Appreciative inquiry as aesthetic sensibility: co-ordinating meaning, purpose and reflexivity

Oliver, C & Barge, J.K., (2002) Appreciative Inquiry as aesthetic sensitivity: coordination of meaning, purpose and reflexivity, in Dalsgaard, C., Meisner, T. & Voetmann, K. (eds) Change: Appreciative conversations in theory and practice, Psykologisk Forlag, Denmark

Contemporary approaches to management and consultation have emphasized the importance of affirmative competence—an ability to create life-enhancing moments through communication (Barrett, 1995). A variety of methods such as Future Search (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995) Open Space Technology (Harrison, 1997), and Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999) reflect this emphasis on identifying moments of excellence within organizational life and openly conversing about possible futures. For example, practitioners of Appreciative Inquiry have developed the 4-D model where organizational members engage in conversations that appreciate and value the best of "what is" (discover), envision "what might be" (dream), dialogue about "what should be" (design), articulate "what will be" innovated, and decide how best that is accomplished (destiny or delivery) (Hammond, 1998). Focusing on what works well in organizations by articulating key organizational values, highpoints, and success stories coupled with talk about future possibilities offers a powerful way of approaching organizational transformation and development.

Approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry have provided a set of conversational structures that assist managers and consultants to shape and give meaning to organizational talk by determining the conversational topics that need to be discussed, the sequence of conversational topics, and the rules that should guide the conversation. For example, conducting an Appreciative Inquiry in an organization typically leads organizational members to create a conversational structure that begins by talking about their hopes and dreams (discovery), progressing through a series of topics that lead to action (destiny) with each conversational topic guided by the rule that talk should be affirming of the life-giving and "positive." While methods such as Appreciative Inquiry have highlighted the kinds and shape of conversations that should occur during an inquiry process, they have been less specific about how managers and consultants should make choices about the kinds of moves or acts to perform within the ongoing flow of conversation.

If managers and consultants are to employ methods such as Appreciative Inquiry constructively, they need to develop an aesthetic sensibility that allows them to make choices about conversational moves within the unfolding sequence of turns that fit with the emerging context. When conducting an Appreciative Inquiry, what does a manager or consultant do when, during the ‘discovering’ phase, an organizational member begins to voice feelings of hurt and betrayal or articulate stories of injustice and vulnerability? Some practitioners and theorists contend that potentially "negative" stories or life-draining experiences should not be discussed during an Appreciative Inquiry given the "positive" focus of the approach (see Kelm, 1998). Our concern is that such simplistic admonitions do not fully account for the complexity of the situation; rather, they run the risk of alienating organizational members and silencing their voices. Voices of hurt, injustice, outrage, sadness, regret, and fragility may be central to organizational learning and transformation as they highlight significant issues that need to be addressed and begin to create conversational space to talk about the promises that have been met in the past and those that have not been kept.

Our view is that so called "negative" voices such as hurt, anger, and vulnerability, if managed with respect and authenticity, are an integral part of the Appreciative Inquiry methodology. We take seriously Cooperrider’s (1999) observation that in every problem there is a frustrated dream, which we take to mean that within even "negative" life-draining moments are the seeds for hope and transformation.

In this chapter, we are interested in exploring the value of giving attention to the relational definitions, commitments, and agreements that are constructed through an inquiry process and their consequences for the choices available in conversational moments. Our purpose is to work with the boundaries of meaning in language to create Appreciative Inquiry conversational structures and processes that are both safe and challenging for participants and that facilitate their exploration of what matters to them. We begin by highlighting the commitments that characterize our approach to Appreciative Inquiry and conclude with suggesting four practices that facilitate managing difficult and challenging situations within conversation in an aesthetic way.

Appreciative Inquiry and Inquiring Appreciatively

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) has been primarily concerned with developing its conversational structures and processes in the form of the 4-D model and exploring its influence on organizational outcomes. The emphasis on articulating the steps and phases in AI conversational structures and examining their influence within organizations makes sense given that managers and consultants typically use the term "Appreciative Inquiry" as a noun. Treating Appreciative Inquiry as a noun, for example, in the phrase, "conducting an Appreciative Inquiry," moves people to view "it" as a particular type of conversational episode that is guided by certain rules. It also naturally moves people to assess what differences, if any, get created by performing this kind of conversational episode within an organization. Given that AI is identified with a particular type of conversational episode that should make positive change within organizational life, it is not surprising that a great deal of effort has been devoted to elaborating and refining the AI methodology and examining what, if any, effects it has on human systems (see Hammond & Royal, 1998 for a variety of case studies using an AI methodology).

We want to suggest that an unintended result of treating Appreciative Inquiry only as a noun can be that guidance for situated choice making by managers and consultants has been underdeveloped. The focus has been on what form and sequence of conversational episodes need to occur within an AI and less on how one begins to "inquire appreciatively" during a conversational episode or moment. When Appreciative Inquiry is also used as verb and adverb (as in "to inquire appreciatively") then the inquiry process can become more complex as managers and consultants make choices about the areas they inquire into, how to respond to other participants’ comments and what gets made in the flow of conversation. This move recognizes the significance of situated choices within conversational moments. The question becomes, "How does one make choices that are elegant, aesthetic, and fit the emerging context?"

Some have suggested that managers and consultants should employ the "positive principle" as the primary criteria for determining how to act and respond within the particular phases. This means that managers and consultants should keep the focus on the "positive," privileging voices of support, high point experiences, and core values while suppressing voices of criticism, negativity, and evaluation. Yet, we would argue that there are moments when the supposedly "negative" can actually be meaningful and life-enhancing within the organization. By giving voice to significant challenges or vulnerabilities within organizational life, members may feel that their perspectives can be affirmed and developed. In some instances, such voices need to be heard and incorporated into the organization’s stories, for instance, if healing and forgiveness is to occur for past injustices and transgression (Ricoeur, 1996). Rather than fix the meaning of the live-enhancing and -affirming solely to stories that emphasize successes, highpoints, and core values, we believe that expressions of hurt, pain, and injustice can also be life-enhancing—provided they are managed aesthetically, in ways that are appropriate to the situation.

We propose that a systemic constructionist approach to organizational life provides the resources for aesthetic, situated choice making by managers and consultants (Barge & Oliver, 2000). Systemic approaches to organizational life have facilitated a focus on relationship, pattern, connection, context, story making, inquiry, questioning technologies, metaphor, reframing, reflexivity and networks of meaning and action (Bateson, 1972; Campbell, Draper, & Huffington, 1991a, 199b; Campbell, Coldicott, & Kinsella, 1991; Lang, 1991; Oliver, 1996). Social constructionist approaches have been concerned with the connections and contradictions expressed through language, exploring the narrative resources and practices of the social worlds that we make and who has a say or stake in making them (Cronen & Pearce, 1985; Gergen, 1990; Oliver 1992, 1996; Oliver & Brittain, 2000). These approaches aim to explore and distinguish the moral implications of what is made in language with a focus on moral logics, contexts, and meaning (Shotter, 1993).

A systemic constructionist approach facilitates managers and consultants "knowing from within" (Shotter, 1993), as participants of the unfolding linguistic landscape and the way that they position themselves in the emerging conversation has consequences for the overall shape of the linguistic landscape. Rather than use the "positive principle" as the sole criterion for determining choice making, managers and consultants need to make choices that account for the meaningful, purposeful, and reflexive nature of conversation.

Inquiry as a Meaningful Process

A systemic constructionist approach enables the interplay of a rich experience of story making and inquiry with a consciousness of the power of language in constructing meaning and action. The focus of curiosity becomes the relationship among communication, contexts, meaning, and persons based on an appreciation that we structure our understanding and experience through language. Systemic constructionist methodologies such as inquiry, reflection, and reflexivity in structuring and generating conversation, facilitate the connecting up of narrative fragments providing the potential for developing organizational coherence (Barge & Oliver, 2000).

Meaning becomes inherently contextual, contested, and emergent. The decision about how to use language in the organizational system, at any point, requires a situated judgment about the multiplicity of contextual needs that fit that conversational moment. What matters, in these conditions, is purposeful speaking within shared definitions of relationship, rights, responsibilities and accountabilities in ways that are intended to develop the primary organizational task. Purposeful speaking requires a commitment to a reflexive consciousness so that communication shows a mindfulness and care about what is made through language.

In these terms it is not helpful to prejudge the meaning of a word as "positive" or "negative" until one has a sense of the relational and cultural contexts surrounding it. In the absence of that kind of certainty, what needs to be developed is a group commitment and agreement that particular patterns of commitment and relationship will be most conducive to meaningful working. This may mean that in the context of an Appreciative Inquiry, what matters to people to talk about is painful, even shame making. For instance, if shame, pain, or difficulty are meaningful descriptions (but perhaps previously unspoken or underdeveloped) for someone to make of their experience, movement could be facilitated through identifying their experience in that way and exploring the life enhancing consequences of doing that. Cecchin (2000) recently made the point that, for some of us, to be in patterns of blame may represent our unique way of "leaning towards the light." Tomm (2000) making a different but connected point, talked of what he ironically called "negative inquiry" describing the work he does in helping people to inquire of each other how they have hurt or damaged each other.

To illustrate, one of the authors was recently engaged in conversation with a client who used the word disgust about her inability to withstand depression. What was interesting was the energy with which the word was used. On exploring the strength of feeling that went with the word disgust, some core moral distinctions were made with that person about the meaning of strength for her and some connections made about where those stories had come from. She articulated, while crying, how emotional ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ had been given meaning in her family context and how constraining that had been for her. The therapist explored how she was relating to those words now and the response was made that it was strengthening to talk and cry and there was a desire to think differently about what counted as strength and weakness. Thus a different relationship to strength and weakness was beginning to get created through inquiring into an apparently negative word (disgust) with the potential for facilitating more choice in self perception and patterns of action for the future.

Inquiry Involves Articulating Purposes

The meaningfulness of any event is determined by its context giving rise to the phrase, "No context, no meaning" (Bateson, 1972). If people derive meaning from an event by understanding the context in which the event occurs, it is critical for persons to have a sense of their context. This is not to say that managers and consultants need to explicitly set the context during conversation all the time. Rather, they must find an edge between what is said about the context for interaction and what is left unsaid. If too much is said about the context, the meaning for the episode may become trivialized or trite; yet, if too much is left unsaid, people may be confused about the purpose of the episode or a particular utterance and have difficulty coordinating their actions (Bakhtin, 1993). Perhaps, one of the most important contexts to set during conversation is people’s purpose for speaking.

Senge and others (1990, Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, & Smith, 1994) suggest that people’s purposes and assumptions toward action are often left at a tacit unstated level. The result is that people are sometimes left confused about how to interpret and make sense of one’s meaning. When people are unable to follow the invitation of others as to how to respond, action becomes difficult to coordinate (Shotter, 2000). Thus purposes sometimes need to be clarified if others are to coordinate actions. This may involve as simple a move as articulating one’s purpose for making a particular utterance or setting the context for a particular event (Chasin et al., 1996). Whether the articulation of purpose occurs either at the level of utterance or episode, the act of articulating purposes can make it easier for others to coordinate their actions.

The implication for AI is that developing stories of purpose may help managers and consultants manage the emergent meaning of appreciation. Rather than dismiss a complaint or criticism as not being appreciative or positive, a manager or consultant may create a story of purpose that permits exploration of this concept in more depth. For example, a manager or consultant may suggest that it is important to explore this area in order to create a positive dream for the future or to get closer to what is most important to someone. By doing so, a context is created that legitimizes the importance of exploring stories of fragility and vulnerability, but also links it to the creation of a positive future.

Inquiry Involves Acting Reflexively

A central idea in systemic constructionist thinking is reflexivity. By reflexivity, we mean that people recognize that they are part of large human systems and that they affect the way that the social world is created for those systems. Reflexivity requires that persons recognize the co-created and relational qualities of human systems (McNamee & Gergen, 1999). When persons communicate, they become part of the unfolding linguistic landscape. It is not uncommon to hear people say, "I choose not to respond to that comment." However, when one maintains a reflexive position, there is no possibility for not responding. Every action or move one makes in a conversation is simultaneously a response to a previous conversational move and an invitation for others to respond. Reflexivity moves us toward viewing what gets made through the joint action of people.

Take the following example involving a manager and employee. The manager has asked the employee what s/he perceives as being one of the positive core values in the organization:

Employee: I think one of the core values that drives this organization is the importance of being liked by one’s supervisors. I’ve seen so many people get promoted based on their manager liking them versus actual performance.

Manager: Let me rephrase my question. What I’m curious about are the positive (emphasis added) core values that characterize the organization.

Employee: I guess that means that you don’t really care what people like me really think about the organization.

If one were to view the interaction from an individual perspective, both the manager and the employee have done a good job of articulating their purposes. Specifically, if one views AI as eliciting "positive" stories (read stories of success, affirmation etc.), the manager has made a strong move to remind the employee of the purpose of AI. On the other hand, when one looks at what is getting created jointly between the manager and the employee, what gets created is a relationship where the manager occupies a superior power position and is able to invalidate the employee’s views. The result is that certain employee voices and perspectives are delegitimized and not heard.

If a manager using AI were to act reflexively, the question becomes how to coordinate the joint purposes of the participants: for the manager it is to obtain life-giving and affirming moments in the organization and for the employee to be fully-voiced about his experiences within the organization. One way to act reflexively may be to accept the invitation by the employee and to explore what the promotion policies based on personal relationship look like and how they might be used to articulate a desirable future. A sequence of questions that move the employee to use these "negative" experiences as resources for a positive future may be developed. For example:What happens when promotions are made based on liking versus merit?
If promotions were to be made on merit, what would be different in the organization?

Imagine that in five years, all promotions were based on merit. What would the organization look like?

In five years you look back on this organization, what was the first step that was taken to move the organization toward basing promotions on merit?

A sequence of questions like this has the possibility of coordinating the joint purposes of the participants. For the employee, s/he is able to articulate their feelings of frustration and injustice in a full and rich way and to develop them and the manager is able to keep the focus on life-affirming aspects of organizational life.

Appreciative Inquiry as a Co-ordination of Aesthetic Sensibilities

The implications for Appreciative Inquiry methodologies within a systemic constructionist framework is that the meaning of the life-affirming and life-enhancing cannot be reduced to being "positive" in the form of success stories, core organizational values, or highpoints. Rather the meaning of the life-enhancing and life-affirming is emergent and contingent. Though it may sound counterintuitive, there are moments when allowing people to articulate their deepest doubts, building frustrations, wounded pride, pain, and hurt can be "positive" and life-enhancing. The task of the consultant and manager is to shape the meaning of these moments in ways that facilitate the making of a constructive possible future.

We feel that there are some important aesthetic sensibilities that facilitate consultants and managers connecting with these challenging kinds of conversational moments and working with them in ways that open up possibilities. Aesthetic sensibilities in this context refer to the co-ordination and coherence of patterns of structure, process, content, and relationship. Several aesthetic sensibilities exist that facilitate consultants and managers connecting with these challenging kinds of conversational moments and working with them in ways that create forward movement. Though many other possibilities exist, we would like to suggest four aesthetic sensibilities that may aid managers and consultants in managing challenging voices:

  1. Articulating life-generating stories of purpose
  2. Shaping relational accountabilities
  3. Creating conversational edges
  4. Co-ordinating energies in the conversational moment

To help illustrate how these aesthetic sensibilities are shown during conversation, we offer the following case study.

Case Example

One of the authors was engaged with a colleague to conduct a day with two multidisciplinary teams in a mental health context. In a preliminary meeting, the two consultants were told that a team of senior managers had developed a project leadership group to co-ordinate the merging of the two multi-disciplinary teams (which included nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, dance therapists, psychologists, administrative workers and physiotherapists). Significant change was planned for the service through the merger and the consultants were told that there were high levels of anxiety in both teams in anticipation of the change. The consultants negotiated with the leadership group who were comissioning the work that their task would be to facilitate productive talk with a group of 30 participants so that a co-ordination of vision for the future could be achieved with some grounded commitments for action in place.

Articulating life-generating stories of purpose

One of the abilities that facilitates consultants and managers working in situations is the construction of stories of purpose—what people hope to accomplish and why. Creating conversational space where all parties can connect with what purposes matter most to them is important. The theme for inquiry had been offered by the consultants as "coordinating role and team in developing a creative service." The notion of service was deliberately invoked in the title so as to foreground the context for peoples’ "existence" in the organizational context. Role and team were both invoked to highlight the idea that one cannot exist without the other. The word co-ordination was intended to imply active and purposeful working together. The consultants stated their own aims very early on in the process as:

to develop an awareness of the good practice that is already in place

to develop awareness of the particular strengths offered by each professional role and team

to identify some of the areas that will need particular attention and care as the future unfolds

to identify commitments and actions to shape the future

The consultants felt that it was important to convey that they had aims and were acting to facilitate the enactment of the aims of the participants.

At the same time, they felt that it was important for the participants to explore and express their own stories of purpose. Establishing a climate where the participants could speak authoritatively of their purposes represented an early move to communicate the ability for voices to be expressed alongside each other without necessarily achieving consensus. To achieve this, the leadership group was first publicly interviewed about their aims, then other participants worked in pairs to discuss their responses to the leadership group contributions and to connect and develop their own aims. These were then shared with the whole group. All participants were asked questions such as:

What would be helpful for participants to know about your work to make this a successful day
What would a successful day look like?
How do you hope the work done here will impact on role, team and service?
What are the challenges ahead?

One consequence of this process was that the leadership group made it very clear that they wanted to hear about the impact of uncertainty and fear of loss that they imagined people were experiencing as well as wanting to hear about hopes for the future and good practice. This "permission" appeared to have a fruitful effect in that people expressed anxieties, concerns, and dilemmas throughout the day but not in ways that created blocks to constructive talk.

Shaping Relational Accountabilities

Systemic constructionist thought emphasizes reflexivity, the idea that one’s own actions not only create the roles and positions of others, but also influence our subsequent roles and positions. This mutual shaping of experience is significant in constructing opportunities and constraints for emotion, thought, and action for both the individual and the group. As a result, it becomes important to highlight the relational accountabilities that participants have toward one another. By relational accountabilities, we mean the set of moral obligations that people create, sustain that mold how they will respond and treat one another during conversation.

The 4D model of appreciative inquiry was presented to the group as a developmental frame for exploring and shaping the future of persons’ relational accountabilities. In setting the context for the work, the consultants spent time sharing ideas and securing agreements about working in an appreciative spirit to enhance the potential for the content and form of the talk to be congruent with this commitment to relational accountability. For the consultants this meant:

working from an assumption that people want to participate and create an effective service
treating peoples’ contributions as connected to their stories of obligation and concern although recognising that may not be apparent in the ways they are presented
appreciating the need to use language with care but not caution, mindful about what may be constructed through what we draw attention to
using our experiences as resources to construct the future
encouraging people to attend to what matters most in constructing the future

The consultants chose not to distinguish between the "positive" and "negative" in constructing commitments and accountabilities. The working assumption was that all feelings, thoughts, and moral positions open up some opportunities and close down others, and that these openings and constraints might be different for different people. What matters most is people connecting with their energy for hope and change with purpose and responsibility. As a result, the focus for inquiry needs to offer a way forward that holds the core concerns and purposes of a community or group in a constructive tension. The concern for conventional "appreciative inquirers" is the prospect of getting stuck by using deficit language and talking about core problems. However, focusing on language and meaning and giving attention to the strength of the emotional and moral attachment to particular meanings can enable movement rather than stuckness. Our desire in highlighting the significance of relational accountabilites is to encourage a heightened consciousness of the connection between form and content of talk and its consequences for self, relationship, and task rather than pre-judging whether a message possesses a positive or negative meaning.

A conscious choice was made in this case to actively encourage participants to focus on their cares and concerns but in ways that would co-ordinate task, purpose, and relational coherence. For instance, in the discovery phase, some people talked of their concerns about fragmentation of the service which had led to some dangerous decisions being taken in the context of mental health. This was presented without blame but with a sense of responsibility, concern for the future, and desire for learning from the episode which was then built on in the dreaming phase. By making people aware of their relational accountabilities and the power of their talk to bring forth certain consequences in the group, potentially "negative" experiences were talked about in a productive fashion.

Creating Conversational Edges

Part of managing any process involves creating boundaries. When we create conversational edges, we simultaneously create a linguistic boundary that frames our action in a coherent way as well as creating an edge that juxtaposes the way we make sense (the frame) of our action with possible framings outside our framing. Creating conversational edges allows people to explore the limits of the frames in use as well as connecting them to other potential frames for making sense.

The 4D cycle was planned carefully in order to create a balance of safety and challenge. This was facilitated by the conversational edge created through the discovery phase. People were asked, in groups of four, to tell two stories each. One story was about their experience of how they coordinated their role with the team in a way which worked robustly or was constructive, the other story was their experience of coordinating their role within the team that invoked a feeling of fragility or concern . Each group told eight stories and were asked to choose one of each to share with the large group. Key words in the feedback of stories were charted to enrich the theme for the inquiry and to facilitate a development of sub themes.

In a more conventional Appreciative Inquiry process, the emphasis would be likely to be on highlights and strengths invoking a conversational edge which keeps the fragile unattended or ignored. Here the consultants were attempting to incorporate both the robust and the fragile within the frame, providing an experience of ‘wholeness’ rather than schism.

The words ‘robust’ and ‘fragile’ are deliberately used to invoke particular kinds of association so as to facilitate meaningful relational accountability. The origins of the word robust come from the Indo-European for red, then connect to the Latin for oak tree which develop into the associations of strong, firm and solid. The consultants hoped to create a feeling with the word of a particular kind of strength – the kind that has roots and can withstand the viscissitudes of life. The origin of the word fragile is the Latin for breakable which is used to invoke a sense of responsibility and nurture. These words are consciously juxtaposed so as not to invite a discontinuity between the positive and negative but more a continuity within the conversational edge which has the frame of learning around it. The purpose of the discovery phase in this context is to use experience of the past as a resource for learning about the future.

The experience of creating a conversational edge by focusing on both the robust and the fragile can facilitate a feeling of aesthetic coherence, but is perhaps at odds with more "conventional" approaches to AI. In this context, to talk about both the robust and fragile represented respect for genuine feelings of concern for the future and was contextualised by the articulated purposes and relational commitments constructed at the beginning of the day. A feeling of empathy and the potential for the development of learning and new possibilities was created by having people explore and reveal vulnerabilities and even apologies for inadequate practices. For instance, a psychiatrist revealed her concern about her absence in many contexts where she felt she ought to be. This later enabled a focus on realistic resources and transcended a more dualistic, complaining, ‘behind the back’ communication pattern which inclined towards us/them, right/wrong, care/abuse, positive/negative. We would say that juxtaposing moments of robustness and fragility moved people beyond dualistic thinking.

In this case, the conversational edge placed around the robust and fragile created an experience of purposeful and balanced evaluation which underlined how each person’s position on the future represented only a partial reality and understanding of the situation. Sharing these multiple understandings of the situation enabled the potential for people to develop new ideas and stories regarding future positions. For instance, although people expressed concern that their future role may change and become less familiar, the fact that such concern was taken seriously and juxtaposed with observations about effective co-ordination (stories of robustness) in the context of good will for the future enabled a shared confidence that the group could make and sustain change. In the following dreaming phase, different groups offered metaphorical presentations of their vision of the future which held both their concerns and hopes. For instance, one group constructed a train with the different compartments representing the different disciplines of the merged multi-disciplinary team but the social workers’ compartment had curtains on the windows conveying an ambivalence about connection with other groupings!

Co-ordinating Energies in the Conversational Moment

To construct opportunities for development in inquiry processes, we need to make choices in conversational moments that enable openings to be noticed and interpreted. We want to suggest that the ability to make the most of openings in conversation requires a special attention to be given to the strength and quality of emotional, thinking and moral energy that makes up a moment of communication. This mix will show itself through the ways that people define issues of significance, meaning, passion, and intensity. The energy created needs skilled management and co-ordination, particularly if the energy moves people toward negativity and hostility. It can be helpful to frame this kind of challenging energy as a request both for attention and for development. For example, we can find ourselves in a pattern where a complaint is repeatedly made but the response doesn’t seem to satisfy. A ‘natural’ response might be to persuade the other of the error of their ways, to attempt to change their perspective or in the case of conventional AI, perhaps, to invite a dialogue about frustrated dreams. Although in many instances these kinds of responses may all be valid in particular contexts, what might be considered in such a case could be to give attention to what isn’t being heard – to frame the communication as a request for something to be heard that hasn’t yet been heard and to frame this as being of value to the person and to the development of the dialogue as it has been an unexpressed voice within the conversation.

This approach avoids the unprofitable pattern that Pearce (1989) has called ‘ethnocentric’ – a competitive pattern where both participants stay in the same position, each trying to persuade the other of the rightness of their view. To connect with the emotional and moral communicational energy of the moment sets a context for dynamic momentum for movement.

During the feedback of stories in the discovery phase, a participant made what more conventional approaches might call a "negative" contribution by pointing out that there were a number of people not present who should have been present and in fact these people were the most likely to be anxious and critical about the future. The message was offered with an urgent and complaining energy. If the consultants had treated this message as irrelevant or deficit language, some useful opportunities for the group to co-ordinate the management of meaning could have been lost. This message was treated by the consultants as an opening, an invitation to explore significant voices not present, through the imagination of those that were, who were inevitably speaking out of the context of the relational accountabilities made between group and consultants. The consultants asked: "If those voices were here and making a constructive contribution to this process, what might they be saying?" This invitation seemed to enable a speaking with responsibility about concerns and critiques which gave them a place but not undue prominence. For instance, concerns about the potential for participation and involvement in the process of change were expressed at this point. The consultants thanked the participants for their hypothesising about the voices of others, encouraging the group to take responsibility for inclusion of these concerns in the AI process. The fact that the leadership group had made a legitimate space for critique (facilitated by the questioning of the consultants) shaped the meaning of these contributions as constructive and integrating.


The vision of Appreciative Inquiry developed here is one that attempts to attend to the human dilemmas of relationship and task that face us in organizational life. These dilemmas often reflect, express, and create an emotional and moral mix of energy and positioning in the conversational moment or episode. While we appreciate the transforming potential of Appreciative Inquiry methodologies, we have also wanted to reflect on the abilities needed to cultivate situated choice making in conversational moments and episodes. We have proposed here that when the grammar of Appreciative Inquiry shifts from a noun to a verb that we are enabled to construct meaningful, purposeful, and reflexive inquiry structures and processes.

We have offered the "gestalt" of aesthetic sensibility in proposing four practices that constitute guidelines for situated use in such processes. These practices facilitate the making of choices in moments and episodes of organizational life through encouraging a reflexive noticing and use of communicational energies. This ability is enhanced through the construction of edges of language and meaning in the context of constructing life generating purpose in relationships of accountability. We do not claim that these are the only practices that might enhance one’s aesthetic sensibility to manage challenging conversational moments and episodes. However, we do hope that they might trigger further conversation about how consultants and managers make choices during conversation that reflect the spirit of Appreciative Inquiry.


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