Let’s Bring Some Appreciative Inquiry To Your Workshops! with Laure Cohen van Delft
Algorithms and workshops do not seem like the best of friends, so it is a relief to know that AI in facilitation refers to the method of Appreciative Inquiry (AI)!
Laure Cohen van Delft is vastly experienced and has a broad and varied approach to facilitation… but AI is at the heart of her practice.
AI encompasses many facets of other facilitative approaches, all of which are joined together by the belief that every living system has potential for growth when we focus on its potential, not its problems.
Laure joined Myriam on workshops work to explore the foundations and finer details of AI. It was a fascinating conversation, explained clearly and eloquently, that every facilitator can learn something from.
Whilst this article summarises their fantastic discussion, the full podcast episode is worth listening to for even more fascinating detail.
What is Appreciative Inquiry?
Understanding AI starts with breaking down its most basic components – the two words!
Laure explained appreciation as being “not only from a standpoint of positivity and appreciating what you’re saying – from the standpoint of what will grow in value.” This means “asking questions that will actually help people to grow or make things grow in their environment.”
And Inquiry as being “the real foundation of workshops: asking questions – powerful questions – discovering, not knowing the answers. Inquiry is all about those beautiful questions you come up with – improvising them but also preparing them.”
The whole approach, Laure explained, “is really coming from a curiosity mindset.”
AI is the product of multiple interwoven approaches, from positive psychology and NLP to design thinking.
“The AI process allows you to put all these disciplines together in a way that you can use them in a flow.”
Now the definition is clear, we can look at the structure of AI and how these approaches “flow” together.
The five principles of Appreciative Inquiry
The five principles of AI are the cornerstones of how a practitioner should approach their work – reference points that should inform actions, ideas, and decisions in any setting.
Understanding and embodying these principles is the starting point for facilitators looking to practice AI.
Taken from social constructionism, this principle says that “it is through conversations that the reality that we see within each other comes up,” Laure explained. “Therefore, when you hear ‘words create worlds’, that is achieved through conversations because the word you say will allow me to build on it.
“The moment you ask a question, you’re changing something in that conversation.”
“Your question is never neutral,” stressed Laure, “and if you ask it in a positive way, it will have a different outcome.”
Being sensitive to and cognisant of the impact of our language, the way we frame questions, and what we are asking can have a significant impact on the direction of our work.
Laure lit up when it came to this third principle. “An organisation,” she beamed, “is like a book or a poem. What you focus on, what you put your attention to, will grow.”
When you read a poem and “have words that you are particularly drawn to” or emphasise, “you bring it with you in the future. If you put your attention into something, then this becomes your reality much more than before.”
Our realities are subject to interpretation and so, with intentionality, we can change the cadence, rhythm, and pace of reality entirely.
This is all about looking at the future – not just “what can we do, but also what could we do?”
Envisioning a future where change has been made, “being anticipatory of what is coming for us”, allows us to shape our work to move us further towards that vision.
Myriam noted that this principle focuses on “what could emerge”, “not should… It’s really about the imagination, about leaving it open to the group and to the Inquiry to explore, and not pre-defining an outcome or output.”
This principle “encompasses everything because it puts the context to everything you do.”
For Laure, this includes “the questions you will ask, the way you will facilitate, the way you handle objections.”
She was keen to stress, however, that AI is not “an approach that can only be used for situations that are rosy and merry – quite the opposite.
“In this time in our history, more than ever we need the Appreciative Inquiry to go into the darkness with these principles underpinning our thinking and our way of doing things.”
Applying Appreciative Inquiry in workshops
Once Laure had explained the foundational principles of AI – “the warm up”, as Myriam called it – the conversation turned to how the principles are actually applied to facilitation.
“What is amazing is that it is so simple,” smiled Laure, “That’s the beauty of it.”
Laure pointed to the 4D model for how we can apply AI in workshops, though there is also a somewhat-contested preliminary stage that Laure believes is “a key moment” in the success of AI. For the sake of balance, it is included below:
This phase – the debated one – involves using the principles of AI “to ask the questions” that help you understand the context of the workshop – “to come to an understanding of the theme – not the ‘challenge’ or ‘the situation’.”
For Laure, this is an absolute essential, as it sets the scene before the workshop begins and gives the facilitator a clear understanding of the theme and what the group are working on.
This is where the group “discover each other” by pairing up and asking a core of open-ended questions, including:
- What brought you to the company and how did you feel when you first joined?
- What was a moment where you felt you had a great time working with a teammate?
- If you had a magic wand, what would be your three wishes to have more of that feeling in the future?
“Suddenly they discover that other people have the same desire, purpose, and will to make it work.”
When the group comes back together and shares their discoveries, they can begin to dream…
“In the dream,” Laure explained, “we take the golden nuggets that came out of the interviews and you push them further.” Laure recommends using the poetic principle at this stage – quite literally by incorporating storytelling into the discussions – and breaking off into smaller groups again to ideate and ponder what “the dream team and company” would look like.
“You really go into more provocative thinking as to what our future could be – creativity is high, is encouraged, for embodying ‘what is our dream?’”
“The trust that you build during the discovery just blossoms in the course of the day and so the design just forms naturally.”
This phase, Laure admits, brings the room back “to reality,” by asking “what will it look like?”
This is where design thinking and prototyping take hold, trying to answer the question of “what is the smallest step that we can put in place so that we start creating our future?”
At this point, Laure incorporates her LEGO Serious Play training and suggests that facilitators turn to props at this stage – “it’s really a building” phase, where “people are doing whatever it takes to share their design on the provocative dream proposal they came up with.”
Because the group is breaking into smaller teams at each stage, they will not just be designing one “provocative dream proposal”, but four or five (for a group of 20 or 30).
Depending on how you have come into the group and what has been asked of you, this phase is either about producing a measurable output (delivery) or a “sustained momentum” that ensures the group continues working on their dream.
The teams continue working on their dreams and the cycle starts again, as teams share their ideas together or new people come on board. The discovery phase begins over as the ideas are shared more widely.
Want to know more about applying AI in your workshops?
Myriam and Laure discussed AI at length in episode 63 of workshops work, including how to encourage positive growth through appropriate questions, what outcomes and outputs look like in AI workshops, and much more!
Hopefully this preview of their conversation has caught your attention and got the cogs in your mind whirring.
If you would like to oil them with even more inspiration, you can listen to the show on your favourite podcast player, searching for “workshops work” or stream the episodes on www.workshops.work.
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