A young entrepreneur who has created a successful recruitment consultancy tells me that he’s just failed to secure a potentially lucrative contract with a large company. He looks and sounds despondent, asking: “How come I blew it? What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I pitch X instead of Y?”

I suggest his line of questioning is digging him deeper and deeper into a very large hole. He needs different questions.

I know him to be energetic, dynamic and business-savvy. This latest development is a setback but not a disaster, and certainly not a reliable reflection of his talents. The kind of answers he was likely to generate in response to his own questions were hardly likely to make him feel any better or help him move forward. He was, in effect, launching into a self-disparaging inquiry. I suggest that he’d do better to ditch this Spanish Inquisition approach and embark instead on an Appreciative Inquiry.

Michelle McQuaid, a former student of Appreciative Inquiry’s founder David Cooperrider, argues that all of our actions are preceded by implicit questions. We get up in the mornings and as soon as we’re out of the bathroom, we’re checking our emails, implicitly guided by the question: “What must I get done today?”

However, what if we made a conscious effort to ask more “upward”, aspirational questions? What if we asked: “What important thing can I achieve today?” “What can I do today that’ll stretch my abilities and help me grow?” “How can I extend what I do well into new areas?”

The essence of Appreciative Inquiry is to break out of the problem-seeking mind-set, looking forwards at what could be but isn’t yet, not backwards at what went wrong. It harnesses an individual’s, team’s or organisation’s strengths to move forward rather than framing one’s tasks in terms of chipping away at defects.

I’ll say a little more about the process in part two.

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