Posted by Barb Pierce, PCC | November 20, 2014

“Leaders can provide visible evidence of enabling and supporting their employees by conducting continuous Appreciative Coaching conversations showing how the strengths of the person are aligned to the results of the organization. People then understand how they fit into the organization’s vision and mission, but create a powerful energy for excellence.”
—James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge (4th ed., Jossey-Bass, 2008)

Although much effort has been invested in improving problem-solving models, there has been significant research in the past 50 years regarding the benefits of positive thinking. One area of discovery via the world of psychology has been the development of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Initially developed for the medical field, AI has been gaining traction in the business world. A 2012 study by Anne Selcer, Gerald Goodman and Phillip J. Decker found that leaders who use appreciative coaching have significantly greater impacts on developing a common vision, and in empowering and supporting their work teams.

Learning about AI sparked an “aha” moment that forever changed how I interact with others—especially with my clients. I started implementing AI right away with excellent results and found that approaching coaching conversations through the lens of AI created a more optimistic tone. It also moved the discussion from a focus on what was wrong to what was possible; this helped my clients get to a place of understanding and possibility much more quickly. Simply put: You get more of what you choose to focus on.

Like many people, I used to focus on solving the problem during coaching discussions. I now know that focusing on the problem brings even more attention to it—often at the expense of the solution. For example, when you are biking on a trail, the more you focus on the big rock that you want to avoid, the more likely you are to hit it. To successfully navigate the obstacle, you instead look beyond the rock to the place where you want your wheels to go. The same thing is true of work or personal problems. The more you focus on the thing you don’t want, the more of it you’re going to get.

When you incorporate AI into your coaching toolbox, you see your clients as resourceful and capable, and you encourage those attributes. Asking your clients to focus on positive stories with the intent of learning what worked in the past encourages even more of this behavior. Incorporating AI in your coaching practice changes the way you connect with others. It can help pull the client out of the problem state and create a physiology that encourages new thinking.

Coaches who use AI guide their clients toward the future, while accessing and building upon the best of their past. The advantage of an AI-based approach when coaching is that the questions lead the clients to experience a positive frame of mind. It is from this place/state that the client is able to develop new possibilities.

The language used by both the coach and the client has an impact on the client’s reality and potential for future changes. When the client is in an unresourceful frame of mind, she often can’t see the possibilities available to her. When this occurs, the simple act of changing physiology through different postures, storytelling or visualizations allows the client to see her situation more favorably and opens her up to more possibilities.

With AI, you can do a whole lot more than just solve the problem. AI is not like problem-solving, where you look for what is wrong and try to fix it. Instead, you focus on the outcome in a way that promotes learning and discovery. The AI process is not a sugar-coated pep talk, but a true inquiry into best practices in which the coach listens for words, phrases and metaphors that illustrate what is important to the client.

Although the AI process does not encourage negative stories, when one comes up, the coach can use it to generate ideas about what was missing so that learning can still take place. If the negative stories are suppressed or ignored, then there may be resentment, and the client may feel that the process is biased or ineffective. As Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom write in The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change (2nd ed., Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010), “The aim is to start the solution process rather than to stop the complaint pattern.”

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