Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a strengths-based approach to examining and developing the best in human systems. The approach has a lot of overlap with positive psychology in its focus on what’s working, what’s good, and what gives us life.
By virtue of its flexible nature, AI can be applied to understand and change individuals, teams, businesses, or even societies. And it works by asking unconditional, positive questions.
In this article, we’ll see what Appreciative Inquiry Interview Questions look like and give you examples to help you create your own. I’ll introduce the 4D model as a systems paradigm, and consider the flexibility that makes Appreciative Inquiry so versatile.
This article contains:
- What are Appreciative Inquiry Interview Questions?
- A Brief Look at the Model
- How Can We Best Ask the Right Questions?
- Using Them in Coaching
- A Look at Key Examples and Samples of AI Questions to Ask
- 27+ Interview Questions to Create Better Leadership
- 10+ Questions for Employee Engagement
- 11 Appreciative Inquiry Team Building Questions
- 21 AI Discovery Questions
- 21 AI Dream Questions (AI Visioning Questions)
- A Take-Home Message
What are Appreciative Inquiry Interview Questions?
To understand Appreciative Inquiry interview questions and to be able to create your own, some background into the Appreciative Inquiry Model is useful. But, put simply, AI is about understanding strengths and the positive core of a human system. AI interview questions are what we ask to discover these strengths.
At different stages of the Appreciative Inquiry Model, interview questions will reflect varying goals. What’s worth knowing at this stage is that AI was originally developed as a qualitative research method, so there are no closed questions in Appreciative Inquiry.
But rather than list all the things that AI Interview Questions are not, here is a short explainer that might give you an intuitive ‘feel’ for what they are:
Appreciative Inquiry Interviews: A Little Background
Appreciative Inquiry began in the 1980s, while David Cooperrider and Frank Barrett were conducting action research into an organization. According to Bushe (2013), discussions of the feedback weren’t going too well, and the participants were reacting in a hostile way to their questions.
This led Suresh Srivastva, their supervisor at the time, to suggest something interesting: What if the questions themselves were influencing the negative dynamic?
Indeed, when the researchers adapted their questions to have a more positive focus, they found things changed considerably—it was much easier to make positive change and improve things there. So while AI interview questions were originally intended to refine qualitative research methods, they also became the basis for an entire paradigm.
A question is only as good as the answer it evokes, and questions thus contribute to success or failure across different contexts.
So…Who Does AI Interviewing?
In practice, anyone can do AI interviewing, if they have the right motivation and mindset. You can ask yourself AI questions to find out more about your own strengths and create sustainable changes in yourself, or a coach can ask you questions.
In organizations, everybody involved in an initiative will usually be familiarized with AI, as Appreciative Inquiry is largely about co-creation. External stakeholders can be included, too—one of the goals of the approach is to gather diverse perspectives.
Let’s look at how the goals of each stage differ throughout the 4D model.
A Brief Look at the Model
The 4D model is a visual representation of how Appreciative Inquiry plays out. There are 4 phases through which participants progress once they have selected an affirmative topic to focus on. However, defining the affirmative topic will often involve careful thought—as a facilitator, leader, or participant, the questions you ask during this process can also affect how ideas are framed (Ludema et al., 2006).
In-quire’ (kwir), v.,
1: the act of exploration and discovery.
2. To ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities.
Synonyms: DISCOVERY, SEARCH, and SYSTEMATIC EXPLORATION, STUDY.”
(AI Commons, 2019)
Four different phases make up the 4D model, these are Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny. Once an affirmative topic has been defined, the participant or participants will move through these in sequence.
Below is an overview of the different phases; the aims of each will shape the nature of questions that are most relevant. Throughout, I’ll also be highlighting just how and why Appreciative Inquiry is so closely linked with positive psychology.
The Discovery phase is about appreciating the positive core. During this phase, participants ask questions that explore and identify strengths—of a team, organization, group, or individual. AI is concerned with using strengths to grow, change, adapt, and improve, so the more diverse a group, the more ground can be covered in the metaphorical search (Lewis et al., 2016).
We can also think of Discovery questions by recalling that Appreciative Inquiry is born out of grounded theory, and is inherently a qualitative method, so subjectivity is implied (Collis & Hussey, 2013). In essence, it calls for the mindset that there are no right or wrong answers—our organizational realities are made up of the stories we tell ourselves and each other.
The more people we include, and the more we explore and discuss, the more likely we are to reach a shared understanding of the positive core. In research methods lingo, we will hardly reach theoretical saturation, but we can aspire to it (Collis & Hussey, 2013).
As Cooperrider and Godwin put it (2011), the overarching question in this phase is: “What gives life?”
Picture a scenario where participants have come together, and we have been asking each other positive questions about things like our past achievements. A little further on, I’ll give specific Appreciative Inquiry interview questions, but for now, suffice to say we’ve been asking each other what made those successes possible.
Engaged and full of positive emotions (two elements of Seligman’s PERMA model, by the way), the next phase we move into is Dream. Our collective focus here is envisioning possibilities, thinking, and imagining (Cooperrider & Godwin, 2011; Whitney et al., 2004). In one sense, it’s practical and still focused on the past. In another, it expands on this with the aim of generating more from this.
Here, the goal is to envision what we want to happen—in contrast to some conventional practices like real options analysis, which can sometimes focus on ‘what if’ in a different way (Johnson et al., 2017). Rather, we ask questions about stories; then, we can ask questions of those stories to elicit more in the way of rich detail around themes. These may include dream dialogues, which look at building out aspirations and wishes about the shared future.
The overarching question of the Dream stage, is therefore:
“What might be?”
The Design stage is about building the visions and ideas with the greatest potential, together. In co-constructing ‘the ideal’, therefore, the questions become slightly more specific and focused on clarifying. To get from a dream of “super-enthusiastic customer service” to the concrete strategic focus, for instance, participants now ask positive, provocative questions.
These are aptly called ‘provocative propositions’, and they aim to create compelling, clear images of social architecture that could make the dreams possible (Whitney et al., 2002; Ludema et al., 2006). Provocative propositions use the present tense, so interview and probing questions should reflect this.
Encouraging provocative propositions and sharing requires a supportive environment that encourages and invites openness (Axtell et al., 2011; Ludema et al., 2006). In this sense, it calls for sensitivity to team relationships and healthy collaborative dynamics to get the best possible outcomes.
The overarching question of this phase is:
“What should be?”
We now ideally have images of a shared, positive future that leverages our organizational strengths. The Destiny stage is about encouraging shared commitment and discussing how teams and individuals will help bring provocative propositions to life. This can be seen as distinct from traditional approaches in its focus on collective meaningfulness and purpose.
The overarching question here, according to Cooperrider and Godwin (2011), is:
“How to empower, learn, and improvise?”
Source: Source: Cooperrider & Godwin (2011)
How Can We Best Ask the Right Questions?
In a nutshell, the questions we ask at each stage will reflect the relevant goal of that stage. But asking the overarching questions as outlined are only going to get us so far. In a qualitative study, for example, it would be somewhat akin to asking your research question of participants directly—deliciously tempting, but not the best way to elicit rich, informative answers.
There are several principles that can help you design AI interview questions, and these will build on, rather than simply read out, the overarching questions at each stage. Whitney et al. (2002) describe these as ‘The Anatomy of a Positive Question’ in their book: Encyclopedia of Positive Questions. Let’s see what they say.
What Is a Positive Question?
Succinctly put, an appreciative or positive question is:
“A question that seeks to uncover and bring out the best in a person, a situation or an organization.”
(Whitney et al., 2002: 89)
They are relevant to the affirmative topic chosen, and made up of:
- The affirmative topic title – If you haven’t defined one yet, Ludema and colleagues give some super examples in one of their case studies (2006: 160): “What do you really want from this process? When you explore your boldest hopes and highest aspirations, what is it that you ultimately want?”;
- A compelling introductory ‘lead-in‘ to the topic – These frame the question and should create a conducive atmosphere for the discussion. Whitney and colleagues suggest that lead-ins should try to explore ‘hard topics’ like markets or finance from a human and emotional perspective. Think of these as intrinsic reasons why we do our jobs, like fulfillment, achievement, or deeper meaning.
- 2-4 subquestions – These will ideally investigate the topic from various angles. They can use all three of past, current, and future tenses, and really effective ones will invite the participant to relive that experience. If you’ve ever done a qualitative interview, these are somewhat like “Remember the last time…what did it feel like? What emotions were you experiencing?”
More Tips for Asking Positive Questions
Crafting questions and understanding what you (all) want from the experience is a brilliant start, but here are some more tips to help (Whitney et al., 2002):
- What we are hoping for is human participation. That is—while it’s already been said—we want human responses which are rich in feeling and meaning, as opposed to just data. They are affective and appeal to people, not job titles;
- Stories are good – they invite parties to be active participants and visualize as a group. Stories engage those involved, build relationships, and make discovery a collective process (Richards, 2012); and
- Positive questions should encourage parties to think about and tune in to different perspectives—those of stakeholders and their own. They stimulate the imagination, invite perspective-taking, encouraging compassion and empathy (Whitney et al., 2002).
- Relevant: How to Apply the Appreciative Inquiry Process (Incl. 5 Tips)
Michelle McQuaid, a co-author of several studies with Professor Cooperrider, has also shared tips from her interview with Jon Berghoff. Berghoff is co-founder of the Flourishing Institute, and he suggests three helpful categories of everyday questions at work (McQuaid, 2019).
These are about meaning at work and they look into the deeper ‘why’ of what we do. So, beyond external incentives like KPIs and monetary rewards, we ask questions to understand our collective purpose—sometimes above and beyond the organization’s official vision.
For example: “Why does our work on this particular project really matter to us?” “What is it that we’re doing here and now that makes us really proud?”
Strengths questions go right back to ‘the whole point’ of AI; they’re about what is good and what works best. To look for what’s making something work, we might first ask about best practice for instance—if there’s not a lot at all that is working inside the organization, look outside at other companies.
For instance, “What does XYZ company in our sector do exceptionally well?” “What makes us best in class at new product development (NPD)?” Or “What’s making our team the best it can possibly be?”
Then ask what’s behind that good performance, success, or development.
For example: “What does XYZ do that we can learn from?” Or, if it’s teamwork that’s making NPD so spectacular, “How can we build even more on the way we collaborate?”
Future Vision Questions:
These are Appreciative Inquiry visioning questions, designed to inspire positive images of the future for a team, division, or organization. Future vision questions aim to guide positive action through creative imagining of possibilities and the hope that we can achieve these through our strengths (Cooperrider, 1990).
Examples include: “What does your ideal future look like for the team?” and “What would be your best aspirations for our organization in five years?”
Hopefully now, it’s easy to see why AI interview questions can easily be adapted to suit different contexts; one of these is coaching.
Using Them in Coaching
We’ve talked a lot about Appreciative Inquiry in strategizing, but maintaining momentum is also hugely pivotal in making that change sustainable (Whitney et al., 2002). In fact, the 4D model is designed as a circular framework because Destiny feeds back into Discovery—so not only can we keep asking questions, but we can use those to continue building on our strengths and capabilities. So that makes AI useful in:
- Team coaching;
- Leadership coaching;
- Career coaching; and
- Even individual, non-work-related life coaching.
Even just in these contexts, they can serve us in multiple ways. For example, the Encyclopedia of Positive Questions outlines several uses of appreciative questions.
- In individual performance coaching, they can help remind clients or colleagues of their strengths. They help us look back on our own high-performance patterns of behavior and the experiences around those to boost self-confidence and cultivate a growth mindset (Dweck, 2016).
- We can use them to shift our vocabularies as a whole, from deficit vocabularies to language that is focused on potential. Whitney et al. (2002) call this a shift from ‘problem talk’ to ‘possibility talk’, and it serves to shift the focus away from negative blaming (Ludema et al., 2006).
- To enhance team performance, we can direct positive questions at one another to share stories of meaningful achievement. When team members ask each other appreciative questions in coaching, it can help them discover common themes in their individual strengths. These can have implications for how the team works together synergistically, complementing one other’s strengths (Whitney et al., 2004).
- Positive questions can help build up self-esteem, so clients can recognize and appreciate their own potential. What are their stories of success and accomplishment? Encourage them to elaborate on these and validate any themes you spot together.
- They can be used to plan developments and gain shared commitment to them—as a team coach, this can be achieved by inviting participants to interview each other. Whitney and colleagues (2002) argue that this is much more useful when done as a collective than when done alone.
Now, as promised, many, many examples so that we can get a strong sense of what to ask.
A Look at Key Examples and Samples of AI Questions to Ask
Champlain College’s AI institute has created a document of sample questions for the AI Model in general—most of these, however, are focused on the Discovery phase of the 4D cycle. These sample Appreciative Inquiry Interview Questions for Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny, and then ‘Apply’, are adapted for a team project scenario.
5 “Review & Reflect” Questions
These questions will help in reviewing and reflecting on past and present instances and describing them in more detail.
- What was good about that team project?
- What about that experience was most valuable to you?
- How did it positively affect you? How about your teammates? And what about your clients?
- What was particularly positive/memorable during that project? What sticks in your mind?
- What were the best things about the way you worked together? And how you worked with your clients? How about with other departments?
- What did that feel like for you?
- How could you tell it was working so well?
- How did your teammates have an impact on your actions?
5 “Strengths & Opportunities” Questions
Here are questions that shift to the strengths that made them possible and opportunities to leverage or develop those for positive change.
- How did your capabilities and strengths play a role in the project’s success?
- How did collaboration and cooperation influence your outcomes?
- What was the team focused on?
- What was it about your team members that you noticed?
- What feelings or emotions did you notice in them?
- How do you think they felt?
2 “Integration” Questions
These questions are focused on finding themes between the enablers of that positive experience.
- What precise strengths were you and your teammates leveraging during that project?
- What are some other occasions that you’ve used those particular strengths?
- How might you use them in the future for other positive outcomes?
2 “Examining Beliefs and Values” Questions
A set of example items that question underpinning values and beliefs for a deeper understanding of the individuals, the team, and our own social construction of meaning (Coghlan et al., 2003).
- How did you manage your feelings/emotions and those of your colleagues?
- How did you manage your clients’ emotions?
- What images did you envision that helped you achieve those outcomes?
- How do you feel those contributed to your success as a group?
3 “Applying It Elsewhere” Questions
Here, example questions that build on what we know about the positive core, and how we can leverage that knowledge (of strengths) to grow and flourish.
- How might these precise strengths help your team succeed again in the future?
- What particular strengths can you focus on more as a group, for similar positive results?
- Which of these images might be useful in continuing your group’s success?
Here is the whole document.
27+ Interview Questions to Create Better Leadership
Positive leaders can inspire, motivate, and contribute in a huge way to engagement (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). In terms of the ‘bigger picture’, they effectively invite and encourage a shared commitment to a collective vision, motivating others intrinsically. In happy, healthy work environments, positive leaders view and motivate others as humans, not as machines (Pink, 2011).
Appreciative leadership is also a specific concept in and of itself, first proposed by Diana Whitney and colleagues in their 2010 book of the same name. Appreciative Leadership is described as:
“The relational capacity to mobilize creative potential and turn it into positive power – to set in motion positive ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance – to make a positive difference in the world.” (Whitney et al., 2010: 3).
Here are some questions that can help create better leadership practices.
8+ AI Interview Questions About Leadership
- Remember the most inspirational leader you’ve worked with. What was it like? In what ways did you find them inspirational?
- What were the emotions that they inspired in you? What did they do that led you to feel that way?
- Think of a manager or leader who has really inspired you. What are several aspects of their leadership style that encourage excellence in you?
- How does he or she bring out the best in you?
- Describe the last time you felt truly inspired by a leader. What context was that in? Who was the leader that made that so inspiring?
- Who else was there? What were others’ responses?
- Describe a high point in your career, when you were feeling pride, engagement, or motivated. How did the leadership at that time contribute to that experience?
- What did you realize about leadership from this experience?
19+ Appreciative Questions For Leadership Development and Strategy
- Think of your first decision to join this organization. This can encourage the (leader) participant to reconnect with the positive aspects that attracted them in the first place, inviting them to consider what they’d like to see more of moving forward (CVDL, 2016).
- What attracted you to the firm?
- What was exciting about the opportunity?
- How would you describe your initial impressions?
- Reflect back on what you consider a leadership experience that really made you and others feel engaged or alive. These questions are about ‘what’s good’, ‘what’s worked’, and ‘what’s working’, both in the past and in the present.
- What happened?
- What did you feel? How would you describe others’ emotions?
- What factors do you feel made this positive experience possible?
- What did you do, feel, or tell yourself that made this a peak experience?
- Who else was involved? How did they contribute to the feelings of engagement?
- Consider some values you deem important. This ‘type’ of question invites stories and discussion about the values, beliefs, behaviors, and strengths that are central to leadership.
- Which of your values do you consider the greatest or most important? How would others say your values benefit the company?
- When things are going excellent here at work, what do you value most about the experience?
- What values do you feel give the organization life? What do you think we should try to retain and develop, no matter what?
- The business environment is changing. The next set of questions aims to take the focus from the past into the future. Using an example of product innovation, in this instance, they ideally will inspire the leader to ‘explore’ new opportunities in a positive way (O’Reilly III & Tushman, 2013)
- What new consumer trends are shaping how we design our products?
- How do you feel they will impact on us becoming truly innovative?
- Imagine you’ve woken up in the best possible future for our organization. Interview questions here now are very much Dream-focused and use positive framing to enable optimistic, future-oriented thinking (CVDL, 2016). Opportunities and imagination are key.
- Our company has come up with a truly amazing approach to innovation, and things are working exactly as you’ve always hoped. What’s great about it?
- Describe it—what’s happening in different areas of the organization? What’s different? How are people working? How are they collaborating? How are they approaching innovation?
- How are you leading your teams?
- Picture that positive future vision of the firm. For this last question, we begin to roughly shape some implementable strategies. As with all other stages, questions should focus on enablers, not obstacles.
- What do you see as potential ways to achieve this future?
- Can you describe several key ways forward that might make this a reality?
- Which are important in the short-term? How about the long-term?
These questions all build on examples from the Encyclopedia of Positive Questions (Whitney et al., 2002), Appreciative Leadership by Whitney et al., (2010), and this PDF resource from the Center for Values-Driven Leadership (CVDL, 2016).
10+ Questions for Employee Engagement
Employee engagement is yet another psychological concept that’s consistently being added to. Broadly, it refers to employees’ emotional commitment to organizational goals (Macey & Schneider, 2008). In that vein, these questions look at ownership and commitment (Kahn, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi, 1997):
- Think of a company in which you believe employees have a sense of ownership around what they do. What stakeholders are you thinking of in this scenario? Employees? Clients? The community?
- What does this organization do that you feel is so successful in encouraging ownership?
- What does our company do that is similar or different?
- What can we learn from them which would encourage a deeper sense of ownership at our organization?
- Describe a time that you really felt committed to your work, when you felt like you really ‘owned’ what you were doing.
- Can you describe your emotions during that experience?
- How do you believe that you yourself brought about this feeling? How did others help enable this? How did you feel they helped in creating this sense of ownership?
- What are a few things about the organization or its structure that you feel made this possible?
- In what other situations have you felt a positive sense of ownership in your working life?
- How might the strengths, structures, or attitudes you’ve described help our organization inspire greater collective ownership?
11 Appreciative Inquiry Team Building Questions
In much the same respect, we can spot well-functioning teams by their positive approaches to communication, collaboration, and synergy.
These draw on theory from Whitney et al.’s (2004) book Appreciative Team Building and resources from the Center for Appreciative Inquiry.
You can read more about this book and other Appreciative Inquiry books here.
- Share a story of when you felt most alive and engaged as part of this team.
- Who was part of this experience? What contributed to it being so exciting and engaging?
- Describe one time that you feel we, as a team, have made a meaningful impact on the lives of others.
- How did you personally help make this possible? How did our working together help achieve this? What were the main elements contributing to our success? How did you feel supported by others?
- What do you value the most about how we work as a team?
- How do you feel you contribute positively to this dynamic? How do others help support this strength in you?
- Together, we achieve things we couldn’t do as individuals. What is it about the way we work together that makes this possible? When you’re feeling great about the work we do together, what is it specifically that you value?
- What do you see as our most important team values?
- What do you value most about being part of this team?
- What’s the number one positive thing about being a team member here? How has it brought fulfillment and purpose to your personal life?
- What do you see as the three most desirable things about our team, that we can build on for success?
Here is a full PDF resource from the Center that you might find helpful for crafting your own questions.
21 AI Discovery Questions
Here, some more Discovery questions from Champlain College AI Commons, again from a team project perspective:
Questions About The Experience
- How did you have an impact on your colleagues’ actions?
- How did your clients react?
- How did your actions impact them? What was your role in this?
- What was unexpected about the project experience?
- What was your most memorable learning experience from the project?
What Made It Possible?
- What influence did your relationships have on the results?
- How would you describe the dynamics of your team?
- Could you describe the group energy?
- Did you notice what roles were particularly useful?
- Could you go into more detail about how you feel they were effective?
- In what ways did you feel your teammates supported you?
- What were your clients’ responses?
- How would you describe your emotions and what you felt?
When Else Has It Happened?
- How was your project experience similar to other team successes you’ve been a part of?
- What was different about it?
- What exact strengths were you and your teammates showing during the project?
- How can those help you achieve similar successes moving forward?
Important Perceptions and Beliefs
- What were you thinking at the time that led you to a successful result?
- What did it feel like?
- What narratives were you telling yourself, that helped you achieve that outcome?
- How about the group? What stories were you telling each other that contributed to your success?
- What positive beliefs played a part in your positive experience as a team?
Transferring Strengths/Building On The Positive Core
- How can you leverage your learnings in a way that will help your organization succeed?
- What stories or strengths could you apply elsewhere to build on that success?
- What strengths from this experience could you develop further for continued positive outcomes?
- What can others help you with to develop these and succeed?
Appreciative Inquiry works most effectively where ‘narrative-rich communication’ is encouraged (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999: 256). Creating a supportive, positive environment that invites storytelling can motivate employees to share their stories more, give natural, dynamic responses, and speak more openly (Michael, 2005).
21 AI Dream Questions (AI Visioning Questions)
Doubtless, you’ve heard “there are no ideas in brainstorming”, or some variant of it. It’s a nice way to think about the whole AI Dream phase, and it rings particularly true. These questions are designed to encourage aspirations and future visions that build on our understanding of the positive core (Cooperrider & Godwin, 2011). For strategy buffs, it’s not too far from what we know as Blue Ocean thinking (Mauborgne & Kim, 2005).
Let’s say for, the purpose of these examples, that several themes that have been identified. Roughly, these are greater collaboration, creativity, and a synergistic approach to product innovation.
- Daydream forward into your ideal future for our organization…as an organization, we’re best in class for creative innovation. What is so wonderful about the products?
- What does it look like? What is really great about the way we work together across the firm?
- What do our teams look like?
- How do our communications flow?
- What do our meetings look like?
- What structures or systems support the flow of ideas?
- How are our strengths being used to make innovation so alive?
- Picture our ideal future as a collaborative, creative organization.
- How are we interacting with one another and with customers?
- What can you tell us about how we engage with the community?
- What’s the thing you’re most proud of having brought to market?
- Imagine that we’re exactly where we want to be as a company, in three years time. What are the three biggest things we’ve accomplished between now and then?
- What are some ways we have brought this to life?
- What good things are we known for in the community? In the industry?
- What makes us best in class?
- Close your eyes and think forward to an ideal work day in our organization, in one year’s time.
- What is happening?
- Who is doing what?
- What does your workday look like?
- What short-term goals have we achieved? What strengths have we leveraged to get us there?
- What can you say is different? What’s new and exciting?
A Take Home Message
Change management is an incredibly massive part of OD, and it gets ever so much attention as a result. The quantity resources spent on ‘overcoming’ and ‘managing’ resistance, as such, are phenomenal. If we spent half as much effort on building collective commitment and positive feelings around change from the get-go—from ‘the very first question’, that is, how do you think things would be different?
Appreciative inquiry was essentially born out of a question very similar to this. And since its conception several decades ago, it’s been applied flexibly in so many contexts with tangible results. Do you still think it’s seen as ‘soft and fluffy’? And how might we change perceptions of this? What do you see as the real barriers in the way of its more widespread usage?
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!
For further exploration, see: 18 Appreciative Inquiry Workshops, Training, and Courses
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