Wright, N. (2016). 'Creating our Reality - Appreciative Coaching'. Coaching Today. British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. Issue 20. October. pp12-17.
Appreciative Coaching (AC) is an approach to conversations based on beliefs that (a) in every society, organisation, group or individual, something works, (b) the language and stories people use create their reality and (c) what people focus on becomes their reality. If we focus on positive experiences, hopes and ideas, we can create positive energy and build a positive future.
Pause – just for a moment. What has been your best experience of coaching? When was it? Where were you? Who was with you? What were you talking about? Visualise it. Feel it. Really feel it. Allow yourself to re-live, to re-experience that special moment. Breathe. Hold the thought, the feeling.
Now – reflect. What happened to make it such a great experience? What did you notice in that experience e.g. about yourself, about coaching? Imagine lots more moments like the one you re-lived just now. What would that be like? What potential would it release? How would you feel?
Now – think movement, taking things forward. Your best experience: imagine your life, work and experience being more like that, more of the time. What would really capture your imagination in that? What matters most to you in it? What would energise and make you feel most alive?
Finally – action. In practice, what would need to happen for this to happen? What could you do to make this your new reality? What could you build on to make the shift? What great skills, experiences, resources or relationships can you draw on to achieve it? What’s your next step?
What I did here was to take you through an example of an AC process. You will have noticed that the focus is on appreciation; that is, on noticing, experiencing and building on peak experiences (1, 2). It looks and feels very different to coaching that focuses on problem-solving (3, 4).
AC doesn’t ignore problems or pretend they don’t exist. It isn’t an idealistic or naïve form of utopianism. It does, however, take seriously what we notice in a situation, what preoccupies us, how we construe situations, what stories we tell ourselves and each other and the impact those stories have on us and on others.
In this article, I will introduce some of the key thinking and principles that underpin AC. I will also provide an illustration and case examples to show what it can look like in practice, drawing on experiences in individual, group and team coaching contexts.
Illustration – Individual
A person approaches you to talk about a relationship with a colleague that feels strained. What kind of questions could you pose that reflect an AC approach?
Discover: So it sounds like there are tensions in the relationship with a colleague. Tell me about a time when you have found yourselves in agreement about something? Give me an example of an interaction with this person when you didn’t get frustrated? Which aspects of this relationship have gone well?
The idea here is to surface positive memories, feelings ad experiences, no matter how fleeting they were.
Dream: Imagine the relationship with this person is working really well. What would a great relationship look and feel like? What would make working together feel like a positive experience for you? What would you see yourself doing (or not doing)? What would the other person be doing? How would you and they be feeling?
The idea is to use vivid imagination – encouraging the person to really enter into the experience and to feel it, as if it is happening in the here and now.
Design: OK, we’re reflecting on those moments when the relationship has worked well and what it could be like in the future. Now imagine those good moments, when it has gone well and what you hope for, as your normal experience rather than the exception. What would it take to move towards that kind of relationship? How would you be approaching the person and working with them?
The idea here is to build on the positive imagination and feelings from the ‘discover’ and ‘dream’ phases to inspire and energise the person to move towards a different future.
Destiny: If you believed you could really do this, what would you do next? What would mark a positive step forward? What would you and others see you doing in this new relationship? What would you notice about how you are feeling as you walk towards that person? What are you willing to try?
So we can think of ‘appreciative’ coaching in its general sense as an approach which affirms positive qualities and experiences in such a way that builds confidence, vision and hope. We can also think of AC, as illustrated above, as a semi-structured process that reflects 4 phases of Appreciative Inquiry: discover, dream, design and destiny (1, 2).
Example – Group
I worked with a high school recently where I was invited to mentor and coach managers and staff in a coactive approach to appraisal conversations. As I opened the group workshops, I was met with scepticism and resistance from some participants. Comments like, ‘We’ve done this before and it was a waste of time’ reverberated around the room. I responded: ‘OK, you’ve had some disappointing and frustrating experiences in the past. Yet let’s think for a moment…what would be possible if we were to do it well this time?’ This simple framing, focusing the group’s thinking about aspiration and possibility rather than unpacking problems from the past, created a positive shift in the mood and conversation.
In the same school, the staff mentioned that they had adopted an appreciative approach to review and feedback with students. Rather than grading assignments, teachers hold a conversation with each pupil: ‘WWW’ – what went well? And EBI – ‘even better if’. It focuses the students’ attention on those aspects of their work that are positive and towards a desired state in the future (5).
Having this positive example in the room enabled me to build on it with the group. I encouraged participants to reflect on the philosophy and approach behind WWW and EBI and the positive difference they had seen it make. As a result, they were willing and able to apply these principles to inform and enhance their approach to appraisal.
AC is more than a novel technique or process. It reflects underlying philosophical beliefs about reality and how it is created rather than, say how it is discovered. Drawing on social constructionism, AC pays careful attention to what and how language and narrative are used (6, 7). What we say reflects and shapes what we perceive as reality, how we experience it and what options we can imagine are available to us.
Example – Team
I worked as team coach with a leadership team that talked about persistent problems they had experienced with joined-up working. I noticed that the more they talked about what wasn’t working, the more frustrated they became with each other and the more they struggled to find a way through. I offered this as an observation.
Next, I invited them to pause and reflect on specific examples of where they had seen things working in a joined-up way; in effect, to share stories of success. It shifted the focus of their attention and enabled them to create a new vision (what they wanted to be more like, more of the time). They left feeling more optimistic, energised and united and with practical ideas about how to move things forward.
This example shows how AC shares common principles with solutions-focused coaching. A solutions-focused approach draws the attention forwards towards a desired future state rather than backwards on what hasn’t worked. It also proposes that we don’t necessarily need to understand what caused problems to think about and create a different future (3,4). Rather than, ‘what happened and why’, it focuses on ‘what do we hope for and how can we get there’.
AC also shares common ground with strengths-based coaching, similar to the WWW and EBI approach I mentioned above. Questions such as, ‘When have you been at your best?’, ‘What strengths have you demonstrated?’, ‘What personal qualities did you display that made such a positive difference?’ and ‘What strengths can you bring to this new situation’ open a very different energy and conversation to, ‘When have you failed? ‘, ‘What are you bad at?’ or ‘What do you need to change?’ (2,5).
My own AC practice is also influenced by my Christian beliefs that humanity is, at its best, a reflection of God in the world and that God has endowed each person and people-in-relationship with extraordinary potential. When I focus on potential rather than deficit, it’s as if more of God is revealed in the person, group or organisation. I also believe that, as human beings, we have extraordinary potential to lose perspective and to mess things up – but that’s a different story (8)!
So, we have seen here how AC starts with a belief. It’s a belief in the potential of a person or a team. It’s also a belief that our interaction with the person(s) will be enough to raise awareness and catalyse change. So it’s a positive belief, a hope-filled belief, that enables us to see, release and amplify the best in others (9).
It’s also a creative and creating belief. It’s not just about seeing what is already there, perhaps hidden to the other, and drawing it out into full view. It’s as if our belief itself, the language we use and the stories we tell call something out from within a person or group, create a new reality and enable them to reach deeper and higher than they could have done before.
Example – Group
I coached a group in a commercial organisation facing change where many participants felt bruised and frustrated by their previous experiences. They described change in the past as having being top down, directive, heavy-handed and painful. Some looked tearful as they spoke. I decided to coach the team using AC principles. To start with, ‘What went well in the past?’ would have felt insensitive and disconnected. Instead, I acknowledged participants’ feelings and inquired gently about what their hopes were, what would be possible if the change were to go well this time, what part they could play in shaping their own experience of the future. Some reacted strongly, arguing passionately that this was pointless. Nothing would change. I circled back and went deeper: ‘So, I’m curious: what does matter most to you in this?’, ‘Stepping back from the organisation, what do you want your life and work to be about?’ The mood started to shift. Touching on existential issues had tapped into participants’ values and aspirations (10). I moved into discover: ‘As you look back, what have you achieved that matters most to your colleagues and customers – as people?’, ‘When have you been at your best?’, ‘What have you shown you’re really good at?’, ‘What have you learned that you can build on?’ The conversation started to take on a very different tone. Participants looked and felt more positive, confident and hopeful and moved into dream to look at their vision, goals and aspirations for the future. ‘What would great look and feel like?’, ‘What would make the greatest positive difference for you and this organisation?’, ‘What could your influence be in this?’ Design and destiny followed naturally from this. ‘What would need to happen for that to happen?’, ‘How could you use your change conversations to make the shift?’, ‘What strengths, successes and experiences can you use and build on?’, ‘What can you do to frame and influence your own change experience positively – to make it worthwhile?’, ‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’
We can see in this case example how AC can shift focus and energy from scepticism and resistance towards optimism and actively leaning into an experience. The workshops finished with a tangible sense of inspiration and hope. Participants described the experience as a journey of discovery, of noticing what they hadn’t noticed before and of leaving feeling refreshingly empowered (1).
The examples we’ve looked at so far are in groups. The reason for this is because it shows how conversations in groups – the language, narrative and metaphors that people use – shape their perspective, mood and behaviour. In other words, change the conversation and you change the people, the energy and the range of options and opportunities available. (6,7) It also shows how conversations in groups create and reinforce outlook, meaning-making and culture.
I’ll now show what AC could look like in conversation with an individual. I will use an example that illustrates how an AC ethos and approach can be used flexibly rather than systematically.
Example – Individual
I met with a leader who, previously, had expressed real concern about her relationship with a member of her team. The picture she painted as she spoke was of a relationship filled with ‘tension’ and ‘disagreement’. As she used those words, she became tearful and stressed and explained that she could see no way to continue, either in this relationship or in this job. It was a crisis moment. I asked when she was next due to meet with the person. ‘Next week. I’m dreading it.’
So I asked her what she imagined happening when they enter the room together. ‘I will be tense, up-tight, and she will be too.’ So I asked her, ‘If you were to imagine walking into the room and feeling really positive and pleased to see her, confident in your working relationship, what would you be doing?’
We stood up together and role-played that scenario. She started to laugh and, at first, over-dramatised it for effect. Then she had a proverbial light bulb moment: ‘I’m beginning to wonder what I’m evoking between us when we meet…’ I asked how she was feeling now, in the moment. ‘More positive and relaxed.’ I asked her when she had felt that feeling previously. She paused, then spoke: ‘When I meet with one of my peers that I get on really well with.’
So I asked, ‘What do you do when you meet with your peer that contributes to it feeling like that for you?’ She responded, ‘I start by offering her coffee and asking how she is before jumping into business. I really listen because I like her and I’m interested in her.’ I ended, ‘So, do you know what you need to do next week? ‘She replied with a smile, ‘Yes.’
I will end this article in the same vein in which I started. I invite you to reflect for a moment on some appreciative questions: What positive insights or ideas have occurred to you whilst reading this article? As you think about those ideas, how do you feel? What would it be like to incorporate those insights or ideas into your own coaching practice? If you were to do that successfully, what would it look and feel like for you and for your clients? Thinking now to the future, what’s your next step..?
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