Why I like Appreciative Inquiry

Here we introduce Appreciative Inquiry, one of the tools we use in Rhizome’s facilitation and training. Over the next few months we have a series of blog posts helping you figure out how you can use the model, illustrated through case studies.  Do check back, and get in touch with your comments or questions.

First of all, the name is very descriptive of the approach. ‘Inquiry’ means that questions are used to focus people’s attention. ‘Appreciative’ means that the questions asked are about when things have gone well, or at least about making the best of a difficult situation.

Secondly, this is often a refreshing approach, a contrast to the usual emphasis on problems. I’d like to illustrate that. I was once involved in a project in Thanet, a local authority district in Kent that includes the Isle of Thanet and Margate. We started by borrowing an idea from Future Search Conferences: ‘Prouds and sorries’. The problem was that by the time people had finished listing all their ‘Sorries’ – the lists went on and on – there was almost nothing on the ‘Prouds’ list – some people were adamant that there was nothing to put on it!


So we changed the way we asked people what they thought about Thanet. Instead, we asked them only to talk about what they appreciated, the good things. What they came up with was a long list, with many of the ideas being shared by people of all generations. Here are a few examples:

To me the air is like wine. It’s much less polluted and quieter than London …

One of the great natural benefits of Thanet is the sea air. This needs to be protected from pollution (cars, bonfires, log fires etc.) by declaring the area a clean air zone…

I love the restorative effect of walking along an unspoilt and natural coastline with relatively fresh air…

We love going on the beach, digging in the sand – burying each other up to the neck and searching for crabs and shrimps in the pools, building sand-castles, climbing on the rocks….

The other aspect of AI is that it concentrates on stories. Many of the questions begin, ‘Can you tell me about a time when…’ In a workshop organised by Essex County Council, the question used was, ‘Think of a successful partnership. Describe it. What made it successful?’ This led to a discussion of Morecambe and Wise, a successful partnership that everyone could relate to.

A while back, my good colleagues May Molteno and Jane Whittaker of Pathways in Manchester were being interviewed for a piece of work by the Valley Regeneration Partnership in Rotherham. Towards the end of the interview, a young Asian woman asked about the AI method, which Pathways had only been able to touch on in their initial ten minute presentation. To illustrate how it might cover the needs of young people, May asked the woman to recall a positive experience from when she was 15 or 16. The woman looked blank for a while. Then her face lit up and she told of a supply teacher she had had for just a fortnight. This teacher had given her time and attention that she was unused to, having been perceived by her teachers as ‘a quiet Asian girl’. It was the first time she had remembered this teacher in years. Jane and May told stories of their own that linked to the first one in showing the importance for young people of positive experiences where others take an interest in them and they feel valued.

You will not be surprised to hear that this part of the interview brought the five person interview panel to life, with everyone leaning forward to listen for more – nor that Pathways got the contract.