Optimizing human experience to create improved performance, meaningful relationships and a better world is the goal of many personal and organizational change methodologies. Neuro linguistic programing (NLP) and Appreciative Inquiry (AI) two such methods that are explored in this conversation between Andy Smith and Robyn Stratton-Berkessel.
Andy Smith is an Emotional Intelligence consultant, NLP trainer and Appreciative Inquiry facilitator. He’s authored many books, has a range of NLP products and is a seasoned podcaster.
Andy Smith is another professional I met on Twitter several years ago. I was especially drawn to Andy because he was not only an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner, but also a certified Neuro Linguistic Programming trainer (NLP). It’s always exciting to connect to someone with similar professional areas of interest and trainings. NLP and AI are a lovely pair.
All links to all Andy’s services and products, and other references mentioned in this episode are at the end of this post.
NLP and Appreciative Inquiry
About 20 years ago while attending a conference in Crete, Greece, Andy, a practicing hypnotherapist found out about Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP). Then 10 years later, while attending a Conference on Emotional Intelligence (EQ), he stumbled across a book about Appreciative Inquiry (AI), the Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. A few years after that he attended an Appreciative Inquiry training led by one of our colleagues, Anne Radford in London.
The common thread across all four of these disciplines is the careful use of language, and the intent to optimize human development and experience. Hypnosis is a trance state. Trance is a narrowed down focus of attention. It makes sense,therefore, that if focusing our attention amounts to focusing only on a small subset of information, why not focus on what produces our most resourceful states. This is where Appreciative Inquiry comes in, because with AI, we focus on what works and what is a positive life force. In most situations, this is far more beneficial and resourceful than focusing on things that are life depleting.
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Applying Appreciative Inquiry
Andy talks about his first experiences of Appreciative Inquiry as a table facilitator at AI summits. He remembers how inspiring it is to witness the shifts that happen when people who don’t know each other so well at the beginning of an event become inspired by what they dream together; even more inspiring is that together, they come up with ideas of how they can improve services, products and relationships.
Listen in to this episode, as we share experiences of applying AI in different contexts. I mention that I find the very first AI discovery interview sets the scene for when you discover what truly matters. The discovery interview invites people to recall a high peak experience, when they feel most connected to the topic they are are inquiring into. This helps them to remember positive experiences, which in turn helps them tap into to their strengths and all the things they appreciate about a situation.
Negative and Positive Emotional States
When we face difficulties, we might feel anxious, fearful, angry. These are negative states, and they not the most resourceful states for overcoming challenges. We perform better and respond much better to challenges if we feel good, strong, curious, or even humorous. It can be very useful to have those kinds of emotional states “on tap” so you can access in the moment and respond much better. This is how positivity helps. Our actual cognitive abilities to think strategically and creatively are enhanced when we’re actually feeling good. We refer to Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory.
For example, when we’re feeling good, it’s easier to remember other good times we’ve had, or other instances when we’ve achieved something that would be relevant and useful with the problem we’re facing now. If you’re feeling miserable, it’s not so easy to recall good times or achievements.
What we’re doing with discovery questions (tell me about a peak experience in your work; tell me about one of the best things that’s happened to you while you’ve been working here) is getting somebody into a positive emotional state where they can recall more things that will serve them, where they’ll be more likely to have creative ideas that will help them to deal with whatever challenge they’re working on.
Increasing Positivity and Overcoming Negativity
One useful aspect of NLP is the idea of everything that we do, every behavior, has an aspect of positive intention behind it, even though that positive intention may be unconsciously held and even though it may not be very effective at achieving or fulfilling that positive intention.
What does this look like? Take smoking. The intention behind somebody starting smoking might be originally to feel grown up or to rebel against parental/school restrictions, and maybe they feel it also helps them feel not as nervous in social situations.
If you seek to uncover the positive intention behind the “negative” or undesired thought or behavior, you can identify it in terms of its higher purpose, and as you keep “chunking up” from concrete behavior to the intention, you can help to address the “negativity” by identifying the positive intention.
Positive intention behind Anger
Here’s another example. What could be the positive intention behind anger? The positive intention behind anger may be to protect yourself. Anger serves as a warning when your boundaries are overstepped. What you’re angry about might not be based on current situation. It could be based on past situations you’ve been angry about, and the current situation reminds you of them. What do you need to learn from the past so you can let go of the emotion you’re feeling now.
Most of us don’t like uncertainty. We are wired to filter incoming information by the beliefs we hold, so information that supports those beliefs we tend to amplify and take notice of, and information that conflicts those beliefs we tend to play down or ignore altogether. This is known as confirmation bias, and it’s much easier to spot in someone else than ourselves.
Reframing Mistakes as Surprises
To reduce this notion of confirmation bias, Andy refers to a recent post where he writes about using surprise as the frame to describe events or situations that don’t live up to expectations. He refers to Julia Galef’s study where she had kids keep a surprise journal so that when something turns out not as they had expected, it wasn’t recorded as a failure, mistake, disappointment or frustration, but it was labelled as a surprise. This gave them the opportunity to do two things: 1. ask themselves why they were surprised, and 2. what does that say about them.
This is a great way to reflect on how we respond to things that go against our expectations, or go wrong. If you can develop a culture of learning to reframe mistakes and errors as surprises, you can create a climate which is much less threatening or fear-based. Great if it happens in family situation and in team situations.
Individual and Group Work
Although NLP can be used in group contexts, fundamentally it's applied to individuals. One definition of NLP is the study of the structure of subjective experience, so it’s about the study of what happens within a person. Whereas, Appreciative Inquiry, while it is applied successfully with individuals, it is more frequently about what happens between people and the people in a group, and what emerges from the sum of the individuals.
Tools to help in Appreciative Inquiry Design
Listen into the episode to learn some specific tools that Andy uses to help groups and teams bridge their dreams to actions. For example, the Fishbone or Ishikawa Diagram and the Disney Strategy Model. Since the Design step of AI often starts with a brainstorming activity, it helps to have planning tools to help categorize, prioritize ideas.
We Have All the Resources We Need
Both NLP and AI have a set of guiding principles, and they do support each other. A key NLP principle that rings true for AI is we have within us everything we need to make the changes that we want to. This applies at an individual level or a team level at an organizational level, and that being said, it may, or may not be true.
If we assume that it is true and act like it’s true, then we’re not going to be limiting ourselves, we’re not going to be placing a glass ceiling on our ambitions or our achievements. So, we’ve got more chance of fulfilling our potential if we realize that we already have all of the resources within us that we need.
How to Connect with Andy Smith
- Andy’s Site: Coaching Leaders
- Andy is @practicaleq on Twitter
- Andy’s Podcast: Practical NLP Podcast
- Andy’s London Training : Practical Appreciative Inquiry facilitator training 19-20 February
Andy’s Blog Posts Mentioned In This Episode
- Using surprise to overcome confirmation bias
- Fishbone diagram/swim lanes method
- Disney Strategy for creativity
- We have all the resources we need to succeed' presupposition (it mentions AI as well)
Articles and Other Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Anne Radford’s Site
- Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires by Barbara Fredrickson and Christine Branigan (NIH Public Access Author Manuscript)
- Surprise! by Julia Glalef in Slate.com
- Digital Strategist, Juergen Berkessel’s site: Polymash
- Post-it notes app to organize scattered post-it notes on boards
Andy's e-Books on Amazon.com
- Andy's Amazon Author Page