entheos Interview: What Appreciative Inquiry Has Taught Me

An Interview with Shannon Polly, MAPP and Kathryn Britton, editor of Positive Psychology News Daily

en*theos International Day of Happiness Virtual Conference

Kathryn: Getting back to the personal of this, what’s the most interesting thing that you learned about yourself in the course of doing AI summits?

Shannon: Oh that’s a great question. A number of things, I think one of the things I learned is that even though I’ve had all of this training in positive psychology I still too have a negativity bias and I have not been cured of that. I was doing an AI summit leading into strategic plan for an organization recently and the AI summit was great because the positivity principle is built in and really started to design the strategic plan and I started to slip into “well the lease is up in 2017 and what if we lose it” and then I had to jolt myself out of it and say “wait a minute Shannon, that goes against all of that principles.” So even I have to keep applying the principles. I also think what I’ve discovered is that I used to think that I had to do the heavy lifting in facilitating something like this. I had to do all the work, I had to do all the prep and what you realize with this process is that there is the collective wisdom of the people in the room and if you are open to accepting and working with what people in the room have to say the process really, in some ways leads itself, the real work is leading up to and designing the guide, what questions are you going to ask, that takes a lot work, but once you are in the day it really starts to sing and I stopped worrying about being the expert in the room and suddenly everyone in the room was the expert and then the process went much better.

Kathryn: How interesting. So let me ask you a different aspect of that question. How has being involved in AI affected the way you live your life and out of that what could our listeners take away from this whole process and the principles that are involved in AI, what could they take away that would help them increase the tonnage of happiness in the world.

Shannon: Well one of the things I’ve taken away is I usually end an AI with the question, “What’s the smallest change you can make that would have the biggest impact?” And I think since its still January and people may have New Year’s resolutions on their mind I think that’s a great way to think about any goals that you’re setting, maybe even if it’s your goals for the day or could be your goals for the year is what’s the smallest thing you could do would have the biggest impact? Because we tend to think to implement whole system change and it takes so much work and our lives are so busy and for me I’ve revamped my New Year’s resolutions and instead of having a list of 20 things that I want to do, I have those 20 things, but I focus what are the top three things. The three things that can have the biggest impact and one of them is sleep. I realized that would have the biggest impact. Half an hour would have the biggest impact. The other thing is done is I have two children and my three-year-old at night instead of just having a story and going to bed or singing a song, I try to ask her what’s the best thing about your day, what was the best thing that happened? To orient her to what’s working and she doesn’t have the concept of time yet, so she’ll remember something from Christmas or New Years, but it gets her thinking about what was working during the day and hopefully will work as far as it, when she comes up with challenges at school, people who are challenging, well what are their strengths, what are they good at, how could you use your own strengths to work through the situation. So I’m trying to integrate it with my children as well.

Kathryn: Okay integrating it with your children who are small as seven years old that’s terrific. So are there any other ideas most of us are not going to be going to AI summits, but we go through our lives, we interact with our families, we interact with our team-workers, what are some of the small ways that some of these principles could show up in daily life.

Shannon: Well if you’re at work, one thing I also say is usually people have a lot of meetings whether it’s two persons meeting or group meetings and one thing I like to do is start and end the meeting with something that’s working. So opening with a question of “what was working this week, what went well this week”, to orient people towards things that are already going well as opposed to start, “alright what happened, what do we have to fix,” which tends to be the case. And the same thing with family members because I find that family members we tend to get into this rut of “well this person died, and Aunt Mary you know, she just had surgery,” so trying to have family interactions start off with how can you give positive feedback even, sort of like positive gossip, how do you start that, how do you have a holiday where you’re focusing on the strengths? I’ve had my family taken the strengths survey, try to do a strengths tree, so trying to integrate some of those little principles, positivity principle and what kinds of questions you asked. I think the principle of asking an unconditionally positive question is a great one because if you phrase it in a way that there’s no way to answer it in a negative way, if you say “how was your day”, you would be like, “well let me tell you about the…” If you ask “what was the best part of your day” then you’re forced to answer in a positive way.

Kathryn:  Ok and you have tried that out with your family small and large?

Shannon: I have.

Kathryn: And then what happened?

Shannon: It reoriented them and then my husband started to use it on me, so I would come home and say “can you believe what happened to me” and he would say “what was the best part of your day”, alright, touché’.

Kathryn: And then what happens when he asks that?

Shannon: And then what happens, when I get over the “ugh, he’s using my own principle to against me”, then I think OK what was the best part of my day and it is totally shifts my energy, shifts my mood and I spend less time ruminating on what didn’t go well.

Kathryn: Ok alright that sounds like definitely something to take home. So what’s next for you, what is your dream right now?

Shannon: Well I have some small steps and some dreams too. A small step is I’m giving a talk on Appreciative Inquiry to project managers so hopefully helping them figure out these similar things, how can they integrate this work into their lives. I love the Peter Drucker quote, who is the management guru, “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths that makes our systems’ weaknesses irrelevant” so my goal is how can I help people create an alignment of strengths that makes their weaknesses irrelevant and my big dream is doing larger AI summits, so doing AI summits on veteran hiring since we’re in DC. It would be fantastic to do one for the entire city of DC, considering some of the challenges our city has gone through recently. It would be great to bring everybody together and figure out what are our strengths and how can we leverage those.

Kathryn: I’ve got a possibility for you, why don’t you take on Congress? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could discover and dream and come up with a way for Congress to really work for us? So there you are in DC, maybe that’s in the back of your mind. So we’re just about to the end of our time. I would like to end with a question, what’s the most important thing that you would like for listeners to take away from today’s call? You know what I just realized I forgot a question that I really wanted to ask which is, Shannon what suggestions do you have for AI practitioners so you can leave the other question, leave it on the burner, but first let us know what you’d like to say to AI practitioners.

Shannon: Well practitioners or facilitators, trainers, coaches, one thing I would say is that the times where I have seen it work the best is when you get all of the stakeholders in the room and that means everyone who was even peripherally involved within an organization. So I did one for a school and said “we’d love to do an AI, but we don’t want to have the students there.” And I thought how is that going to work, the students are an integral part of the school and they refused. So I tried to do pre-summit interviews to get their voices in the room and in the end it was successful, but it wasn’t as successful as it could’ve been if we’d had everyone in the room. So I think that’s one thing I would say and the second is push for the most amount of time that you can, some say they can give you a day, we can only give you six hours, well only five hours and then at the end they were not happy that they didn’t quite get as many results as they wanted, but they kept cutting the time. So that’s the second thing. The final thing is follow-through. It’s really about following up on all of the groups and asking the stakeholders to jump in and to engage because you can have a great day where everyone is leaves and they are happy, but if you don’t follow up on what they need to do and what they are committed to it’s part of those action items done. So those are my few suggestions.

Kathryn: So something before, something during and then something after, but definitely the something after to make sure that the delivery actually happens. Alright thank you, so now I’m back to my last question, what would you most likely listeners to take away from this discussion?

Shannon: I think my suggestion would be to ask yourself what is the smallest change you could make that would have the biggest impact, so that’s your homework. And if you are at a loss, think of one question a day that you could frame as an unconditionally positive question. So either a question to ask yourself or a question to ask someone else in your life and just notice what the response is. So just one question a day that’s my take away. I think once you see the impact of that one question it will spur you on to do it more and more.

Kathryn: Thank you so much Shannon and thank you for bringing us all these ideas for World Happiness Day.

Shannon: Thanks so much.

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