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An appreciation of ‘appreciative encouragers’. And a pair of fabulous boots!

What is an ‘appreciative encourager’? I googled it and got no hits. Zilch. I got ‘positive encourager’, ‘appreciative inquiry’, ‘encourager’ but no ‘appreciative encourager’. Slight panic moment… last week I had used the term at a Research in Practice Conference on supervision where I had co-facilitated a workshop. The conference was amazing and I felt privileged to be asked to contribute. But…panic, panic…what if the ideas I shared were not correct, substantial, evidenced??? Some of the speakers were experienced and highly respected academics and practice leaders. The people whose research and writing has informed my practice. What if my use of ‘appreciative encourager’ is like the words my children created…bouncealine, hair-pretties, tall-chair, bsgettie? Terms that only make sense to the user (or those very close to them).

In this blog I shall reflect on what I understand an appreciative encourager to be, why we need them, and how that fits with the ideas and evidence presented. I shall talk about some of the appreciative encouragers in my life, the rewards of being one, and the possible impact on others.

So What is an ‘appreciative encourager’? It’s the term I came up with to describe what I had observed (and been doing when facilitating the What Works Practice Learning Circle). It’s a hybrid of many things…and I have found it really difficult to define. At the RiP conference David Wilkins described ‘something magic’ that can happen in supervision that makes you feel ‘tingly’ but you just can’t quite pin down what that is. When there's appreciative encouragement taking place it can feel very tingly!

It could be described as…

A curious and empathic person, who notices and values the strengths and positive attributes or skills of another, and offers constructive feedback or support, with a view to enabling people to have the confidence and/or motivation to develop.

But that’s a bit clunky.

It is: purposeful, relational, strengths-based, emotionally-containing, reflective, motivational, positive, nuanced, developmental, generous, hopeful, aspirational, realistic and supportive.

It is not: patronising, superficial, precious, defensive, bossy, dismissive, destructive, procedural or vacuous praise.

An appreciative encourager can still challenge but they do this by ‘connection not correction’ (a concept Dan Hughes uses).

Hopefully by the time I have articulated my thoughts my readers will be in a position to help me… If I have stolen the term ‘appreciative encourager’ please someone tell me, and direct me to links, so I can credit appropriately. If not, I am claiming the term! And if it is mine, I want to share it!

I have blogged before on the importance of encouragement (Noticing and encouraging ‘sparks’: How can social workers and educators empower others to grow and develop?), or using Appreciative Inquiry (Ouch! Appreciative Inquiry without the appreciation. How easy is it to adopt a strengths-based approach?). So I guess these ideas are important to me.

Back-tracking slightly here - I only got into blogging, which led to being invited to the RiP conference yesterday, because I had connected with like-minded people on Twitter. People who offered appreciative encouragement to me. People who probably have no idea how influential they have been in helping me develop my ideas and the confidence to share them. One of the joys of going to the conference was actually meeting some of these people in person. This is where the boots come in… On the way to the conference my colleague and I stopped for lunch and I purchased (on impulse) a pair of bright and unusual boots. Amongst the pre-conference tweeting was some sharing of fabulous shoe pictures. This led me to being identified by my footwear!

Some of the people who have shown appreciation of my practice, writing, or the tools I have created, have no idea how important their input has been. Their professional curiosity, coupled with their positivity, has enabled me learn, develop and grow. These are generally people whose attitude towards others is to naturally warm. They notice and comment on the things they like or agree with. They offer unsolicited positive feedback. They ask questions that dig deeper but in a constructive and positive way. They intuitively build others up rather than knocking them down. Sometimes their actions have been the catalyst for me in taking the next brave step. To try on new and different ‘boots’ ...and be brave enough to wear them in public.

For example, Amanda Taylor (@AMLTaylor66) generously encourages people to use digital technologies. Her liberal ‘well dones’, when I have had a go at something new, coupled with her willingness to share information and answer questions, has been hugely influential on me. Without Amanda there would be no blog! Yet I have never met Amanda. We have talked on the phone and every time I have been left feeling energised and motivated. Another is Alison Domakin (@Alison Domakin) who I met briefly in person for the first time last week. Alison’s feedback on my blogs was pure appreciative encouragement. It was Alison’s ‘you should write a book’ that was the final prompt I needed to start writing one. She followed this up with offers of support in writing a book proposal and contacting editors… Watch this space…

How does this fit with the RiP conference on supervision?

Pretty much every speaker said something that affirmed the importance of relational, emotionally containing, strengths-based ways of supervising people.

Penny Sturt (@practicematters) described how ‘you can do a lot in 10 minutes’ if you convey the message ‘I’m interested in you’. I agree with that. It’s not been the quantity of supervision, but the quality, that makes an impact on my practice.

When I was a newly qualified social worker I can remember describing my supervision as being like ‘speed dating’. I did the maths and it was about a minute per case each time. Bare procedural bones. There was very little appreciation, or acknowledgement, of my strengths or what I was doing well. What I wanted was a ‘date’. I wanted to sit down and spend quality time with someone who I was building a relationship with. I wanted to discuss in depth my worries and aspirations. What kept me going was the informal supervision from peers and experienced practitioners. Those ‘appreciative encouragers’ who noticed and supported their team members. Throughout my career I have encountered colleagues who are irrepressible appreciative encouragers. They model good practice and inspire others. There are too many to mention.

I’ve not done ground breaking research but my ideas are built on the foundations of those who have. I’m pragmatic and when a theory or model suggests we should practice, or behave, in a certain way I try to find creative ways to help people do those things. I enjoy creating the tools to help practitioners to apply the theories. The response to the workshop I co-facilitated was heartening. The groups were engaged and I observed plenty of ‘appreciative encouragement’ astray tried out the What Works Practice Learning Circle. The passion for practice was palpable. There was a buzz of positivity and possibilities.

A theme running through the day was working with trauma. Any professionals who work with people who are experiencing trauma can vicariously experience it too. I was fascinated to hear about the project offering supervision to police officers and their rationale behind it. Ola Sijuwade talked about how working with trauma means we can lose hope. I think appreciative encouragers can create a sense of hope.

The day closed with a video of Annie (@survivecourt). When I listen to Annie I imagine what it might be like to stand in her shoes. Annie talked eloquently about her experiences of having social worker involvement in her life. She reminded us all that what the professional ‘brings into my lounge mirrors what goes on in your organisation’. She described the invisible guiding hand of supervisors that enable social workers ‘treat families humanely and with respect’.

Like Gillian Ruch’s ‘chains of containment’, there seem to me to be chains of appreciative encouragers. Sometimes these are invisible. The appreciative encouragement I have received has cascaded through the students and practitioners I have worked with and, hopefully, to the people we serve. Invisible positive threads that connect us.

My conference day ended by several hours of appreciative encouragement from my lovely colleague @McgoughSandra. Without her there would be no What Works Practice Learning Circle.

We all need to be appreciated and encouraged. I would love to hear other people’s ideas and experiences about this.

You can contact me via email caroline.aldridgeSW@yahoo.comor Twitter @CarolineAldrid5

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