice and useful ‘how-tos’, any of which could lead to a general improvement in performance if they were more widely implemented.

Question four links the discovery stage to the next, dream, stage by starting to uncover aspirations for the future. The answers you get will be richer and more imaginative as a result of the psychological priming and direction of attention towards resources accomplished by the first three questions.

The good thing about these questions in a business context, especially in traditionally ‘modest’ cultures, such as the UK and some South East Asian countries, is that the interviewee doesn’t feel they are being obliged to boast about their own abilities.

Appreciative interviewing skills and tips

1. Explain why the interview is taking place

This sets the frame to keep the interviews relevant to the topic. Also, some people will refuse (either overtly or passively) to do anything unless they are given reasons.

2. Explain the concept of an appreciative interview

It helps to keep the interview on track and positive if you put this kind of frame around it before you start:

Example

Before we start, let me explain a bit about what we are going to do, because it may be a little different from what you have done in the past. This will be what’s called an ‘appreciative interview’. I will be asking you questions about when you have experienced things working at their best and what made it happen that way, because the more we know what makes things work well, the more we can improve our performance in the future.

So I won’t be asking about problems or searching for ways to fix them. Instead, I need to hear about what is working well, and the factors that make things work well; so if the interview strays a bit off-track, that’s what we can bring it back to.

What these interviews are working towards is help us understand the key factors that really give life to the organisation. Do you have any questions?

3. Start with specific stories

Always begin by asking for a concrete story – bearing in mind that it may take the interviewee a little while to find one, particularly if they are not in the most positive frame of mind at the start of the interview.

Remember it’s about the interviewee’s story, not yours, so let the interviewee tell their story, and refrain for providing yours at the same time.

4. Alternative for the ‘life giving factors’ question

If you want to be more specific about capturing certain best practice and good ideas that have been implemented by one person or team and which other people in the organisation might find helpful, you could ask about enabling factors (such as leadership, communication, attitude and so on): ‘What made this experience possible?’

5. Capture key words/phrases for each question

One useful method, if the data is going to be immediately shared in a group situation, is to use post-it notes: one for a summary of the story, one for values, one for life-giving force and one for the three wishes.

6. Additional questions

Use the questions in your schedule but ask additional questions, if you need to, to encourage the interviewee.

7. Generalise about life-giving forces

After the story, get the interviewee to generalise, coming up with the ‘secret ingredient’ of the success they are narrating. Alternatively, ask them to condense what they have said into one sentence that conveys the essence of the story and highlights what’s really important about it.

8. Be fully present

Remember that the interviewee is the expert on his or her own experience – for the period of the interview – and you want to learn as much as you can.

Be curious and appreciative about the person’s experience, their thoughts and feelings. As you know from your own experience, people appreciate being given 100 per cent attention, so be ‘fully present’. Clear your mind of thoughts about what has happened previously or worries about the next item on your agenda, so you can give each interviewee the whole of your attention.

9. Dealing with negativity

Sometimes people are not enjoying their work and need to express this first. One or more of the following responses should prove helpful:

  • Parking the negatives, and coming back to them later:

Say that you will make a note of any ‘negative’ issues and come back to them later. When you get to the three wishes for the organisation in the future, the negatives can be discussed in terms of what the interviewee would like to see instead.

  • Empathic listening:

Sometimes you need to let the interviewee air their problem until they run out of steam, accepting their right to feel this way, but without sympathising (which could reinforce their negativity). If they are not allowed to do this, you may not get any appreciative data from them. It is important to remain positive yourself so that you don’t get dragged down by their negativity.

  • Returning to the positive:

After listening to a problem, say you are going back to focus back on when things are working at their best, even if it was just a brief moment.

  • Reframing:

Everything that people find wrong in an organisation represents an absence of something they regard as ideal, so you can ask them ‘what would it look like if this was working at its best?’ or ‘what would you want instead of this?’