Appreciative Inquiry and the power of questions

Questions are essential within the perspective of Appreciative Inquiry. The questions we ask ourselves – as a person or a system – determine the direction towards which we develop ourselves. What sort of questions can then help to facilitate a movement towards the desired direction?


The craftsmanship of designing questions

The other day I heard an anecdote about David Coopperrider, one of the main thinkers on Appreciative Inquiry, who spent three months on thinking up a question to open up a conversation between religious leaders from all over the world. The question he ended up giving them was: ‘Can you tell me something about the moment you knew you wanted to live your life in service of religion?’. In an Appreciative Inquiry process it is typically not the facilitator – in this case Cooperrider – who asks this question to the group. Rather people are invited to talk about this question in pairs or small groups. The craftsmanship of the Appreciative Inquiry practitioner is exactly that of thinking of and crafting exactly that question that will hopefully create some sort of shift – and to let the people that are actually touched by the topic or change enter into a conversation about it.


Generative questions

Gervase Bushe and Ron Fry use the term ‘generative questions’ in this context. According to them, these types of questions have four characteristics that can be found in Cooperrider’s question as well if you try to imagine the conversation the religious leaders were having:

  • The question creates a connection between the people who are having a conversation about the question;
  • The question is surprising;
  • The question touches not just the head, but also the heart;
  • The question causes a shift in thinking or creates a new perspective.


When you read those four characteristics it is all of a sudden less surprising that it took Cooperrider quite some time to come up with a question that aims to do all of the above. With these four characteristics at hand, you can craft your own generative questions as well. An exercise that can be quite challenging – it does not necessarily have to take three months, but I do regularly spend days walking around with a potential question at the back of my mind, before I have the feeling that it is quite right.


Asking questions in the moment

Of course you can’t spend that much time on every question you ask. There are a lot of situations in which it seems more natural to think of which question to ask in the actual moment at hand. Out of curiosity or genuine interest in someone else. Or because you think that exactly that question will help the person(s) with whom you are talking. This way of questioning almost requires a different kind of craftsmanship. That of sensing what is needed or helpful at a particular moment and the art of formulating a question based on that feeling. Most of us go through this process unconsciously, though it can help to keep in mind the different sort of questions you can ask and the effect they have on the person(s) you ask that question to. You can think in terms of ‘closed’ or ‘open’ questions, or suggestive questions. Or questions that close down or open up possibilities in thinking. You could also think of different types of questions depending on your intention with the question, such as:

  • Curious questions (For example: I am really curious to learn more about how you are doing this together, can you tell me more about it?)
  • Confronting questions (For example: What makes you do something different than what you were talking about just now?)
  • Appreciative questions (For example: What made it possible for you to achieve this? What does that say about what you are good at?)
  • Action-oriented questions (For example: What is then the first thing you are going to do differently tomorrow?)
  • .....



Question and answer?

In the thinking of Appreciative Inquiry, asking questions is just as or even more important than obtaining answers. You could even say that it is not so much about searching for ‘the answer’, but more about an inquiry-based way of working and thinking, which partly consists of the practice of continuously asking questions. Or in other words, to engage in some sort of inquiry process. This can both be a personal inquiry or an inquiry of a bigger system. The art is in carrying that inquiry question with you and to play and experiment with it. Or in the words of the German poet Reiner Maria Rilke: “Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”