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June 27, 2018

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Priming Positive Change and Trust with Appreciative Inquiry

April 25, 2018

As I read Angela's honest revelations about how she feels when some people distrust consultants, and her reaction to Lisa Meade's post about blaming school leaders, I began to think about our natural tendency to feel resistance to positive change. Many of us are threatened by the thought of anyone showing us new ways to behave, influencing our attitudes, or suggesting how we should feel, even if these aren't any effective leader's intentions. Never mind that these changes might improve our lives in any way. We tend to prefer the comfort of the status quo, even when we know the status quo may not be working for us.  


As Angela points out, I often remind her of our human tendency towards negativity bias. This is the scientific phenomenon that negative experiences or emotions have greater weight in getting, and keeping, our attention than positive experiences of the same intensity. It all comes down to how our brains are wired to detect danger so that we can take the necessary action to ensure our survival. So, we tend to notice and remember the criticism versus the praise, the failures over the successes, the meanness versus the kindness, in ourselves as well as others. And we often linger in painful emotions such as anger, sadness, or jealousy for longer periods than pleasurable ones such as love, peacefulness or joy. If you've ever been in a bad mood, just think of how difficult it is to shift gears from feeling stuck and indecisive as we are wallowing in negativity, to a more positive disposition that opens us up to feeling more hopeful, and willing to consider the bright side.


Now let's put that bias toward negativity into the context of a system or organization. When an outsider like a consultant comes into a school or district, for example, to offer professional services, the members of that system may automatically assume that this person will notice what's wrong, judge them, and will try to "fix" them. They might think that this outsider can't possibly understand or appreciate what it's like to live inside the system, and has questionable motives, rather than noble intentions. And instead of recognizing their own defensiveness, their tendency may be to distrust the outsider before they even engage with the system and begin their intervention.


How might we set the stage for establishing a more trusting, welcoming relationship with those who are leading or consulting with an organization?


One way may be to positively prime the situation with appreciative inquiry.


The power of positive priming has been studied by psychologists who have demonstrated that creating a positive context can have dramatic effects on our cognitive performance, attitudes, beliefs, and emotions. We can positively prime our environment with fresh cut flowers in a vase; by listening to our favorite music; surrounding ourselves with photos of people we love, or objects that evoke pleasant memories; or by posting our favorite inspirational quotes on our office or classroom walls. 


We also can prime a situation by helping people focus on the positive, thereby bringing about change through asking appreciative questions about what's working, as well as learning from the things that may not be working.  


Sometimes referred to as "AI," appreciative inquiry is defined as follows:


At its heart, AI is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. AI is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but AI is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes. ”


In essence, appreciative inquiry, draws on the best of the past, to inspire the present, and create a better future.




Examples of appreciative inquiry questions that have the power to positively prime include:


What went well today?


What are you grateful for?


What are you looking forward to?


Studies have shown that when consultants are hired by organizations to find solutions to such challenges as improving efficiency, increasing retention, customer satisfaction, or boosting profits, asking managers to talk about their best leadership experiences in their past energized them and opened them up to positive organizational change.


In the context of a school or district where a consultant is called in to provide professional development to teachers, or to help improve their teaching effectiveness and satisfaction, members of the system may be positively primed with conversation prompts such as:


Tell me about a time when you felt personally rewarded as a teacher.


What drew you to the teaching profession as your life's work?


Describe a classroom situation when you were most energized by your students.


Like effective coaches and educators, approaching others with the intention of uncovering others' potential creates an atmosphere of openness to growth and positive change. Engaging around good memories about past successes, satisfying moments, and connecting to purpose and meaning can serve to increase positivity and set the tone for productive work and collaboration. 


Priming with appreciative inquiry can not only make individuals experience positive emotions, but it can even ground new relationships in positivity, and create an upward spiral of organizational growth, helping us think about the big picture through broadening and building on what's working.


How might we build trust in leaders or consultants who come into our schools, systems, or organizations with the intention to facilitate positive change? 


Let's continue the conversation on our Compassionate Classrooms Facebook page and on Twitter @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman.



our positive past, what's working, 

painful emotions - narrow and constricting

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