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Could Appreciative Inquiry Improve Your Career Coaching?

An article by Michelle Etheve who specialises in enabling people to create purposeful, strengths-based change and to thrive as they design, learn, and experiment together. As co-founder of The Change Lab, she helps to create cultures of curiosity by teaching people how to craft and ask better questions. Michelle has designed and delivered Appreciative Inquiry summits, positive change experiences, career development games, and coaching development programs in workplaces, schools, and communities around the world.

It’s not surprising that when people seek advice and support with regards to their career they’re more often than not hoping to fix career ‘problems’, work through where they may have taken ‘wrong’ turns, discuss where they’re ‘stuck’ and not moving forward, amongst a host of other issues. Our brains are wired with a negativity bias, which is a natural pull to focus on what’s not working, what’s missing, what we’ve lost, and what might be of threat to us.

Whilst this wonderful survival mechanism has served us well at times and kept us alive as a species, this can often leave us stuck and only seeing half of the picture, especially when it comes to complex matters like our careers. We learn very little about what we’re capable of, what’s possible, and where our strengths lie by investing the majority of our energy into exploring our failures and perceived weaknesses.

So, it’s important to ask: Do the approaches we reach for to support career conversations place our energy in exploring problems or do they help people to uncover, tap into, and build on their strengths to grow greater confidence, clarity, and spark new possibilities?

One such strengths-based approach worth exploring for career conversations is Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Developed by Professor David Cooperrider and his colleagues, this approach has been used to generate positive change for individuals, teams, and whole human systems. One of the most common ways AI is used is to bring entire organisations, schools, or communities together for large scale change summits, achieving phenomenal and transformational results.

Much like its name indicates, the approach is ‘appreciative’, meaning it sheds light on the best of what is and what has been, and taps into what strengths, resources, and life-giving factors are available to be built upon.

It is also an ‘inquiry’, holding true that change begins not with the action we take, but with the questions that proceed them. It is those questions that shape the direction in which we focus our energy, change, act, and grow. So, by guiding people through an inquiry with questions that are appreciative – they look for the good, the true, and the possible – positive change and action is primed to emerge.

For example, schools have tackled the question: ‘How can we reduce bullying?’ only to find they get real traction and positive change when they flip their question and ask: ‘How do students grow great friendships?’

We grow in the direction in which we ask questions. What questions are shaping and guiding your conversations? Do they help clarify and prioritise what you want to grow?

So, how can we apply AI to career coaching conversations? Give the following five steps at try:

Define an appreciative career topic

The first, and arguably most important, step in an AI conversation is to define the topic of the inquiry. You will shape your questions around this topic, so the aim is to make it magnetic, positive, and for it to get to the heart of what people truly want to be moving towards. We have a natural tendency to move in the direction of what is life-giving and positive, rather than negative and depleting, this is called the heliotropic effect, so it’s essential to begin by shaping a topic that supports this.

A great way to create an appreciative topic is by using Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres’ ‘name it, flip it, and frame it’ steps. Here’s an example:

Name it – Name the strategic problem, complaint, or what you want to remove/reduce.

Example 1:  Feeling very drained by my work.
Example 2:  Don’t know what I want to do for a career.

Flip it – Flip this by asking: “What would the positive opposite of this be? What is it that you do want or want more of?”

Example 1:  Feel like I get some energy from the work I do.
Example 2:  Have some career ideas.

Frame it – Frame this in a way that is magnetic and energising by asking: “What would be the positive impact if the flip occurred? What is the desired outcome?”

Example 1:  Have an energising and engaging career.
Example 2:  Exploring and growing my career possibilities.

Once you have defined your topic of conversation you can craft questions that serve the needs of each stage of the process and help people move through it. You will need questions that do the following:

Discover the best of what’s been

This is the first step of your inquiry (the first of four steps in AI’s 4D framework), to facilitate your coachee through discovering the best of the past to discover stories of strengths, performance, confidence, and what made these moments possible.

Ask questions to get to the heart of ‘what’s been working well?’ Try starting with: “Tell me about your best…” and add words that would get to the heart of previous strengths and successes with regards to the inquiry topic.

Example 1: “Tell me about your best experience of feeling energised at work.”
Example 2: “Tell me about your best experience of exploring and creating new career* possibilities.”

Explore further with probing questions to surface more of the strengths, such as: What happened? What made that possible? What strengths were you tapping into at the time? Why is it so memorable?

*If the person is very early in their career drop ‘career’ from the question and have them explore when they’ve created any new possibilities for themselves.

Dream of what’s possible

The second step in your inquiry is to support your coachee to create rich, vivid, energising images of the future. These images should aim to generate optimism, hope, and act like a magnet pulling the coachee forward, motivating them to take action. These are a lot richer than simply setting a goal. They invite people to paint a picture of what they will be feeling, doing, seeing around them, this is as specific as you can make it.

Ask questions to generate these images of ‘what might be possible?’ Try: “Based on the strengths we’ve just discovered, if everything went as well as it could what would…?”.

Example 1: “If everything went as well as it could, what would feeling more energised and engaged at work make possible?”
Example 2: “If everything went as well as it could, what would exploring and creating new career possibilities look like?”

Explore further with probing questions to paint a rich, motivating picture, such as – What are all the different ways that might look like? What might you be doing? How would you be interacting with people? What would they be saying? What would you be most proud of? What difference would it make?

Design what might be

The third step of your inquiry aims to generate pathways to bring to life that picture of the future. The aim is to realise as many pathways as possible so to create a host of options to help people remain resilient and flexible in the face of barriers, in ways that align with their strengths and resources. Assist them to prioritise which pathways they want to put their energy and resources towards first.

Ask questions to generate multiple pathways for ‘how might we get there?’ Try: “What might it take to…?”

Example: “What might it take to move from where you are now, to the picture you just described?”

Explore further with probing questions to help generate many pathways, then prioritise them, such as: What are some other ways you might make this possible? Which of these pathways are you most motivated to try? What support might you need to draw on? What resources are available for you to tap into?

Realise your Destiny 

The final step in your inquiry aims to invite people to take action that they are motivated to and care enough about to take responsibility for. While the word ‘destiny’ may sound odd, it nicely highlights the unpredictable and emergent nature of our future. Far-reaching plans are unrealistic in our ever-changing lives and world. Once we take our next steps, we can repeat this 4D cycle continuously for more learning and positive change as new strengths are developed and new experiences generate new information to re-shape our dreams and create new pathways.

Ask questions that generate immediate next steps for ‘where will you start?’ Try: “If there was # step you could take…?”

Example: “If there was one small step you could take to move forward, where would you like to start?”

Explore further with probing questions to ensure they’re able to take immediate action, such as: What would you need to get started? What obstacles might you encounter and how might you overcome or bypass them? How will you celebrate taking this step?

Appreciative Inquiry is a wonderful and unique approach to creating positive change. There’s no ‘right’ way to apply it to careers coaching, so explore and experiment with these suggestions and find a way to make it your own. For example, you may prefer to move through all the steps in one conversation, or you may wish to have a separate conversation for each incorporating different measures, homework, and activities as part of the inquiry.

If you’d like to learn more about appreciative inquiry, feel free to reach out to us at The Change Lab: michelle.e@thechangelabs.com or connect via LinkedIn.


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