In a seminal paper of 1978, the social psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen argued that normal scientific assumptions couldn’t be applied to the study of human relationships; they simply couldn’t achieve the prediction and control they’d accomplished in the so-called “hard” physical sciences. Instead, he believed that social science should be driven by its “generative capacity,” which he described as the “…capacity to challenge the guiding assumptions of the culture, to raise fundamental questions regarding contemporary social life, to foster reconsideration of that which is ‘taken for granted’ and thereby furnish new alternatives for social actions.”

What we call reality is usually made up of our metaphors of reality and, by using different metaphors – the kind of generative metaphors to which Gergen alluded – we become able to see things in completely novel ways.

When Gervase Bushe worked with the Dalai Lama’s Centre for Peace and Education’s “Compassionate Communities” project in Vancouver, he collaborated with a local community project on an AI exercise aimed at increasing low-income parents’ interest in fostering greater compassion and emotional intelligence in their children. When these parents participated (many were refugees and immigrants), they spontaneously shared harrowing stories – well outside the definition of “positive” – about their experiences of war-torn and despotic countries. Astonishingly, the exercise proved stunningly generative and attracted vastly more parents than the planners had anticipated.

When Appreciative Inquiry increases the willingness and ability of people to imagine (and open up) new possibilities together, when it results in one or two new ideas that virtually compel people to act in new ways that are beneficial to them, it’s a generative process that continually expands the participants’ own generative capacities (ideas like this keep getting talked about, shifting the discourse into a new pattern as people literally live it out).

Experiencing positive emotions during AI clearly helps the process along, but by embracing the principles of generativity, people become equipped to face and share the anxieties as well as the pleasures of novelty and change.

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