Conversations Worth Having (2018) looks at the power of conversation in our lives and what we can do to communicate more productively at work, in our relationships, and in the community. Drawing on real-life stories and scientifically based theories, it illustrates how we can improve organizations and lives using the principle of Appreciative Inquiry – effective conversation through positive perspective and asking the right questions.
Introduction: Energize your conversations through Appreciative Inquiry.
Conversations are at the heart of how we interact. The words we choose and the tone we adopt can drastically change our experiences and those of others. A positive conversation can fuel productivity, build strong connections, and generate change for the better, while a negative conversation can stifle growth, damage relationships, and leave us emotionally and physically exhausted.
Luckily, there’s a way to ensure that we always have the best conversations possible – a process called Appreciative Inquiry. This simple, practical, and well-tested method involves positively framing the situation and asking questions to move the conversation in the right direction, making sure that everyone involved feels satisfied and heard.
In this summary, you’ll learn how to pay attention to what you’re actually saying, and how to use the two techniques and five principles of Appreciative Inquiry to guarantee that your conversation is one worth having. So, if you’re ready, let’s get talking!
In this summary, you’ll learn
- the secret influences hiding beneath every conversation;
- how to flip a problem on its head; and
- why some teachers are better for you than others.
Tune in to the type of conversation you’re having.
Alisha Patel works at a busy medical center in New England, and she’s about to have an important conversation. There’ve been some negative patient satisfaction reports from one of her hospital units; it seems a recent change in management and increase in workload has left the staff overworked, stressed, and unengaged. Alisha is here to talk to the tired and tense group of nurses. Could something as simple as the right conversation be enough to turn the situation around and improve morale? The answer is yes.
But before we look at Alisha’s organization-changing conversation, let’s see what she used to say in these situations – before she learned to tune in to the specific type of conversation she was having. There was a time when she would have said, “These reports aren’t satisfactory. Every quarter it’s the same or worse. You’ve clearly done nothing to improve!” This would result in defensive excuses from the staff and they’d leave demoralized with no idea how to fix the issue.
These types of conversations are what we call depreciative – they devalue the situation. Alisha would just focus on stating the problem, with no investigation as to why there’s a problem in the first place or what the staff think of it. These conversations are unproductive and lead to defensiveness and disengagement.
So, what does Alisha do now? She uses Appreciative Inquiry – a technique based on adding value and asking questions. She asks the nurses what’s been working well in the unit and for examples of satisfied patients.
After the initial shock of such an unexpectedly positive direction of conversation, the nurses share their stories – and they discover several common themes and actions which can help them improve patient satisfaction. Alisha’s success is confirmed after the meeting when one nurse exclaims, “This was so effective. I know things are going to improve after just one meeting with you!”
While not every interaction will go this well, this type of conversation is what you want to strive for when trying to create positive change at work, in your relationships, or in the community. And there’s one important thing you need to do before you can have this conversation: you need to tune in to the unseen influences of the situation.
Think of it as an iceberg – on the surface we have our visible behaviors and actions in the form of conversations. However, hidden beneath are the unconscious drivers of those conversations. Things like our beliefs, expectations, stress, biases, world-view, how much sleep we got last night – everything that can affect what we say.
And just like with the Titanic, if you’re not aware of what’s floating beneath the surface, this iceberg can sink a relationship.
Conversations which are driven by these unseen factors are often of the depreciative type mentioned before. If you want to turn the discussion into a conversation worth having, you need to find a way to bring these unseen influences into the light. Luckily, there’s a very simple technique you can use to tune in. It involves three steps: pause, breathe, and get curious.
So the next time you find yourself on the verge of a depreciative conversation, the first thing you should do is pause. This stops the current momentum before things get out of control.
Use this moment to breathe. Breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress. The effect is strongest if you take a deep breath, hold it for a short time, then let it out slowly, and repeat.
Finally, get curious. Ask questions which allow you to consciously take charge of what’s going on in your head. What’s the bigger picture? What assumptions am I making? What don’t I know that might be important? What emotions am I experiencing?
This simple exercise stops you from being controlled by those unseen influences and allows you to get in the driver’s seat and deliberately foster the conversation you want to have – one based on Appreciative Inquiry.
In the next chapter, we’ll take a closer look at this concept, and the two basic practices that it involves.
Apply Appreciative Inquiry using generative questions and positive framing.
Jerry Sternin works for Save the Children, a nongovernmental organization concerned with improving the well-being of children around the world. He has an important job: in just six months he has to solve the problem of childhood malnutrition in south Vietnam. Due to the time restraints, he knows that conventional solutions of achieving clean water or initiating an educational program won’t work.
Forced to think outside the box, Jerry asks himself what is known as a generative question: “I wonder if there are families where the children are thriving?”
Generative questions are an essential part of Appreciative Inquiry. If a question is generative, it adds value to a situation – by revealing hidden information, creating shared understanding, generating new knowledge, or inspiring possibilities.
Jerry’s question did a great job of revealing invisible information because the answer was: “Yes, there are families with thriving children.” This led him to another generative question that resulted in new knowledge: “Is there something the mothers of these children are doing that is making the difference?”
Jerry found that in the families with thriving children, some mothers weren’t following cultural norms. They ate more meals a day, they ate shrimp and crabs, and they still ate when they were sick. All this resulted in improved nutrition. Jerry’s generative questions had uncovered a simple solution that could easily and quickly be taught to the other families.
It’s questions like these which should be asked in any conversation worth having. Once you’ve tuned in and become aware of any unconscious influences, you should be in a position to ask these questions with genuine curiosity and an open mind.
Take the example of Monica and her teenage son, Aiden, arguing about whether he could borrow the car over the weekend. After the usual back and forth about safety and independence, Monica asked the generative question, “How can we come to some agreement that allows you to get the car and me to feel comfortable that you’ll make good decisions?”
This question started a brand-new and more positive conversation, shifting the focus to something they both wanted. It’s here where generative questions meet the other half of Appreciative Inquiry: positive framing.
We’ll look at this concept through the story of Mark, a mid-level manager in a Fortune 100 company. His employee, Melissa, is a very good worker with one problem: she’s often late for her regular Wednesday meeting. Mark has to have a difficult conversation with Melissa regarding this issue. Luckily, he’s been trained in the methods of Appreciative Inquiry.
The old Mark would have been critical and direct, saying something like, “This is a problem. You’re always late and miss Wednesday’s deadlines. You have to change.” As you now know, this kind of conversation is depreciative and unproductive.
Instead, Mark uses positive framing. This involves focusing attention on the desired positive outcome rather than the problem itself. He does this through a three-step process called flipping. He first defines the problem, then finds its positive opposite, and finally focuses the conversation on what the impact of this positive opposite would be. Let’s take a closer look at his method.
Defining the problem is simple enough. Melissa is late for work and therefore misses deadlines. What would be the opposite of this? Melissa is always on time and doesn’t miss deadlines. So far so good. So what would be the result if this were true? Mark concludes that the team would have a strong sense of cohesion, improved performance, and there’d be generally more trust.
With this positive frame in mind, Mark begins the conversation by stressing the importance of having a strong team with members who trust each other. Melissa agrees with this desire and is more receptive when Mark brings up the effect her tardiness is having on the team. Using a generative question, he asks, “Is there something about Wednesday morning that’s problematic?”
Mark soon discovers that Melissa drops her son at daycare on Wednesday mornings. The whole problem is solved by starting the meeting half an hour later. The positive frame which Mark used, combined with the generative questions, turned a potentially critical conversation into a productive one, creating simple and effective solutions.
Positive framing can be used in nearly any situation to change the dynamics of a conversation. This, combined with generative questions to expand awareness, forms the foundation of Appreciative Inquiry.
Keeping that in mind, let’s look at five principles that can help guide your conversations.
There are five fundamental principles underlying all our conversations.
Let’s explore the five principles through the story of a seventh grader named Jamal and two of his teachers. His first teacher, Ms. Wittit, teaches social studies. This is Jamal’s favorite class and he thrives in it. His other teacher, Ms. Summers, teaches English. Jamal doesn’t enjoy English so much.
Jamal’s behavior in each class is pretty similar – he clowns around a bit, often stares out the window, and turns in the odd bad assignment. However, his experience with each of these teachers is dramatically different.
Ms. Wittit is much more tolerant of Jamal’s occasional bad behavior. She believes clowning around is his way of connecting with his peers, and looking out the window is his way of concentrating. When having conversations with him about a bad assignment, she uses Appreciative Inquiry, focusing on success and asking generative questions.
Ms. Summers, on the other hand, is much more critical. She tries to directly stop what she sees as negative behavior, and conversations about assignments generally focus on the problems.
Both Ms. Summers and Ms. Wittit are caring teachers who want the best for Jamal. So why are their interactions so different? To understand this, you need to know the personal beliefs which they’re bringing to the classroom.
You see, Ms. Summers grew up in a very strict household where she was raised to believe that success comes from discipline and attention is important. You focus, you do your work, you succeed.
Ms. Wittit, however, came from a more artistic household where patience and nurtured passion were expected to result in success.
They each brought their own worldview to their interactions and conversations with Jamal.
This highlights the first key principle of Appreciative Inquiry, called the constructionist principle. Our worldview is constructed by our own past experiences and interactions, and this in turn governs how we understand and proceed with the conversations we have. With this in mind, it’s important to hold your viewpoint lightly and be open to change.
The next principle is the simultaneity principle. This says that when we make a statement or ask a question in a conversation, we change the world by affecting the person who hears it. This explains the huge difference in Jamal’s attitude between the classes. The lesson here? Choose your words carefully.
The poetic principle states that every person, group, or situation can be understood from many perspectives. This can be seen when Ms. Wittit saw Jamal’s clowning around as socializing, while Ms. Summers saw it as distracting. It’s important to realize that you have a choice in how you interpret things.
The anticipatory principle is the idea that our expectations influence our intention when having a conversation. Ms. Summers expected behavioral issues, so that’s what she addressed. Ms. Wittit anticipated that Jamal had specific strengths and interests, so that’s what she focused on.
Finally, the positive principle is the idea that the more positive a question, the more positive and long-lasting the outcome. When Ms. Wittit asked more positive questions, she had more success with Jamal. The lesson here is: ask strong questions focused on affirmation and possibility.
In the final chapter, we’ll explore some practical ways that Appreciative Inquiry and the five principles can be applied to your work, family, and community.
You can apply Appreciative Inquiry to all aspects of your life.
Conversations are at the core of all human interactions, and these human interactions form all of our social systems and organizations: work, family, and community. Throughout the course of this summary you’ve heard many stories illustrating the value of Appreciative Inquiry in fostering healthy conversations. Let’s finish up with one last story about the author Jackie Stavros’s own daughter, Ally, regarding an emotional experience at the age of 13.
Ally’s vacation was cut short when her dad was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. Her mom stayed with him in hospital, while Ally and her brother were sent to live with different relatives. She could only visit her dad once a week for a short amount of time.
Naturally, she was terrified about the future, and asked her mother, “Is dad going to die?” Her mom trusted Ally enough not simply to give her the answer she wanted to hear. “Ally, we’re all going to die someday, but for now we just have to stay positive and appreciate what is.” This led to a life-changing conversation she recalls with her mom.
“How can I appreciate this?” Ally asked in frustration. In response, her mom changed the conversation by asking a simple generative question: “Tell me about your favorite moment with your dad.” This positive, productive question led to a happy recollection of all the fun times with her dad.
One of the things Ally mentioned was how she’d sit with her dad on the porch and watch the sunset. “I’ll tell you what,” her mom replied. “Tonight, I want you to sit on the porch and watch the sun go down. While you’re doing that, I’ll push your dad up to the hospital window and we’ll watch it too.”
Ally’s father pulled through in the end and family life is back to normal. Ally recognizes the significance of that interaction with her mom. How her mom used Appreciative Inquiry to turn a dark situation into a helpful and productive conversation. That moment taught her to live with an appreciative mindset, which she still has to this day.
And you can adopt that mindset too. Through Appreciative Inquiry, you can change the nature of the conversations you have with yourself, your partner, your children, your colleagues, and anyone in your life.
Instead of blaming yourself for not accomplishing something today, ask yourself how you can be more effective tomorrow.
Instead of telling your partner how unhappy you are just watching TV every evening, engage them in a conversation about how much fun you had together when you went out more.
Don’t scold and punish your children for coming home late, tell them that you care about them and ask what it is about the current curfew that makes it so hard to keep.
And just like Alisha, the hospital administrator we talked about in the first chapter, don’t criticize your colleagues for poor performance, ask them to find instances of what works well and focus on that.
We are our interactions. Make sure your conversations are ones worth having.
The most important thing to remember from all this is:
Appreciative Inquiry can change your world. Tune in to your unseen influences, positively frame the situation, and ask generative questions to create conversations worth having. You’ll be surprised by the results you get!
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Observe your conversations for a day.
Take a sheet of paper or an index card and label one side “negative” and the other side “positive.” Whenever you have a conversation today, decide if it was appreciative – adding value – or depreciative – devaluing. Put a tick under the appropriate heading, along with a few notes on how you felt during the interaction or what the general tone was.
At the end of the day, reflect on the interactions, and add up the total positive versus negative conversations to make a ratio. If the ratio is less than three positive to one negative conversation, then it’s time to make a change!
About the author
Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres have been internationally recognized for their work with Appreciative Inquiry. They’ve positively affected the lives of thousands of people and helped hundreds of organizations improve their capacity to thrive in uncertain times. They have been researching, writing, consulting, and speaking on Appreciative Inquiry since 1996.
Jackie Stavros is professor in the College of Business and Information Technology at Lawrence Technological University and an Appreciative Inquiry advisor at the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry. Stavros has more than thirty years of leadership, strategic planning, and change management experience.
Cheri Torres is CEO and lead catalyst of Collaborative by Design, a consulting firm that helps organizations improve performance, retain talent, and transform communication and culture. Stavros and Torres have been researching, writing, consulting, and speaking on Appreciative Inquiry since 1996.
Communication Skills, Career Success, Leadership, Business, Management, Language, Self Help, Personal Development, Relationships, Business Mentoring and Coaching, Social Skills
Table of Contents
List of Stories viii
List of Tables viii
List of Figures ix
Introduction David L. Cooperrider 1
1 Shifting Conversations 13
2 What Kind of Conversations Are You Having? 29
3 Who’s Driving? Tune In 49
4 Two Simple Appreciative Practices 61
5 What’s Fueling Your Conversations? 91
6 Scaling Up Great Conversations 113
7 Its Not Magic, It’s Science! 135
8 Any Time, Any Place, Any Situation 149
Conversations Worth Having Discussion Guide: Generative Questions for Self and Teams 165
Selected Bibliography 177
CWH Offerings 189
Collaborative Partnerships 193
About the Authors 195
List of Stories
Dee Hock at Visa Corporation 1
Alisha at the New England Medical Center 13
Elizabeth, Ram, Mary, and Kamal at Community One Bank 20
Jake and Timmy below the line 50
Bob and Mia and project deadlines 65
Jerry Sternin and Save the Children 66
Gabriela’s generative question for the university provost 68
Monica and Aiden’s parent-son conversation about the car 69
Colleen being ignored and interrupted in meetings 74
Mark at a Fortune 100 company, preparing to talk with Melissa about being late 77
George and his daughter dropping out of school 84
Jamal and his teachers 97
Daniel and First Nations gangs 104
Ravi at the international tech company in India 106
Jack and his kids at bedtime 108
Erich and the German automotive tech center 114
Los Angeles police and HeartMath 136
Ally’s story about her dad 160
List of Tables
4.1 Examples of Generative Questions 75
4.2 How Positive Framing Draws People In and Inspires Engagement 78
5.1 Principles at Work in Jamal’s Story 101
5.2 Appreciative Inquiry Principles Summary 111
6.1 Five Classic Questions for an Appreciative Inquiry Interview 123
6.2 Appreciative Inquiry 5-D Cycle: Phases and Activities 133
7.1 Results of Losada and Heaphy’s Research 145
List of Figures
1.1 Conversations Worth Having Theory of Change 25
2.1 The Nature of Conversations 31
2.2 Conversations above and below the Line 33
3.1 Tip of Conversations 52
3.2 The Chinese Character for “To Listen” 58
4.1 Awareness and Outcomes from Generative Questions 72
4.2 Flipping: Framing a Conversation Worth Having 84
6.1 Appreciative Inquiry 5-D Cycle 117
7.1 Right Brain/Left Brain Neural Processing Centers 139
Now in a second edition, this classic book shows how to make conversations generative and productive rather than critical and destructive so people, organizations, and communities flourish.
We know that conversations influence us, but we rarely stop to think about how much impact they have on our well-being and ability to thrive. This book is the first to show how Appreciative Inquiry—a widely used change method that focuses on identifying what’s working and building on it rather than just trying to fix what’s broken—can help us communicate more effectively and flourish in all areas of our lives.
By focusing on what we want to happen instead of what we want to avoid and asking questions to deepen understanding and increase possibilities, we expand creativity, improve productivity, and unleash potential at work and home. Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres use real-life examples to illustrate how these two practices and the principles that underlie them foster connection, innovation, and success.
This edition has been revised throughout with new examples; updates on the latest supporting research in neuroscience, positive science, and positive psychology; and a discussion guide. It also features a new chapter on what the authors call tuning in: cultivating awareness of how our physical and mental state affect our perceptions, emotions, and thoughts as we engage in conversation.
This book teaches you how to use the practices and principles of Appreciative Inquiry to strengthen relationships, build effective teams, and generate possibilities for a future that works for everyone.
* * * * *
Conversations can be critical and destructive, or they can be generative and productive. This book shows how to guarantee your conversations will help people, organizations, and communities flourish.
Conversations are at the core of how we interact. We all know that conversations influence us, but we rarely stop to think about how much impact they have on our well-being and our ability to thrive. This book shows how Appreciative Inquiry (AI)–one of the most widely used new approaches for fostering positive change for individuals, groups, organizations, and communities–can help everyone communicate better and flourish in all areas of their lives. Stavros and Torres spell out 2 practices and 5 principles to create great conversations. Each chapter is built around real-life stories of people using these practices and principles to strengthen relationships and generate possibilities for a future that works for everyone.
“This is the first book of its kind to take Appreciative Inquiry’s profound promise of positive leadership into legacy-creating conversations. This one book can change lives, relationships, and organizations. In a world where so many conversations are separating us from the vast potentials, may this book change not just our world, but our world of conversations.”
-David Cooperrider, Distinguished University Professor and Honorary Chair
Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University and The David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry, Champlain College, Stiller School of Business
“This is my favorite book on Appreciative Inquiry ever! It captures the core concepts in a tight package, explains everything well, and provides plenty of techniques so you can put it to work immediately! If you want to use Appreciative Inquiry in your work or at home, pick up this gem. You will enjoy the amazing stories and get a comprehensive education you can put to work immediately. Conversations are the currency of our lives. Their quality determines the depth of our relationships and the possibilities our future holds. This little book packs a powerful and profound punch on all fronts. Pick it up and learn exactly what you can do to immediately improve the quality of your interactions, opening the door to the future you most dearly want.
Wonderful! With grace and ease, this book provides a massive education. The stories alone are packed with power. The included techniques are easy to understand, comprehensive, and accessible. Conversations Worth Having is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind gift that you deserve. Big things will result from the people who put these tools to work.”
-Seth Kahan, Founder of the Visionary Leadership Academy
Author, Getting Change Right and Getting Innovation Right
“This book is for everyone, from managers striving to lead their teams more effectively, to parents trying to cultivate better conversations with their children. With real-life examples, Stavros and Torres help illustrate the simplicity of how appreciation plus inquiry can change lives!”
-Lindsey Godwin, Director of the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry
Professor, Robert P. Stiller School of Business, Champlain College
“Conversations Worth Having is exceptional! It’s easy to read, relatable, and absolutely relevant. Ground breaking! Read this book if you want to be a great leader. Jackie and Cheri provide a comprehensive approach to improving communications in any setting.” Awesome book!” -Loyd Beal III, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army
“As a college president, one of the most important things I can do is engage members of the college in meaningful conversations, giving voice to all our stakeholders. The Appreciative Inquiry practices in this book have been transformational at our college. They have empowered us to have difficult conversations, strengthen our relationships, and focus on how we can together create even greater possibilities for our students to succeed.”
-Annette Parker, President
South Central College, National Academy of Science, Center for Community College Student Engagement Board, and National Council for Adult and Experiential Learning Board
“Conversations Worth Having … is a book worth having . . . and a must read book. This is a book all leaders of organisations, large and small, should read because Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres show us through a combination of real life stories, practical wisdom, and just the right amount of science drawn from the fields of Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Psychology, and strengths, how conversations in workplace organizations determine the organizations capacity to flourish and the well-being of its team members. This one book shows the transitive, catalytic, and transformational power of conversations which are positive, affirmative, meaningful, strength based and life giving, versus those which are depletive. This is one of those short and easy to read books that will create a legacy for years to come by showing us why it is important to turn our conversations to the positive, and by providing us with tools on how to do this . . . We know that if we want people to care for our businesses and others, they must first feel cared for. As I read this book, it struck me that it is through conversations worth having, regardless of duration, that we show how much we care for others. Thank you for this wonderful gift that I can’t wait to pass onto my teams, family and friends . . . and thank you for reminding us of the generative power of conversations worth having, to the countless relationships that make up the tapestry of life day each and every day.” -Robert Easton, Senior Managing Director, Accenture
“Wow! What a great book! I’m going to use it in my courses and with every client from now on. I find it very rare to read a book like this, one that is so compelling and practical that it not only provides simple guidelines anyone can use, but filled me with the desire to go use them right away in the next conversation I have. Once I started reading it I couldn’t stop, and I immediately thought of a dozen clients and friends I want to give the book to. I believe that if you read and apply just the first two chapters your life, at work and at home, will change for the better!”
-Gervase R. Bushe Ph.D. Professor of Leadership and Organization Development,
Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada
Author, Clear Leadership: Sustaining Collaboration and Partnership at Work
“Conversations Worth Having has shifted the way I enter, engage, and react in my daily conversations. It has opened my eyes to how easy it is to shift from impulsive, emotional reactivity to productive, mindful conversations. When this book came to me, I was struggling to adjust to the ‘adult’ phase in my life. I had taken on several new roles: becoming a manager, a wife; I felt overwhelmed by the obstacles and responsibilities that had come my way. After learning to practice the Appreciative Inquiry principles outlined in this book, I have been able to shift my viewpoint to focusing on the solutions that I am capable of pursuing instead of giving all my energy to the problems I face. This book has provided me with tools that have helped me to express myself genuinely, listen to and understand others, rearrange my responsibilities and become a more valuable version of myself- at work and home. It’s helped me deal with conflict in a more productive manner. By flipping my attitude and tone of the conversations I engage in, I find myself in a more balanced, peaceful state of mind.”
“Jackie and Cheri – thank you so much for sharing this book with me. It came to me just when I needed it.” -Stephanie Schlueter, Manager, Natural View Market
“I have had hundreds of conversations each day with students, parents, and staff. With students, I try to practice my philosophy that every conversation, even with serious disciplinary issues and consequences, is an opportunity!! With parents, I often say ‘I am just a dad who also happens to be a high school principal’. With staff, I often say ‘I am your colleague not just the boss’.
After reading Conversations Worth Having, I now have an evidence-based framework that has filled in the blanks of what I have been trying to accomplish in my career. I am trying to build emotion, trust, ‘meaningful engagement’ and Appreciative Inquiry into my daily conversations! This book has re-enforced my belief that each and every discussion, with any person, has the true potential to build a connection! How I act in this conversation, how I lead, and how I engage the individual will almost assuredly dictate if I make a connection or not. It is up to me to frame the discussion, especially in my position of authority, in order to create a community of engagement. I also often tell my students that I like to ‘hand the keys of the building’ to them. This is my simple way of modeling that this building of bricks is their school, their home, their community. Conversations Worth Having made me reflect that every single conversation I have can be the next brick in this building, in our learning community. Every conversation can be the individual brick that become the solid foundation, of which outstanding organizations are built upon!
Stavros and Torres have put into words how to simply and effectively build any team, any organization, and any company without any financial expense. Words are just sounds, without the heart behind them. The authors remind us to use your head to frame the conversation, and then just as importantly, to back it up with your heart. Each word and each conversation WILL affect your team. HOW it affects your team is up to you, if you intentionally make it a conversation worth having.”
-Gavin Johnson, Principal, Brighton High School
Father of Ally and Emma
“Using engaging stories from their years of consulting experience with Appreciative Inquiry, Jackie and Cheri offer the first real practical guide to fundamentally changing our conversations to bring about the positive change we thirst for in ourselves, our relationships, and our organizations. The simplicity with which they present the principles and practices for doing so makes this my go-to resource for working with leaders.”
-Neil Samuels, President, Profound Conversations, Inc.
Author, The Heathside Story—Appreciative Inquiry in Whole School Transformation
“We often get stuck in seeing the world through a lens that’s distorted. Everything it seems is broken, hopeless, and unchangeable. Through such a lens, doing great work is nearly impossible. That’s why — for leaders and managers in any organization — reading Cheri and Jackie’s book is essential. The simple techniques it teaches will help people shake off the distortions of a problem-heavy worldview, and help them see the world as a place of potential, creativity, and continuous growth. By following the book’s edicts, a business culture fueled by top-notch success will be well within your grasp.”
-Mark Levy, Founder of Levy Innovation LLC
Author, Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content
“This short book is a rare gem, it is entertaining, relevant, educational, and immensely practical. Jackie and Cheri synthesize vast amounts of research and years of their own practice, into powerful and educational stories on how to use Appreciative Inquiry in conversations. The two: practices: positive framing and asking generative questions, provide the reader with the skills needed to confidently engage in making any conversation a conversation worth having.” -Maureen McKenna, Founder, Return on Energy, Toronto, Canada
“Jackie and Cheri really show how we can truly change the world one conversation at a time. Through their effective use of storytelling, you learn how to apply Appreciative Inquiry to engage in conversations designed to generate new ideas, create energy, and result in positive outcomes!”
-Lori Marsee Kuehn, Senior Manager Global Employee Engagement,
Strategy Enablement and Research, General Motors Company
“We create our worlds one conversation at a time. This timely book helps us see more clearly the crucial difference between productive conversations that are generative and life giving and conversations which reduce our capacity for constructive change. It illuminates powerful Appreciative Inquiry practices and principles that can transform a leaders’ personal experience and can offer organizations and communities constructive paths forward in these challenging times. It helps us see the way that conversation can be a powerful co-evolutionary force for the common good at a time when this perspective is sorely needed.”
-Juanita Brown, Co-founder, World Café
Author, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations that Matter
“A conversation is the smallest visible unit of change – a micro-moment of transformation, our starting point for every important change effort. Jackie and Cheri give us a great playbook for having positive cycles of conversations worth having, sure to spark widespread innovation, authentic shifts in culture, and system wide resilience. These interactions create the macro-movements that purpose driven leaders need. This book is a gift to the world, business, schools, and families!” -Jon Berghoff, President, Flourishing Leadership Institute
“Conversations Worth Having blends together a lot of complex science into easily grasped constructs, interesting anecdotes about personal and organizational conversations, and practical advice about how to frame conversations in ways that make people want to engage and take action. An entertaining and fascinating read.! You will never look at yourself, your organization, or your world of conversations quite the same way.”
-Irmgard Wobeser, Family and Couples Therapist
Centro Psicologico de Cancun, Mexico
“Conversations With Having is the first book I would recommend for leaders who want to be more effective and for those aspiring to be future leaders! As I read the book, I thought back to the most effective leaders with whom I’ve worked over my career and who helped shape my behavior. They naturally followed the practices and principles in this book. I recommend this book to all managers who want to be a partner in a consulting firm, all junior managers in Fortune 500 firms who desire to be senior executives, all cadets studying to be Army officers, all those who desire to be good parents and everybody else who want to have great relationships.” -Daniel K. Saint, PhD, Former Partner and Global Practice Leader, Deloitte
“In Conversations Worth Having, Stavros and Torres brilliantly translate the practices and principles of Appreciative Inquiry, a process for large-scale organizational change, into well-defined everyday communication practices for enhancing personal relationships at work and beyond. The wealth of stories about people who have actually applied their ideas makes this book interesting, accessible and highly useful. If you are wondering how to improve relationships at work or at home, this book is for you!”
-Diana Whitney, Ph.D. Founder, Corporation for Positive Change
Co-Founder, The Taos Institute
Author, Appreciative Leadership, and The Power of Appreciative Inquiry
“Conversations Worth Having is a gift to us in a timely manner. Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torre’s work has broad significance and relevance anywhere. It encompasses importance of conversations at the micro-level with individuals, groups, and corporations to the mega levels to address international economic and political, military conflicts. Their appreciative approach is addressed in an atmosphere of learning and professional enrichment.
Imagine a world we would have inherited had the world leaders not engaged in impactful conversations on behalf of the freedom and value of life. Global conversations were tipped in favor of life, peace, and humanity by the strategic conversations among world leaders. At a larger scale, meaningful conversations at all levels foster impactful positive changes in people and nations. Stavros and Torres through various stories bring to fore challenges and offer potential solutions via conversations in an admirable manner.
The launch of this book is a welcome addition to the literature on effective communication. A reader will benefit in seeking and identifying solutions to life’s daily and perpetual issues of importance. The authors’ undertaking of the project of this magnitude should be received with appreciation and admiration.” -Virinder Moudgil, Ph.D, President and CEO, Lawrence Technological University
“The heart of all conversations is how we how we understand each other and how we build trust. That, for me, is the power of Appreciative Inquiry. People with problems at work or home don’t always think Appreciative Inquiry. Yet, that is the best time to explore possibilities. This seems to be the most challenging for most people new to this field. Cheri and Jackie have marvelously struck the right notes of practice and embracing understanding. Their framing and flipping exercises are a gift, and I cannot wait to introduce the stories, exercises and practices in our workshops and trainings.”
-Kathy Becker, CEO, Company of Experts, Inc.,
Lead Designer & Trainer, Center for Appreciative Inquiry
“Conversations Worth Having is a great work and a must-read for business managers, team members, and people who work in groups! Jackie and Cheri demonstrate how to make a positive impact. They sincerely show that people have a wealth of positive energy that is best released through appreciative conversations. Through the art of our conversations, we can turn bad situations to positive ones. Appreciate Inquiry nourishes and encourages productive practices and not defensive outcomes. It facilitates meaningful conversations with people who make a difference in our lives and in our businesses – especially those individuals who are the cornerstones in any successful endeavor.” -Massood Omrani, Ph.D., Managing Director, CADFEM Americas, Inc.
“The greatest thing about Conversations Worth Having is that it provides a window into the quality of our own thinking and inner dialogue. We carry on conversations in our mind without realizing much of the time the impact they have on our health, success, and happiness. Jackie and Cheri teach people how to alter their inner dialogue in order to improve their lives. Equipped with these skills, the reader will be able to better apply the skills of positive influence in the workplace and have better conversations in their personal lives. This book succinctly shows how to have effective daily interactions at work, at home, and with our own selves!” -Dan Casetta, Western Region Manager, Vector Marketing/Cutco Corporation
“Everywhere in the world right now is the crucial time for connection through conversations. In their new book, Conversations Worth Having, Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres set out a pathway to lead us past our polarities. Using real time stories and the models from research, these two Appreciative Inquiry experts have written a book that will help individuals, organizations, and families navigate the choppy waters of differences.”
-Marge Schiller, Founder, Positive Change Core
Author, Appreciative Leadership
“Conversations Worth Having provides practical ways to use Appreciative Inquiry in everyday situations. Electronics, telework, virtual meetings, and dispersed offices have replaced our daily, face-to-face conversations so that more than ever we need the type of conversations discussed in this book to solve problems, create meaningful dialogue, and build lasting productive relationships. They provide two simple practices including my favorite: asking generative questions. Great book!”
-Dr. Jennifer A Hitchcock, Executive Director
U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research and Development Center
“How do we engage in conversations in ways that foster thriving and well-being in our workplaces, our families, and our lives more generally? After reading this book, you will be fully equipped to answer this question and to engage in conversations in ways that make a positive difference. Jackie and Cheri use their extensive knowledge and practice with Appreciative Inquiry to unlock the potential in conversations. This book is brimming with insights, stories, and practical tools that will change your capacity to have meaningful conversations with others. The book is a gift to leaders, change agents and individuals of all types who wish to engage in conversations as a means for creating positive change in ourselves and in others! I loved this book!”
-Jane Dutton, Robert L. Kahn Distinguished Professor Emerita
Business Administration and Psychology
Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
Author, Awakening Compassion at Work
“An amazing book! This book provides practices to positively transform your life, family, organization, and our world. Every conversation is an opportunity to elevate a person, a situation, a culture. You’ll learn how to make the most of your interactions. This is a must-read to deepen connections, strengthen relationships, and change the world one conversation at a time. Thank you Jackie and Cheri for dedicating yourself to this practice and teaching us how to have Conversations Worth Having. Everyone needs to read this book!”
-Betsy Crouch and Zoe Galvez, Co-Founders, ImprovHQ
“As a city planner who engages in all kinds of conversations with multiple stakeholders at the grass-roots to the local and state levels, this book is a great resource on how to have a conversation worth having! The scenarios from the authors’ experience with actual clients provide insight into how to simply have great conversations that works for all. This book will be by your side to guide you through any conversation in any moment. Keep it close by!” -John F. Baran, City Planner, City of Detroit
“This book is a gift to the world! I strongly recommend it as required reading for all future leaders, business people, teachers, and parents. Jackie and Cheri have written clearly and with much practicality. The stories moved my heart to believe that Appreciative Inquiry conversations can make all the difference in the world. I plan to purchase multiple copies for those whom I love.”
-Rose Heinrichs, Elementary and Special Education Teacher (Retired)
“Conversations Worth Having is for everyone. The stories and examples in this book are ripe for facilitators, coaches, family members, community members, leaders, and team members alike. The clear message is reinforced, across all contexts. The authors bring the principles of Appreciative Inquiry alive in the conversations that are shared. The conversational tone personifies the message of the book. We are our conversations, and it’s through our conversations that we come alive and make meaning together. It’s an easy, delightful read that is uplifting, inspiring and actionable. The world is ready and waiting!” -Robyn Stratton-Berkessel, Founder, PositivityStrategist.com
“Because of overwhelming demands, organizations (or families) often become stuck in a cycle of urgency that creates patterns of what Stavros and Torres call critical or destructive conversations. This is a GREAT book because it tells you clearly HOW to change those to Conversations Worth Having. The instructions and examples are clear and inspiring. I invite you to read this excellent book and put the concepts into practice. You will then help create a positive and results-based environment that is exciting and affirming!”
-Sue Annis Hammond, Founder of Thin Book Publishing
Author, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry
“Congratulations – Jackie and Cheri share fresh, provocative, and practical wisdom on how to transition from downward-spiraling conversations to upward-spiraling possibility conversations. Leveraging these conversations worth having ultimately unleashes potential and co-creates innovative possibilities in our personal and professional life. This is open-creative, conversation space we all need to engage ourselves in. And, for those engaged in the Appreciative Inquiry or Positive Psychology communities, you will find this book quite useful to your research and practice in everyday life!”
-Maria Socorro Marrisa Fernando, PhD, Program Director, MMOD Program
Graduate School of Business, Assumption University of Thailand
“As a homeschooling mom of five, I have lots of conversations with my kids throughout the day. Some are good….others not so much at times. The practices and principles in this book have given me a simple way to communicate more effectively with my children. I want our conversations to be positive and encouraging. I want to be able to empower them to use their strengths and abilities. Conversations using Appreciative Inquiry is an excellent way to do just that! I loved the examples given that showed me how to incorporate this into daily life and how to deal with potential conflicts.” -Monica Chester, Homeschool Mom, and Nurse
“The role of leadership has evolved so much in recent years —but the reality is that many of those in leadership roles — from supervisors to CEOs — continue to underestimate the quantity and quality of the conversations they we have each day. Many leaders are still struggling to move people from the challenges of the past, to the limitless possibilities that are available in the future. Finally, Jackie and Cheri have written a book that provides concrete stories to remind us of the importance of being intentional with our conversations, and more important, provides us with the simple practices to move any conversation away from what we don’t want, in a direction towards what we do. In my opinion, this book is an essential resource for everyone – and anyone!”
-Jeff Bouwman, Director of Finance and Operations, Western University
Author, Your Income, Your Life
“Shared through stories and grounded in science, Jackie and Cheri have made a wonderful contribution to the application of Appreciative Inquiry. Conversations Worth Having is an educational, practical, and engaging read. This book has moved me from interest, to hope, to heart felt awe and empathy! The stories shared are easy to connect with and provide concrete examples highlighting the application of the principles and science discussed. Reading this book will help you create quality connections that will bring out the best in yourself and others.
The story by Jackie’s daughter took me to tears – what an achievement to bring up such an optimistic and resilient young lady. I dream my daughters will be of the same nature as they grow up. This book is a timely reminder the importance of conversations in our life!” -Sarah Lawrence, Founder, Thriving Organisations
“The authors make it clear, that the lifeblood of all relationships is our conversation. This applies both to our relationships (conversations) with others and ourselves. The appreciative principles and stories in this great book will inspire, enable, and guide the reader to nourish their relationships, one conversation at a time, by having conversations that are worthwhile. Thank you, Jackie and Cheri for this magnificent addition to Appreciative Inquiry literature!” -John Loty, Appreciative Facilitator, Forster, Australia
“What a wonderfully inspiring and practical book for putting the principles and practices of Appreciative Inquiry into action in ways that will surely strengthen relationships and results.”
-Colette Herrick, Executive Leadership Coach and Organization Consultant, Insight Shift
“Our organizations are a place where a group of people come together to a serve a common purpose and achieve goals. Our interactions allow the organization to flourish and sustain or whither and fade into obscurity. The stories and lessons presented in this book give us a new way to sustain all of the organizations of which we are a part. Whether a provider of health care or in the classroom, the concepts presented by Jackie and Cheri offer us a voice in the creation of a sustainable future that works for all!”
-Dr. Paul A. Miklovich, Administrator, Cleveland Clinic
“If conversations are worth having – and they ARE! – then, this book is CERTAINLY worth reading! The stories relayed here are rich in the practical application of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) with a depth of honesty, truth, and reality making the principles more easily transferable into our own lives. I’ve brought AI to the Royal Air Force, the National Health Service, the BBC and ITV, Warner Brothers, 3M, and more, to effect cultural and transformational change and create environments where creativity and innovation thrive. This book has taken my understanding and application of AI to the next level!”
-Barry Bailey, Owner, Mobile Team Challenge Europe
Executive Vice-president of 3M Europe
“I fell in love with Appreciative Inquiry and changed my career because of this discovery that individuals, organizations, and even communities can create a future with a focus on the good and the best through conversations that really matter. Since 2003 my focus has been Conversational Leadership and its development in the world of organizations. Cheri and Jackie’s book provides a safe, simple, and yet powerful way to identify and synthesize conversations beyond positive affirmations, generating a new approach on the already paved way of Appreciative Inquiry. Whether for family, professional or community use, Conversations Worth Having is a book you cannot miss reading.” -Eduardo Magalhães Sarmento Afonso, Coach and Learning Host
Atma Genus Consulting, Brasil
“Prepare to get excited about the enormous potential of dialogue to create meaning in our relationships and inspire action toward a shared vision of success. The authors graciously release us from a limiting belief that to solve a problem we have to focus on it. Instead, they show us how to flip our thoughts and ask the right questions in order to move in the direction we desire. Practical, poignant, and always positive, Conversations Worth Having helps us grow as individuals, learning to build the bridges that connect us to what we do want at work, at home, in our neighborhoods and society.”
-Kelly Stewart, Founder, Attractivate and The Positive Business
“In Conversations Worth Having, Stavros and Torres combine science and story-telling to help us learn practical ways to shift our conversations to more meaningful, purposeful and positive interactions using Appreciative Inquiry. What anyone in a conversation needs now!”
-Louis Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP, Change-Agent, Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing
“I enjoyed reading Conversations Worth Having. Having read many great books about Appreciative Inquiry (AI), I think it is an excellent addition to the AI knowledge base! The authors have shed light on an important aspect of AI – its value isn’t limited to large scale organizational or systemic change initiatives as some practitioners may believe. It also applies to everyday conversations at home, in our workplaces, and with others around us. What I like in particular are the many “micro AI practices” this books shares. They are extremely useful tips that offer many ways to turn any conversation to an appreciative conversation that help everyone involved move forward!”
-David Shaked, Managing Director, Almond Insight
Author, Strength-based Lean Six Sigma
“Conversations Worth Having is a unique approach on how we can purposefully use Appreciative Inquiry to achieve positive objectives and effective results. Its sincere integration of leadership and communication practices creates a win-win outcome for all those engaged in a conversation, be it in family, community, or organizational settings. This book is highly recommended as a pocket-side book for anyone who sees conversation as a sincere exchange to achieve mutually beneficial outcome for all involved.”
-Jean-Paul Meutcheho, Director of Sourcing and Corporate Sustainability
Global Advanced Metals
“I was aware and very intrigued with Appreciative Inquiry. I related to the story in Chapter 5 about using AI in strategic planning session with Washtenaw Literacy that has staying power with us in our conversations, three years later. After reading this new book, it is a reminder how to use AI not only in our strategic conversations but in any conversation with our staff, board members, volunteers, and the community we serve! Thank you, Jackie and Cheri for bringing the benefits of this approach to life for me.”
-Mary Jean Raab, President of Board of Directors, Washtenaw Literacy
“Jackie and Cheri give us simple appreciative practices to live out of our best selves in a way that honors us and honors those we are conversing with. How often have many of us been in a tight situation—that we are not handling well and wishing we had a fix? Now we have an approach—constructive, simply powerful, and helpful to work with and grow in changing our orientation, presence and inquiry in tense moments. Conversations Worth Having will be a wonderful little gift across ages and occasions—from birthdays to weddings. Thank you Jackie and Cheri. I so appreciated reading your precious work.”
-Cecile G. Betit Ph.D., Independent Researcher
“This invaluable book sets out Appreciative Inquiry practices and principles to help our conversations flourish rather than flounder. It can even help to start a conversation that perhaps we’ve avoided for too long. A deceptively simple message: positively frame the conversation, be your best in a conversation, and engage with the results that follow. This approach combined with the art and science of meaningful questions open us up to developing better strategies and more productive outcomes for everyone involved. This is a concise yet detailed explanation of what to do and why it works. It demystifies the mystery of why some conversations work and others don’t and supports us through the practical steps of engagement. A wonderful and essential book to have with us at all times!”
-Anne Radford, Founder, Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner’
Co-Mentor – Resilient Leadership Program
“Colin Powell, said “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Jackie and Cheri’s new book shows how this can be done using Appreciative Inquiry to change the direction of any conversation and result in new connections, knowledge, and innovation. The arrival of this terrific and timely book will be most helpful to many organizations and individuals!”
-Richard E. Marburger, Ph.D.
President Emeritus, Lawrence Technological University
President, Board of Education, AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School
Past President, Engineering Society of Detroit
“In Conversations Worth Having, Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres show us how to have conversations that can shape our lives, our relationships, our organisations, and communities in ways that are filled with positive meaning. Meticulously researched and evidence-based, the strategies suggested will certainly assist anyone to do so. Many real-life stories are included to illustrate clearly how changing the questions we ask and the stories we tell can transform our lives, both personally and professionally. Particularly moving is a story written by one author’s 13 year old daughter, where she concludes by saying “I learned to accept responsibility and to cope with the idea of potentially losing someone I love forever. I hope that I never have to go through this again, but if I do I know where and how to start the conversation”. Inspiring and eminently practical, Conversations Worth Having is a joy to read. And if, like almost everyone, you have ever wondered ‘where and how to start a conversation’, this book is a must-have addition to your library.”
-Sue James, Facilitator and Consultant, BJ Seminars International, Australia
“Conversations Worth Having is a wonderfully practical book illustrated with engaging and concrete stories. It provides a powerful road map for people who want their conversations to make a positive difference. This book will give you ideas to apply at work, in community, and with family and friends. Read and use it, you’ll see results worth having!”
-Joan McArthur-Blair and Jeanie Cockell, Co-authors
Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey
through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness
“Conversations Worth Having provides a simple way to a positive, engaging, and productive dialogue to help us avoid negative and destructive exchanges with others to have great conversations with others! It is filled with many examples for becoming an effective conversationalist, and it profoundly demonstrates the importance conversations play in our life. It’s an easy read and will make you, your life, and your organization a success!”
-Basel AL-Jabari, Executive Director, International American Business Training and Testing
“Conversations Worth Having is the sina qua non of meaningful improvement, in our institutions, workplaces, and families. Building on the time honored notion that “we live in the world created by our conversations” this book gives all the next steps anyone of us might ever need to seed positive revolution in our corner of the universe. Ideas such as the four types of conversations, with stories that illuminate each one, are eminently actionable.
In a period of unparalleled division and disharmony, Torres and Stavros offer us each an invitation so powerful, it has the potential to be the butterfly wings that create a more positive future. The next conversation you have might be the one that tips us toward a world that works for all of us.”
-Bernard J. Mohr, Thinking Partner, Speaker, Co-author of Appreciative Inquiry: Change at The Speed of Imagination; Co-Creating More Humane and Effective Organizations, and Designing Integrated Care Eco-systems, and Co-originator of People Powered Innovation Labs
“Conversations Worth Having does an excellent job of sharing how Appreciative Inquiry can easily be used to improve dialogue in any aspect of our lives. Stavros and Torres include great examples to show us have great conversations. As a former student of Jackie, she indeed does successfully live this in her conversations. She was integral in refocusing me away from the negative to the positive (aka – the flip) that has led to greater success in my personal and professional settings.”
-Joe Sprangel, Dean, College of Business & Professional Studies, Mary Baldwin University
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CHAPTER 1: Shifting Conversations
One great conversation can shift the direction of change forever.
– Linda Lambert
Alisha Patel, a senior administrator at a thriving medical center in New England, was surprised at the less-than-stellar patient satisfaction report that was sitting on her desk. Her surprise turned to understanding when she saw which hospital unit this was from. The director of that unit had recently quit because she felt frustrated with the new leadership model and refused to change. Alisha was filling in until a new director was hired.
She sent a copy of the patient satisfaction report to the nurse managers in the unit. She also emailed them an assignment for their next management meeting, which was a week away: Pay attention. Look for what staff members are doing that contributes to patient satisfaction. Come prepared to share a story of a best practice you’ve seen during the week.
The nurse managers were confused when they got the email; one even wrote back, asking if Alisha had made a mistake. “No,” she replied, “please look for what’s working well and bring your best story next week.” This was a dramatic shift from what these nurse managers were used to, and it created quite a buzz. The former director usually read them the riot act, tried to find who was at fault, and demanded they do better, or else. They were glad to see her go!
When the nurse managers met, Alisha acknowledged the team for their quality of care and service to patients. Then she asked about their stories. They each shared a story of best patient care and then together analyzed the stories for strengths and replicable practices. They discovered several unique actions, but mostly there were consistent themes for what created high patient satisfaction. The nurses seemed excited about the ideas. “This was an amazing way to handle our problem, Alisha,” one of them exclaimed. “I can’t tell you how many meetings we’ve had that focused on this problem, and nothing ever changed. This was so effective. I know things are going to improve after just one meeting with you!” They left the meeting committed to sharing and implementing the best ideas. They were alive with possibilities!
Alisha smiled confidently as the staff left. She was thinking about the changes that had occurred over the last year. She remembered what it had been like working at the medical center before introducing their new leadership model. They had experienced steady growth in patient services over a three-year period, and, based on that growth, the demands on the staff were having a negative impact on performance, which was evident in their quarterly reports. Patient satisfaction had been steadily declining. Decreasing employee engagement was reflected in unplanned absenteeism and lower retention rates, which made matters worse for everyone. On top of that, patient “throughput” was not optimal, which meant the center lacked the beds they needed to serve the people who needed them most.
All of this negatively affected both the bottom line and employee morale. Everyone felt overworked and stressed. She knew the staff were always striving to provide a high quality of care, but the medical center’s growth had become stressful, triggering short tempers, a lack of compassion, limited time for patients, and tension among staff and administration.
Alisha had not always been such an affirming leader. She was responsible for quality, and she lived by the quarterly performance reports. When performance stats were up, she didn’t worry; it gave her a chance to focus on other responsibilities. She would send the reports to directors, but she never went out of her way to acknowledge them. She took good reports for granted. When performance stats started declining, it was a different story. She gave the reports all her attention. She spoke face-to-face with directors, and her tone was critical: “These reports are not satisfactory. Every quarter it’s the same or worse. You’ve clearly done nothing to improve!”
The managers would defend the results, saying, “We have made changes, but we can’t do anything when we are understaffed and people don’t show up for work. Some of our staff are already working double shifts to cover for other folks!” “I don’t want excuses, I want results,” she snapped. “We are doing the best we can,” a manager snapped back. “Well, you’ll have to do better!” Alisha ended the conversation.
The managers always left demoralized and with no ideas about how to resolve the issue. Alisha’s levels of stress and dissatisfaction grew over this period, and it became next to impossible to hide her frustration from her colleagues. Her stress rolled over into her family and nonprofessional life as well. She became short-tempered, negative, and quick to criticize both her kids and her husband. She had fast developed a reputation for being the kind of person she never wanted to be, as a manager, partner, or parent. She realized she was going to have to do something if she wanted things to change. So she began an online search. She was intrigued by the headline of an upcoming workshop she found, about something called Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which promised tools and strategies for strengths-based change at any level — personal, organizational, and community.1 What caught her attention was this headline:
The Best Healthcare Clinics in the World Are Strengths-Based; Their Performance Outpaces All Others!
She read further: “When we’re unable to act with agility, speed, and unity, opportunities are missed and revenue is lost.” It was as if these words were written just for her. In hospitals, she knew, agility and speed can mean the difference between life and death, and lost revenue seemed to lead to financial decisions that negatively affected quality. What convinced her that this was the workshop she needed was a quote from David Cooperrider: “We change best when we are strongest and most positive, not when we feel the weakest, most negative, or helpless.” She realized she had become negative, focusing on everyone’s weaknesses, including her own. Everyone was feeling helpless to turn things around. So she clicked on the registration tab.
During her online training, she learned about the practices and principles of AI. Somewhere in the midst of the week she realized she herself had actually been contributing to the problem at her own medical center. She had dug in her heels and had badgered the staff, without asking any questions or helping to find solutions. She vowed to be part of the solution when she returned.
The first thing she did was to create a positive framework for her next conversation: More and more, our patients feel highly satisfied with our care. Then she adopted an attitude of curiosity. She wondered if some of the patients felt highly satisfied. If they were, why? What were their stories? What was the staff who cared for them doing that made a difference? These were the questions she led with at her next staff meeting, and she noted a remarkable shift in the conversation and in more positive outcomes. Alisha felt in awe of how much easier and more effective this approach was. And the proof was in the reports. Quality improved in the next quarter!
A year later, after her recommendation, senior leadership, management, many of the nursing staff, and a handful of physicians had gone through a series of AI workshops that literally gave them the ability to turn their culture around simply by changing their conversations. Alisha thought about her own conversations with staff these days. They were appreciative and inquiry-based, focusing on what they did well and what mattered to everyone: best and heartfelt care, patient recovery, and a place where everyone thrived.
She also realized that her focus of attention had shifted. Instead of seeing the staff themselves as problems, she was seeing their actions as possibilities. Her conversations with them were very different from those she had had a year ago. These were conversations worth having, and the results they produced were creating positive change throughout the medical center.
For example, the Emergency Room staff engaged members of clinics and urgent care centers in productive conversations focused on getting people to use the ER only when needed. They mapped their clinical care strengths and specialties across the city. They asked questions to inspire possibilities and new ways of thinking, as well as ways to work together to help prospective patients choose the right location for care. Such questions included: What would have to happen for every citizen to know where to go to get quick and reliable care during the day and after hours? How do we make sure transportation is available to move people where they need to go? The result was a Right-Care, Right-Place plan to help patients learn over time where to go and how to get there. The staffs worked together and developed a system that was delivering right care in the right places. Ultimately, this meant the ER team was serving patients who really needed emergency care. It also meant less chaos and crowding in the ER.
What Alisha and most of the staff discovered was that conversations that were appreciative and inquiry-based fueled productive and meaningful engagement. These conversations were generating exceptional outcomes. The staff throughout most of the medical center had developed a sense of unity and commitment to one another because they intentionally engaged in these kinds of conversations. They routinely thought of innovative ways to improve care and consistently put patients — and one another — at the center of all they did. The results spoke for themselves. The work climate changed significantly. This positive vibe made the medical center a place where people wanted to work. Employee retention improved and staff absenteeism declined. Even when the patient census was high, staff received consistently high ratings that reflected outstanding performance and commitment to excellence.
For Alisha, these positive changes rolled over into her family and personal life just as her frustration had. Alisha found herself initiating more Appreciative Inquiry–based conversations at home, much to the joy of her partner and her children. She found her AI training was every bit as applicable at home and in her community service work as it was at the medical center.
Understanding how appreciation and inquiry enhance relationships as well as productivity and performance is a lesson that Alisha’s whole team learned. In our next story about a struggling bank, you will see this point as something that Kamal Amari and Mary Wellington understood well and practiced in their leadership. Kamal and Mary had taken over failing banks and turned them around a number of times. Their success was, in part, due to their capacity for appreciative and inquiry-based conversations. Even when taking over Community One Bank didn’t turn out the way they had hoped, great conversations still made all the difference to that bank’s employees and customers.
Community One Bank stood as a refuge for the small business owner, first-time homebuyer, and teenager opening a first checking account. Located in the outskirts of Detroit, Community One never focused solely on making money. For the original owners, the goal was to provide quality service in a comfortable environment where people served their neighbors and friends. Early on, they had done well, but times had changed. The bank had been struggling financially for some time. One morning the owners gathered the staff to tell them the bank had been sold.
This news came as a shock to the staff. None of them had been privy to the bank’s financial problems. Elizabeth Randall had been with the bank for thirty-eight years when the change in ownership occurred. She had longstanding relationships with her customers, who were more than merely deposit and withdrawal statements. For Elizabeth, her customers were like family. In response to the news, she declared sharply, “I’m not going to work for one of those big banks. They don’t care about staff or customers. They only care about making profits!”
When the transition occurred, the former owners introduced Kamal and Mary as experienced bankers with a long track record of turning around struggling banks. “I can’t promise you this is going to be easy,” Kamal told the assembled staff. “I can tell you that if we work together and do this as a team, we can save this bank and continue the tradition that Community One has established over the years. I want to be honest with all of you,” Kamal continued. “Given the financial issues with the bank, we will be looking at staffing, overtime, and operating policies and procedures. For the bank to survive, we need to cut costs and meet revenue goals on a budget so that we are financially solvent to take care of you and our customers. This means that everyone will have to do more with less.”
“I knew it,” thought Elizabeth. “They’re going to destroy everything we’ve worked so hard to build here.” Kamal and Mary met with each employee individually, and when it was Elizabeth’s turn, she prepared herself for the worst. However, the meeting was not at all what she expected. There were no closed doors, and no staff was fired. Elizabeth was completely caught off guard at how their meeting started off.
“Thank you so much for coming to talk to us, Elizabeth,” welcomed Mary. “Kamal and I are excited to meet with you. We understand that you have the longest history with the bank and that no one knows this place better than you. We’re hoping you’ll share your best experiences with us about what makes Community One great. We also want to know: What gives life to this bank and community?”
Kamal and Mary smiled reassuringly in response to Elizabeth’s “deer in the headlights” expression. Elizabeth stammered, “You want to know what makes the bank great? But I thought we were losing money!”
“The bank is losing money,” said Kamal, “and we do need to make changes, but we don’t want to change what it is about this bank that customers love. We want to learn about what you and the other team members have done to engender such loyalty on the part of this community. We need your experience and knowledge, Elizabeth, and we hope you’ll partner with us to turn the bank around.”
“Of course I will,” Elizabeth agreed. She was stunned at the direction of the conversation. For the next hour, Kamal and Mary peppered Elizabeth with questions, such as: “What do you love most about your job? What wishes do you have for the bank to best serve its customers?” Elizabeth found herself drawn to the magnetic energy of these strangers. They laughed as she regaled them with stories of funny things that had happened over the years. Between their positive questions and these stories, Elizabeth began to remember why she loved her job. Elizabeth also found herself wanting to work with Kamal and Mary in whatever way she could to help the bank succeed.
Over the next eighteen months, the new management worked alongside the staff to make sure everyone was aware of the bank’s financial situation and how the changes they were making affected their viability. Naturally, not all the interactions were problem-free. Some difficult conversations occurred. On one such occasion, Kamal asked Elizabeth and another account manager, Ram, to come to his office.
“Elizabeth and Ram,” he began, “come in and have a seat. I have a couple of areas that we need to address together. You know we’ve been working on time management and new accounts over the last month. Elizabeth, it is still taking you too long to open new accounts, and Ram, you don’t open many accounts.” Elizabeth and Ram each felt a flush of embarrassment, but it vanished quickly because Kamal continued without blaming. Instead of focusing on what they were doing wrong, he acknowledged their strengths and asked them to team up. “Elizabeth, you open the most accounts every month. Ram, you are faster than anyone else at opening accounts. Would you two be willing to work together to combine your areas of expertise to create a fast and effective process for landing new accounts for the bank?”
This led to a great conversation between Ram and Elizabeth. They pooled their strengths and knowledge to develop a replicable process for opening accounts. Elizabeth learned some effective shortcuts on the computer, and Ram learned ways to engage customers and invite them to explore accounts that would be beneficial for them. When they presented their model to Kamal, he seemed quite impressed with their design. He asked them to introduce other staff members to their plan and bring them up to speed with their new process.
Kamal’s leadership style had turned a problem into an opportunity to improve things for everyone at the bank, and also to strengthen the leadership capacity of upper-level staff. Elizabeth had come to understand that Kamal and Mary truly had both the employees’ and the bank’s best interests at heart. Their appreciative, open, and collaborative style of management had converted Elizabeth from skeptic to cheerleader. Things at the bank were now going extremely well. The bank was not completely out of the red, but they were getting close. Then the 2008 Great Recession struck. To make matters worse, the city of Detroit and all its surrounding communities were hit hard by problems with the automotive industry, the lifeblood of the local economy. This perfect storm negatively affected the bank, and almost overnight the bank went from “on the road to recovery” to “no longer financially viable.”