Appreciative Inquiry and the Power of Negative Thinking

Why we need to overcome our negative bias and six ways to do it

 All of you who are familiar with the Appreciative Inquiry approach to organisational, project and personal development will be aware of the following “Big Five” interlinked and overlapping principles that underpin the paradigm:
  1. The Constructionist Principle (words create worlds) – the filters through which we interpret the world create our reality in other words the map is not the territory. These filters shape our language, communications and day to day interactions; so focusing on possibilities rather than limitations helps us to generate a better future.
  2. The Simultaneity Principle (inquiry is an intervention) – systems move in the direction of the questions we most persistently ask and change happens from the moment we begin our inquiry; so consistently asking empowering questions plants the seeds of positive change.
  3. The Poetic Principle (we author our own histories) – people interact and learn through stories, and like poems and books the narratives that shape our lives are open to different interpretations; so we can enhance the prospects for success by replacing the stale old narratives of stress, conflicts and shortcomings with stories of individuals, programmes and organisations at their best.
  4. The Anticipatory Principle (our expectations inspire our actions) – what we do today is guided by our expectations of the future; so developing a motivating vision will help imbue our present day actions with hope, excitement, joy and other uplifting emotions that contribute to peak performance.
  5. The Positive Principle (positive images lead to positive actions) – positive emotions such as joy, compassion and empathy promote a resourceful mental state; so enhancing qualities like camaraderie, persistence, and resilience to setbacks will contribute to personal and organisation effectiveness.

These are indeed very powerful principles but to till now I have avoided explicitly referring to them when I have facilitated introductory Appreciative Inquiry workshops. Instead I have used the following five principles to set the scene:

  1. Individuals give events their meaning
  2. What you focus on expands
  3. Words create worlds
  4. We are programmed to pay attention to negative aspects of a situation
  5. We can override our programming by exercising our “appreciative muscles”

An obvious reason for not using “The Big Five” is the urge to minimise jargon. There are only so many new things people can absorb at one sitting.  Three out of the five principles I use can be loosely translated into the Big Five anyway: individuals give events their meaning ≈ the Constructionist and Poetic Principles; what you focus on expands ≈ all of the big five; and words create worlds ≈ the Constructionist, Simultaneity and Poetic Principles.

Why highlight the negative?

What stands out like the proverbial sore thumb is my Principle No. 4 – We are programmed to pay attention to negative aspects of a situation. This does not conform to any of the principles I’ve seen in the AI literature. And without Principle 4 there is no need Principle 5, its antidote – We can override our programming by exercising our “appreciative muscles.”Given the fact that Principle 5 can neutralise Principle 4, what is the point of introducing Principle 4 in the first place?

I believe that by highlighting the power of the negative we can provide a “safe space” in which to address those nagging doubts that many participants may harbour about AI. You know the sort of stuff that people feel and say – “this appreciative stuff is all very well but it won’t work in my [family, home, office, business, culture, country, etc.]”, “but sometimes we need to discuss bad stuff”, “I try to be positive but some things continue to wind me up” and most familiar of all “I’m not being negative, I’m just being realistic”.  All of the above are justified sentiments, and I think we ignore such sentiments at our peril. Discussing them provides us with a valuable means of facilitating a new way of thinking in a manner that acknowledges the tenacious grip that “old paradigm thinking” holds on our individual and collective psyche. This helps the trainee to understand that negative feelings are reasonable though not always rational and that AI is a powerful way of addressing an inherent negative bias.

Velcro and Teflon

Most people are accustomed to problem-based paradigms. If you don’t believe me just watch any news bulletin for more than about a minute, consult most elementary psychology textbooks and find the non-existent or miniscule section on happiness, or leaf through any dictionary and count the numbers of words that describe positive versus negative emotions – according to one study seventy-four percent of the total words in the English language that describe personality traits are negative. Given this background, there is likely to be a degree of cynicism and resistance when Appreciative Inquiry is first introduced. Principle 4 acknowledges that a negative bias is the default setting for most people and groups.Even as a “born optimist” I know that this to be true. As Dr Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness states “Our negative experiences stick to us like Velcro, while our positive experiences slide right off us like Teflon.” A typical example of this is my (internal) reaction to my children’s school grades. Even if most of the marks are high I am irresistibly drawn to the one or two lower grades. Of course as somebody versed in the art of “positive parenting” I would never give vent to the accompanying feelings of stress and urge to fix things but I feel these feelings nonetheless. Ok, if truth be told I probably do show these feelings more often than I should but at least I know that I shouldn’t!

But ‘gut reactions’ such as those I describe above are the norm and are very deeply rooted for good reason. They have helped us and our ancestors to survive when our “nasty, brutish and short” lives were frequently subject to mortal dangers.

Survival mode: keeps us alive – doesn’t help us to thrive

Why do we appear to be so irrationally negative? In a nutshell it is because of the evolutionary imperative to respond rapidly to danger – “survival mode” the familiar fight, flight or freeze response that allowed our ancestors to live long enough to become our ancestors. Nowadays the majority of us are not confronted by tigers as we go about our daily existence but our reactive response can be just as easily triggered by any number of “paper tigers” – perceived threats such as the audiences who question us, the bosses who appraise us, our offspring who disobey us, the spouse who ignores us, and even the anonymous drivers who disrespect us. Whether these perceptions are an accurate reflection of the intentions of these other people is immaterial. To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Hamlet “there is nothing either stressful or not stressful, but thinking and feeling make it so.”Survival mode is manifested by the following physiological changes among others: elevated levels of the stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol (to prepare us to deal with sudden danger), raised breathing rate and blood pressure (to pump more oxygen around our body), increased perspiration (to prevent overheating), increased blood sugar (to boost energy where it is most needed), a reduction in the production of growth and sex hormones, a weakening of the immune system and decreased blood circulation to the digestive tract (to maximise resources available to deal with the immediate threat) and increased size and stickiness of platelets (to heal any wounds that might occur). These are great responses when our lives are under threat. But they do not stand us in good stead in the modern world when it comes to undertaking constructive everyday actions such as making decisions, collaborating with others, recalling information or having balanced discussions.

The Antidote: Principle 4 -We can override our programming by exercising our “appreciative muscles”

Setting the scene in this way helps to emphasise the fact that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about our negative feelings – they are normal. I have always been a believer in the power of positive thinking but every silver lining has a cloud. My “positivity” has sometimes manifested itself as denial – a conscious effort to keep my subconscious mind and endocrine system in line (see my blog – Appreciative Inquiry – Denial by any other name. Denial of my own negative feelings could easily trap me in a double bind – feeling bad about some everyday thing and on top of that, feeling bad about the fact that I was feeling bad! An understanding of the evolutionary reasons for the reactive response can, at the very least, limit you to a single dose of bad feelings.

Highlighting the fact that a negative viewpoint is simply one way of seeing the world allows us to question its usefulness to us in our day-to-day lives. Does it make for a positive work and home environment? Does it empower? Does it inspire? The answer to all these questions is likely to be something like “not in most cases.” The next question that comes to mind is “how can we address redress our negative bias?” This provides a platform upon which we can introduce a few of the growing number of approaches that we can use to shift us to a more positive outlook. But won’t this compromise our ability to go into survival mode when we are actually faced with a life or death situation? Assuming that you are able-bodies,  you will do everything in your power to get out of the way as quickly as you can if are about to be run over by a bus, no matter how chilled out you most of the time. Millions of years of evolution will guarantee this even if you practice every positive thinking technique on the planet as long as you keep away from mind-altering drugs.

In my introductory workshops I have highlighted the following six ways in which we can override our programming by building our “appreciative muscles”:
1.Asking empowering questions

2.Practicing gratitude

3.Observing the thoughts and feelings that come to you

4.Cultivating stillness

5.Embracing uncertainty

6.Being of service

I examine each of these “muscle-building” approaches in my blog series on “Things I do… except when I don’t.” … (TIDEWID for short).
1. Asking empowering questions

I find all six approaches to be valuable and mutually supportive but only Number One, asking empowering questions, as part of the Appreciative Interview, is from the “Regulation Appreciative Inquiry Practitioners Toolkit”. There are plenty of excellent resources out there on how to conduct appreciative interviews, over ninety of which are listed in the AI Commons Practice Tools webpage: Positive Questions and Interview Guides. I highlight some empowering question fundamentals in my blog posting – Ask Empowering Questions: What Albert Einstein and Jeremy Paxman taught me.

2. Practicing gratitude

My daily gratitude practice has helped me to appreciate the good times and to negotiate the inevitable tough times and I cannot recommend the practice too highly. I discuss the value of practising gratitude even for those situations which may appear to be unremittingly negative in my blog posting on the value of a daily gratitude practice – How I messed up my daily gratitude practice: Walking the tightrope between expressing appreciation and kidding ourselves.

3. Observing the thoughts that come to you

Observing the thoughts that come to you is a method that allows you to disengage from disempowering thoughts so avoiding becoming enmeshed in those familiar spirals of negative thinking. I learned the technique from NLP and hypnotherapy expert, life coach and “head fixer” Ali Campbell who has stated that it is the single most powerful exercise he has done to improve his life. I outline this simple process in my blog on Decoupling Runaway Trains of Thought.

4. Cultivating stillness

There are endless ways of cultivating stillness but a technique I particularly like is “Sixteen Seconds to Bliss” which I have adapted from the work of meditation teacher extraordinaire Davidji. I summarise this simple but powerful tool in my blog: Cultivating Stillness – Control, Alt, Delete for your Bodymind.

5. Embracing uncertainty

Uncertainty pervades everybody’s lives and embracing it instead of fighting it helps allows us to view those inevitable “changes of a plan” as possibilities rather than roadblocks. In my blog posting – Embrace Uncertainty I outline some simple approaches I use for improving my relationship with uncertainty.

6. Being of service

The final way of building our “appreciative muscles I highlight in my introductory AI workshops is “being of service” – helping to make this world a better place. One rather dismal but widely held world view, a view upon which classical economics is founded, is that being selfish is in everybody’s best interest and it is competition alone that drives innovation and growth. This extreme form of social Darwinism ignores the fact that human beings must also collaborate to survive and thrive at every stage of their lives. To realise our full potential we must strive to be the best person we can be in the service of both ourselves and others. The universal truth of this viewpoint explains why we root for the heroes who fight for justice for all and against the villains who care only for their self-aggrandizement. I talk about how being of service can enhance your quality of life and outline ways in which you can maximise your contribution in my blog posting –  Being of Service:  Doing Well by doing Good.

In Conclusion…

I hope I have justified my “AI introduction with a negative twist.” Even if you disagree with the approach I hope that you will appreciate my intentions. The wonderful thing about the AI community is that it is a broad church with no concept of heresy; so nobody can ever be excommunicated!

A little Postscript – EFT a seventh way to build your appreciative muscles

In my personal life I find Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or Tapping to be an excellent way of releasing negative emotions. Sometimes referred to as “psychological acupuncture”, EFT involves a sequence of gentle taps on acupuncture meridians or “tapping points” with your fingertips while talking through a particular issue of concern – a trauma, a phobia, a limiting belief or an ephemeral concern such as a looming deadline. I find that a few minutes of tapping rapidly reduces the intensity of my anxiety levels to near zero levels.

The jury is out on how exactly EFT works but there is a growing of evidence of its effectiveness. I do, however, have to confess a certain degree of bias as my lovely wife Julie Mauremootoo is a certified EFT practitioner. For the moment incorporating EFT into an Appreciative Inquiry workshop is likely to be a bit too radical for most of the folks I work with. However, I do foresee a time when EFT is incorporated into mainstream organisational development. Remember, you heard it here first!

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