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Ouch! Appreciative Inquiry without the appreciation. How easy is using a strengths-based approach?


“Do as I say, not as I do!” was an expression that I heard frequently when I was growing up. Adults behaved in one way but expected children to behave in another. I was reminded of this recently when I was on the receiving end of a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ in Appreciative Inquiry (who forgot to do the appreciation element). I will confess it was a painful experience…very painful...and afterwards I was crushed. I held it together whilst being questioned though I became defensive and disengaged. Seriously I just wanted the ‘appreciation’ to end so I could go home. What I had been seeking was some encouragement and the opportunity to explore some ideas. I reflected on this encounter and unpicked what were my issues and the things I needed to improve. I also considered the power, communication and relational issues of my inquirer. I wondered about how easy it is to use Appreciative Inquiry (or any other strengths-based questioning approach). Does my own inquiry of others lack appreciation? I started to take notice of how well other people actually used strengths-based questioning techniques. I also pondered on the impact on people who use services when practitioners struggle to focus on strengths. In this blog I will explore these things from a ‘non-expert’ position. I welcome other people’s thoughts and ideas so please do share them with me because it is through reflective critical dialogue we can learn from each other.

There is a proliferation of methods, approaches and theoretical constructs, based on a ‘strengths-based’ ethos, used in the fields of social work, education and health and social care. For example, Appreciative Inquiry, Motivational Interviewing, coaching, mentoring, Signs of Safety, and solution-focused, and so on. They all have distinctive individual features but they are underpinned by similarities. They have in common the use of encouraging people. They use questioning that seeks to ‘dig deeper’ and enable the person being questioned to identify their own strengths and solutions.

I’m a not in any way an expert but over many years I have been on a fair few training courses and I would consider myself an experienced practitioner who aims to work in a strengths-based way. I am a bit of a fan of Appreciative Inquiry. But, if I am honest, I expect I sometimes forget to be appreciative, to point out what’s good or helpful, or to keep focused on strengths. I am human and I have used my skills in complex situations. Life is messy. It rarely follows the text book path. Plus, if I am really honest, I know I am a natural leader (a nicer way of saying I can be bossy) and I easily give in to the temptation to offer advice or solutions. Funnily enough there are a lot of bossy teachers, social workers and helping professionals out there so there’s a fair chance many of my readers might also struggle to put into practice their ideals too.

My observations are that practitioners (despite their best intentions) can find it very hard to ask strengths-based questions or to reinforce positives. This is not that surprising in the context of practice settings that are deficit focussed. Organisations often want practitioners to practice in a strengths-based way but those in authority do not model the approach. The old "do what I say not what I do" authoritarian parent philosophy!

I recently spent some time thinking about creating some tools to reinforce the use of Signs of Safety in my work setting. How could practitioners be assisted to frame their questions towards identifying, and building on, the strengths of children and their families? I should thank my merciless inquisitor at this point because the experience had reminded me about the importance of practitioners experiencing any techniques they want to use in practice. I decided that practitioners need to feel the power and potential of questions. So I drew together the strengths-based questions being used by practitioners and added some of my own examples. I used these to create a number of activities based around some strengths-based question ‘cards’. Some of these activities can be used as five-minute starter, or finishers, to team meetings or training/reflective sessions. Others can be used for deeper learning in reflective supervision, practice education, or training. The cards were designed as a flexible training tool to be used in team meetings and reflective groups. Creative practitioners could easily adapt the activities to use in a range of health, social care and education settings. The cards and the activities are at the bottom of this blog. You are welcome to use them and I would be interested to hear how you get on.

In all areas of practice we should always remain focused on the people who receive our services. We need to be mindful of the impact being questioned, mentored, ‘helped’ can have (positively or negatively). Take a moment to reflect on the times your help has not been received well. Could it be that your focus drifted from strengths towards criticism, advice or old-fashioned bossiness? We are all work in progress and I have yet to meet the perfect practitioner. My experience of being questioned shows that even those who consider themselves experts might not be as good as they think they are! Whatever strengths-based method you choose to use I suggest anyone could improve by practising it with someone else. Try being the curious questioner, active listener, or appreciative inquirer with another. What do you notice about yourself or the person questioning/being questioned?

I wish I had the courage to feedback to my ‘appreciative’ inquisitor just how much I ‘appreciated’ her ‘support’. In reality I tried to keep my head down and adopt strategies for avoiding any further opportunities to be ‘appreciated’! My challenge to myself is to make sure my natural curiosity goes hand in hand with a focus on strengths. I will try not to fall into the “do what I say not what I do” style. I want to keep my bossiness in check and model Appreciative Inquiry with the appreciation element intact!

If you want to share your ideas with me, or respond to this blog, please do. You could always participate in a Twitter discussion @CarolineAldrid5

My thanks to the Signs of Safety practice leads in Norfolk for sharing the strengths-based questions they use.

ACTIVITIES USING STRENGTHS-BASED QUESTION CARDS

There are lots of different 10 – 45 minute ways to use these cards with practitioners to develop their practice. NB: They can be used in exactly the same way with service users!

Materials:

Print off the question cards (select one-side only printer option). Cut up, and laminate if you wish.

Aims:

  • To practice using strengths-based questions so they become familiar and come readily to mind.

  • To experience being asked strengths-based questions so that the practitioner can develop self-awareness and increased empathy with service-users.

  • To practice Appreciative Inquiry or active listening skills.

Instructions:

5-10 minute or ‘icebreaker’ activities

Activity Number 1

Each person selects a card randomly. In pairs they ask each other the question (this could be about themselves or a person/situation they are working with.

Give clear instructions about the approach you want the questioner to use. For example:

  • Do not to ask any questions and just listen.

  • or practise Appreciative Inquiry.

  • or, do not ask any questions but do validate what you have heard by reflecting back (paraphrasing) or using affirmative comments.

If there is time reflect back to the questioners something positive about the way they questioned/listened.

Activity Number 2

The facilitator chooses a card and asks everyone in the room the same question in turn.

This could give a positive start or end to any team meeting, reflective group or session.

NB: Think about the size of the group and whether you want to restrict the amount of answering time to keep the activity short.

25-45 minute activities

Activity Number 3

Each person selects a few cards randomly. In pairs they ask each other the questions (this could be about themselves or a person/situation they are working with (5-10 minutes each).

Give an instruction about the questioner’s approach. For example:

  • Do not to ask any questions and just listen.

  • or, practice Appreciative Inquiry.

  • or, do not ask any questions but do validate what you have heard by reflecting back (paraphrasing) or using affirmative comments.

Each person reflects back to the whole group something positive about the way they were questioned/listened to. This means everyone in the group receives some positive reinforcement of their skills (5 minutes).

In pairs, or as a whole group. discuss how it felt to be either questioned or questioner (5-10 minutes). Some facilitator prompt questions could be:

For the person being questioned-

  • How did it feel to be questioned?

  • How easy or difficult was it to stay focussed on strengths?

  • How comfortable did it feel to receive praise/positive affirmation?

  • How do you think it feels to be a service-user being asked strengths based questions?

For the questioner/listener-

  • How did it feel to use Appreciative Inquiry and keep digging deeper?

  • How did it feel not being able to ask questions?

  • How easy or difficult was it to use reflective paraphrasing and/or affirmative validating comments?

  • How easy or difficult was it not to offer advice/start directing?

  • Did you spot any times when your own values or assumptions impacted on your interactions?

Facilitator draws to a close by asking each person to think about what they have learnt from the activity and how they will use this in their practice (5 minutes). NB: if the group is large do this in pairs or small groups.

Activity Number 4

Use the cards to play a game in pairs, small groups or a whole group. People take turns to pick up a card and answer the question. This could be about themselves or someone they are working with. In a large group this might be one turn each but in a smaller one there could be time for several cards.

The facilitator leads a whole group discussion on how it felt to participate in this. Example questions are:

  • How did it feel to be questioned?

  • How easy or difficult was it to stay focussed on strengths?

  • How do you think it feels to be a service-user being asked strengths based questions?

  • How might you use these questions with service-users?

  • What difference did it make asking these questions as a game?

Activity number 5

NB: this is a ‘ranking’ activity which provokes deeper critical thinking.

In pairs sort the cards into the questions into 3 columns (10 minutes).

  • Questions the practitioners already ask regularly.

  • Questions that are sometimes asked.

  • Questions that have never been used or asked.

Next ask them to choose two questions from the ‘sometimes asked’ pile that they would like to use more often and two from the ‘never asked’ column that they would like to try (5 minutes).

The pairs feedback to the whole group and offer their rationale for their choices (5-10 minutes). NB: If the group is large pre-warn the participants that each pair will only have 2 minutes to share their ideas.

The facilitator leads a reflective discussion on the use of strengths based questions with the group (5 -10 minutes). Some prompt questions could include:

  • How wide or restricted do you feel your strengths based questioning is at present?

  • If 0 is: I don’t use any of these questions and 10 is: I regularly use a wide selection of these questions, where are you?

  • What could you do to increase the range of strengths based questions you use? Or, how could you move from your self-assessment on the scale to a number above?

  • Why does it matter that we ask a range of questions?

  • What would help you extend your strengths based questioning?

  • How could you help each other to extend strengths based questioning?

The group are challenged to go and try using their selected questions and ideally feedback at a future session.

The cards: These need printing in a large font.

What is working well?

Can you think of things you have done that helped things to go well?

What have you tried that has been helpful?

Tell me about how other people are helping you to make things go well?

Tell me about what a good day looks like for you? What makes it a good day?

What would be happening if things were working better for you?

What small thing could you do that would make a difference?

What are the things in your life that help you keep strong?

What achievements have you have made? How did you make them happen?

What are you most proud of in your life?

What do you find comes easily to you?

What inspires you?

What do you find you learn most easily?

What do you like doing? What makes this enjoyable?

What do you want to achieve in your life?

When things are going well in your life – tell me what is happening?

What would your family and friends say you were good at?

What do you value about yourself?

What would other people who know you, say you were good at doing?

What is one thing you could do to have better health, and feeling of wellbeing?

What do you think helps you bounce back?

How have you faced / overcome the challenges you have had?

How have people around you helped you overcome challenges?

What are three things that have helped you overcome obstacles?

Who is important in your life?

If you had the opportunity what would you like to teach others?

How would you describe the strengths, skills, and resources you have in your life?

What do you value about yourself and what are your greatest strengths?

What could you ask others to do, that would help create a better picture for you?

How could/do your strengths help you to be a part of your community?

What are three things that are going well in your life right now?

What gives you energy?

What would make you feel you are making a contribution?

When now, or in the past, have you felt like you are making a difference? How did you make this happen?

What makes you feel excited OR useful OR satisfied? Tell me about a time when you felt these feelings?

What is the most rewarding part of your life?

Do you know of anything else that would help you?

What interests you?

Tell me about a time when you responded to a challenge in a way that made you feel really on top of things?

Tell me about any creative, different solutions you have tried. How did this work out?

How have you, or how do you, meet your own needs?

What kind of supports have you used that have been helpful to you? How did that improve things for you?

Can you think of one small manageable step that would improve X for you?

What resources such as community, people, and equipment do you have now?

What do you like about (child/partner/

parent)?

What do you like most about yourself?

Who do you feel safest with?

Tell me about a time when you kept X safe?

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