Starting with a simple framework
For the last year, I’ve been systematically reading around appreciative inquiry, positive psychology and the mytho-poetic tradition of leadership and I’m at a point where I can see commonalities in the way management, psychology and literature approach leadership.
Corporate poet, David Whyte, makes a good argument that life cannot be reduced to a 7 point plan. I don’t want this to be the end of my exploration. Positive psychology is a paradigm shift, though. And paradigm shift’s are dizzy-making. People starting out in this area might find this five point schema a useful set of “hand-holds” as they orient themselves to a new way of thinking. I would be interested in your comments.
The Five Principles of Appreciative Inquiry
I’ve organised the schema around the five principles of appreciative inquiry. Other authors have expanded this list. I’ll stick, for now, to the initial five points. To those, I’ve added five stages of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey, too, can be expanded to much greater levels of detail. And then I have added five quotations from David Whyte’s poetry to illustrate each principle.
The result, I hope, will be to show you the parallels in the different strands of positive thinking and give you a starting point for deeper and more elaborate understanding.
1. The positive principle
The principle of positivity is simply that we want to know what we do well, and then do more of it.
The first stage of the Hero’s Journey begins with The Call – our perception of the world which underlies our personality and our sense of the contribution that we and only we make to our community, and the people around us. This is a personal view. It is not a matter of being extraverted or conscientious or whatever. It is a sense of our unique story, and who we are and how we contribute to any story unfolding around us.
David Whyte speaks eloquently to our sense of who we are, which we often notice in its absence: “anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you” (Sweet Darkness). We are very attuned to the loss of our story and we are brought alive when we make our story salient for ourselves again.
The first stage of any intervention, whether it is searching for what we do well and will do more of, whether it is finding vocabulary for strengths and virtues, whether it is our sense of our own narrative: the first stage is to bring back that sense of a personally unique story and to feel the flush of well being which observers see immediately as the light being restored to our eyes.
2. The social constructionist principle
The social constructionist principle is this simple. We all have a slightly different perspective of events. We want to hear the diverse versions of reality from as many people as possible in their own words, or voices, to be technical.
In the Hero’s Journey, the first stage of The Call is often followed, or accompanied by, The Refusal of the Call. We are usually clear about what needs to be done, and our part in the story – indeed I have never met anyone who is not – but we also persuade ourselves that we believe is not needed, not possible, and not wanted.
What we are really doing is bargaining with the world. David Whyte might say we are living contingently. We are saying, I will listen to my voice if you do. We don’t trust our own voice.
Group interventions are very often concerned with recognizing multiple voices. Interventions in workplaces are often to do with listening to employees. Interventions in the family are to do with listening to everyone.
Individual interventions are usually to do with trusting ourselves. We express the starting point as other people not trusting us or being unsure of our place in the world. To move beyond this point is something we all need to learn, though we find it much easier when someone somewhere trusts us first.
I like David Whyte’s line: “You are not a troubled guest on this earth, you are not an accident amidst other accidents, you were invited . . .” (What To Remember When Wakening). Having a sense that no matter how bad our uncertainty or predicament, that we are in the right place, and that our very journey brought us to this place, that we belong: this sense helps us have the courage to engage in the conversation and add our voice to others.
3. The anticipatory principle
The anticipatory principle is well known by anyone who uses goal setting effectively. A fuller envisioning, involving a very comprehensive vision of what we will be in the future, is far more motivating. NLP uses this principle to imagine even what other people around us will be thinking and feeling. Certainly, visions compete, and a fuller positive vision will engage our attention and draw us towards it.
In the Hero’s Journey, the corresponding phase is probably meeting the Goddess. In this stage we are inspired by a story that is larger than ourselves. We sense an emerging story, or the field around us, and are able to articulate the frontier between ourselves and circumstances in ways that our compelling to us all. Ben Zander, conductor and teacher, uses this technique brilliantly in “Everyone gets an A”.
David Whyte also stresses how much our own vision converges with our sense of the world and how we are what we can envision. “When your eyes are tired, the world is tired also. When your vision is gone, no part of the world can find you” (Sweet Darkness).
At this stage of any intervention we encourage imagination, the fuller and the more comprehensive the better.
4. The simultaneity principle
The simultaneity principle is illustrated with this catchy phrase: we move in the direction of the questions we ask. The future is now.
In the Hero’s Journey, the corresponding phase is atonement with the father. At this stage, we stop waiting for the world to recognize our inspiration. We “cross the Rubicon” and take full responsibility for driving our plans forward.
“Crossing the Rubicon” is difficult though. And it begins with attempting to formulate the question. It begins with small actions in our immediate surroundings. In times of severe stress, it begins by looking at the horizons, by looking at what is close up, and becoming more aware and more present.
David Whyte captures our emotional paralysis: “Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take” (Start Close In)
So many interventions begin with “the beginning”: doing something small that is un-threatening.
5. The hopeful principle
The hopeful principle is is concerned with language. It is concerned with narrative and rhythm. David Cooperrider, who has led much of the work on Appreciative Inquiry, uses the principle often: “the good and the better”. Martin Luther King’s well known speech “I have a dream” illustrates it too. As does, the oratory of Presidential nominee, Barack Obama.
In the Hero’s Journey, I see the corresponding stage as the Return. It is the time when you bring your dream and the transformation of yourself home. It is a testing time, as anyone knows who has lived abroad and returned home. It is time of integration and communicating as a leader with people around us.
David Whyte reminds us that our journeys are undertaken together: “Your great mistake is to act the dream as it you were alone . . . Everybody is waiting for you.” (Everybody Is Waiting For You)
The final stage of any intervention is working through relationships with people around us.
Taking it to the people
I am going to post this now. It needs some more links but WordPress is driving me mad with its arbitary editing while I am typing. So up it goes and I will add some links tomorrow.
I would love your comments! I see positive psychology as ready now to pass on coherent frameworks that could be applied by people in various walks of life. I have outlined some basic courses for people who are interested in approaching the filed systematically. I would be grateful if you would have a look and let me know what you think.
Short animated movie about the Hero´s Journey:
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Warm greetings from an old student. Thank you for the transformation you have undergone from a hard-nosed, empirical positivist occupational psychologist to a positive psychologist. How life is a transforming journey! Remember those DOPS days when we were pigeon-holing people according to their cognitive abilities? Not so bad in itself as a starting point, though as it reveals the limits of the paradigm. At a personal level, I am more interested in how you came to this positive psychology paradigm and share your experience.