Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement.

Conversations can be critical and destructive, or they can be generative and productive. This book shows how to guarantee your conversations will help people, organizations, and communities flourish. Conversations are at the core of how we interact. We all know that conversations influence us, but we rarely stop to think about how much impact they have on our well-being and our ability to thrive. This book shows how Appreciative Inquiry (AI)–one of the most widely used new approaches for fostering positive change for individuals, groups, organizations, and communities–can help everyone communicate better and flourish in all areas of their lives. Stavros and Torres spell out 2 practices and 5 principles to create great conversationsThis is a a very extensive summary of their excellent book.

Sometimes the greatest adventure is simply a conversation. 
– Amadeus Wolfe –

For more information: 
Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement
Authors: Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres (introduction by David L. Cooperrider)
Publisher: Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2018
Click on: (Dutch: Managementboek)

(English: Amazon): 

1. Introduction
When you think of conversations worth having, think of engagement, interweaving, co-creation, inspiration, respect, illumination, emergence, enriched, relationships, trust, empathy, and bringing out the best: think legacy.

This book represents a breakthrough in the combined fields of Appreciative Inquiry and Peter Drucker-like strenght-based management, positive psychology and design thinking. To demonstrate this, think about the classical problem solving thinking which can be captured in the metaphor that “the-world-is-a-problem-to-be-solved” – which almost atomatically triggers a deficit-analytic search into breakdowns, gapsm and root causes of failure and places most of our attention on yesterday. We might consider instead an assumption that organizations are living systems, alive, embedded in “universes of strenghts”. 

So what happens when we search for the appreciable world, which is always larger tham our normal appreciative capacity, one where the starting assumption is this: 

It is not only that we live in a universe of strengths and unlimited human imaginations, but surrounding every change situation we are part of – wether interna lto the system or externa lto the system – there exists the strength combinations and innovation potentials, including concious shifts, greater than any organizational challenge or oppertunity we will ever face. 

Complexity science describes the concept of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, which can turn tiny snowballs into mountains of avalanches. Small beginnings can have huge consequences. So appreciative inquiry helps you seeing beyond a problem and invites you to a search that creates an empowering environment, one that has a high-strenghts density and a prospective, future forming power. What does that mean in conversations? As David Cooperrider once said: “We change best when we are strongest and most positive, not when we feel the weakest, mist negative, or helpless.” Focussing on what somebody’s weaknesses and h/sje does wrong, is not very effective in change processes. So, efore you start a conversation think about creating a positive frame work.

Imagine you work in a hospital and you have to deal with patient satisfactions. Wonder, if some of the patients felt highly satisfied. If they were, why? What were their stories? What was the staff who cared for them doing that made a difference? What happens when I see the staff themselves as problems and change that in seeing their actions as possibilities? What are questions you can ask to inspire new ways of thinking and possibilities? It helps you find out how appreciation and inquiry enhance relationships, as well as productivity and performance. The nature of our conversations determines our well-being and our capacity to thrive.

2. What Kind of Conversations Are You Having? 

“The moment of questioning somebody in conversations is also the moment of choice., which holds the greatest leverage for effective action and positive change”, Marilee Goldberg wrote. 

Have you ever been in a great mood and having a really good day when a short interaction with somebody turned the whole thing sour? Or tot the other way aroud. You were having a lousy day and a simple conversation suddenly brightened your outlook. The type of conversations you have with people around you has a profound impact on your experiences., relationships and accomplishments. So what is it that createst he kind of conversations worth having? In general conversations have two dimensions: (1) appreciative – depreciative and (2) inquiry statement.

Table 1: The Nature of Conversations

The Nature of Conversations




Conversations Worth Having

Affirmative Conversations


Critical Conversations

Destructive Conversations

The first dimension describes the nature of our conversations as either appreciative (adding value) or depreciative (devaluing).

  • Adding value can be given to a situation, person, or opportunity by sharing ideas, augmenting other people’s contributions, suggesting possibilities, pointing out opportunities, responding to questions with new perspectives.

  • Devaluing shows up in conversations when someone belittles other people’s ideas, criticizes others’ contributions, advocates for their own ideas without listening to others, continually points out reasons why things will not work, drives a singular focus, dominates the interactions without making room for others to speak, interrupts or cuts people off, ignores contributions and complaints.

  • Inquiry based remarks are questions that aim to generate information; reveal hidden assumptions, perspectives, or knowledge; expand awareness; make room for the emergence of possibility or opportunity; deepens understanding; or initiate change.

  • Questions can, on the other hand, arise from a place of judgement or criticism. They are depreciative in nature. Think back to a time when you or someone else asked questions that left you feeling disempowered or critiqued.

  • Then there are statement-based interactions. These comments can add value (affirmative statements) when people say positive things and advocating in ways that contribute orn point to important factors, or can devalue (destructive statements).

We can recognize conversations worth having by their tone and direction. They are: 

* Meaningful 
* Mutually enliving and engaging 
* Geared to generation information, knowledge and possibility 
* Solution- or outcome focuses 
* Uplifting and energizing 
* Positive 
* productive 

Unfortunately, this is not the nature of many of the conversations we engage in day to day, nor is it the nature of most of the conversations being broadcast in the media. Over time, depreciative conversations destroy our sense of well-being and eclipse our potential to contribute.

Destructive conversations often take the form of any of the following:

  • General deficit-based narrative: blaming, disempowering, claiming authority, or otherwise minimizing the worth of others
  • Arguing or debating, without listening to one another
  • Bullying
  • Commanding and controlling
  • Strict advocacy, with no inquiry into what others are thinking.

Almost the opposite is true of affirmative conversations. They center on the following:

  • Genuine (mutual) admiration
  • Acknowledgement
  • Feedforward
  • Motivation/encouragement
  • Positive advocacy

Exercise: Take a few minutes and think about times you have been engaged in each of these types of conversations. Where did your conversation take you (direction) and how did you feel (tone)? 

3. Two Simple Appeciative Practices 

We start with a quote from William Greider: “Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community can make is to begin with other people as though the answers mattered.” 

Each practice you apply, can alter tone and the direction. 

Positive framing 
A positive frame draws people in and inspires curiosity, imagination and interest. You can apply positive framing to almost any situation, conversation, evaluation process, meeting agenda, planning process, interview, or interaction. Positive framing is about intentionally shaping a conversation that invites engagement and produces positive outcomes.

Table 2: How Positive Framing Draws People In and Inspires Engagement

A Positive Frame…   Inspires Curiosity, Imagination, and Engagement

Our employees feel valued, and each of them collaborates with a highly productive team

  • I want to work there! What company is this?
  • How do you know employees feel valued?
  • What contributes to feeling valued?
  • What makes them productive?
  • How can we do more of what you do, so or employees have the same experience?
  • Imagine what it would be like if that were the case here?

Employees look forward to their quarterly performance reviews

  • Really? Why? What goes on in your reviews that employees like them?
  • What would happen form my employees to look forward to these conversations?

Let’s plan our vacation so each of us feels it was our best vacation yet!

  • That sounds awesome. I want to spend lots of time on the water!
  • Does it matter what kind of water? Because I love to go tot he beach.
  • How does everyone feel about seeing a few shows?

Our students thrive, regardless of whose class they are in.

  • How is that possible?
  • What do you mean by “thrive”?
  • What do you do to help them thrive?
  • How do you get all teachers and students on board?
  • How can we spread this to all our schools?
  • I want my children enrolled in your school!

In our town, we’re talking across all sorts of divides: racial, gender, and political. And we’re finding ways we can all live together well.

  • How did you do that?
  • How did you get people to the table?
  • What do you talk about?
  • We’re trying to do that but we’re bumping up against fear and resentment. How did you get beyond that?
  • Who helped lead this?

Imagine that after five years we could say that we’ve made great strides in reducingour environmental footprint each year.

  • I’m up for that!
  • Where shall we start?
  • My department has already been trying to do this. I can sharewhat we’ve been doing.
  • We may need some political changes. Anyone interested in focusing on those?
  • How do we get people engaged and committed?
  • What can the city/management do to set a high standard?
  • How are we going to measure success?
  • I wonder what other cities/organizations have done?

When, in a conversation, somebody starts with a problem-oriented or negative focus of attention, simply reframe the focus. This can be done with a technique called flipping.

Flipping has three steps:

Step 1: Name it. 
What is the problem, complaint or the thing you don’t want
(‘Melissa is routinely late and misses het deadlines’).
Step 2: Flip it. 
What is the positive outcome, the thing you do want? 
(‘Melissa is routinely on time and meets deadlines’).
Step 3: Frame it. 
What is the positive impact if the flip where to be true? What is the desired outcome?

(‘The team has a strong sense of cohesion: performance improves while trust, mutual respect and collaborationare solid. All thes help us sustain excellence’) Notice that the steps to reframing from problem to positive frame are stimulated by generative questions. Especially the move from positive opposite tot he new frame. Generative questions do the following: 

  • They make room for diverse and different perspectives“How do you see it?”

  • They surface new information and knowledge“How did they manage this process at your previous plant?”

  • They stimulate creativity and innovation: “What might be possible if we merge marketing and development?”

  • Generative questions focus on the best what is and what might be. The result: new ways for solving complex problems and compelling images for collective action.

Table 3: Examples of Generative Questions

What Your Qestion Can Do


Elicit information, stories, ideas, and perspectives

When are patients satisfied? How do we know that….? Can you tell me more about….

Allow strenghts to show up

How did you do that? How might each of you contribute tot he success of this venture?

Surface best practices and elements of success

What best practices in the industry are you familiar with?

Move towards solutions or to information and data that inform possible solutions

What are mothers of healhtier children doing? Where do we find these mothers? How can we find these mothers?

Identify new ways of thinking, new possibilities, opportunities, and aspirations

As you think about thriving digital communities, what do they have what we need if we are to develop a thriving digital economy?

Inform what you might do, the results you might want

Question from a mother to a son: What can we do that allows you the car and me my sense of peace?

Make room for new knowledge, creativity, and innovation

Forget completely about how we have done this in the past. If you were designing it today, what would you do?

Deepen connection

How do you see it? What’s important to you about this project?

Strenghten relationships

Can you say more about what you mean when you say there’s no opportunity for you here? What are possible opportunities you are seeking?

Engage those on the sidelines

What do you think, Elizabeth?

Generate understanding

Can you say more about what you are thinking? Help me understand your perspective.

As you begin playing with positive framing and generative questions, ask yourself: “Does what I am about to say add value? Am I fueling productivity and engagement? Am I initiating an appreciative tone, and do my questions move us in a positive direction?”

What you can do is to begin with positive framing and then ask generative questions, or you can start with a generative question that naturally creates a positive frame, or you can ask a generative question in the midst of a negative interaction to turn that conversation around. Try positive framing and asking generative questions wherever you can. Pay attention to outcomes. You will see that these two practices facilitate effective and efficient change for you and others in your family, organization and community. 

4. What’s driving your communication? 

“Each person’s life is lives as a series of conversations”, wrote Deborah Tannen.

However, if we are not aware of what driving our conversations, it is much more difficult to practice positive framing and generative questions. Fortunately, David Cooperrider has identified a set of explicit principles – the Appreciative Inquiry Principles – that underlie your success with the two practices. These principles can guide your awareness, strengthening your capacity for engaging in conversations worth having. The five principles are as follows

  1. Constructionist Principle 
    Understanding, interpersonal dynamics, and ultimately our social reality are created through language and in conversation. 

    -> What we believe to be true is informed by and through our conversations. 

    Advise for conversations worth having: If the way we talk together influences understanding, interpersonal dynamics, and teams, departments, and organizations, then it makes sense to hold our beliefs lightly and to ask questions and make room for both new knowledge and new meaning

    Playing by this principle means: 
    * Reflecting on the meaning you are bringing to an interaction. 
    * Choosing to hold your viewpoint llightly and staying open. 
    * Choosing words that allow for the creation of new meaning and understanding with others. (Keep in mind: words create worlds).

  2. Simultaneity Principle 
    Change happens the moment a question is asked or a statement is made.

    -> As words are spoken, our mind, body, and emotions react in a split second. Advise for conversations worth having: If our perceptions and experience change instantaneously in respons to how we use or interpret new words and actions, then it makes sense to stay open and ask questions

    Playing by this principle means: 
    * Being mindfull of your words, and choosing language that aligns with your intentions. 
    * Paying attention to how your words are affecting yourself and others
    * Asking generative questions to clarify others people’s intention behind their words, instead of simply reacting to them.

  3. Poetic Principle
    Every person, organization, or situation can be seen and understood from many perspectives. 

    -> There is no ONE thruth about any person, situation, or organization. Thruth depends on perception and focus of attention. Advise for conversations worth having: If our beliefs and the stories we make up about people and situations influence how we understand and how we act, then it makes sense to talk about and pay attention to what’s working, what’s best and what’s possible.

    Playing by this principle means:
    * Staying open and avoid judgement. 
    * Recognizing that what you are focused on is only part of the picture. 
    * Attending to possibilities (instead of delving deeply into “fixing” things), moments of joy, (instead of ruminating on fear or worry), and sources of energy and momentum (instead of inertia).

  4. Anticipatory Principle
    The images and thoughts we hold influence our conversation and affect our future. 

    -> Whatever we are anticipating, we are likely to encounter. Our expectations inform what we look for, what we see, and what we hear

    Advise for conversations worth having: If our expectations influence what we see, hear, and do, then it makes sense to stay open, anticipate the best from others, and expect to be pleasantly surprised.

    Playing by this principle means:
    * Expecting positive outcomes. 
    * Anticipating what you want instead of fearing what you don’t want. 
    * Looking fort he opportunity, the good, the true, and the beautiful.

  5. Positive Principle 
    The more positive and generative the question, the more positive and long-lasting the outcome. 

    -> Our questions inspire images, and imagery compels action. 

    Advise for conversations worth having
    : If our words and the questions we ask have tone and direction that engender imagery, then it makes sense to ask the most generative and inspiring questions we can, and to stimulate positive images of what we want more of. (What was the best thing that happend today?) 

    Playing by this principle means:
    * Asking bold, generative questions that elicit strong, affirmative images of possibility.

The heart of Appreciative Inquiry consists of the cooperative search for the best (practices) in people, their organizations and the world around them. Solving tough problems from that perspective results in creative solutions, which is life-giving for people. 

5. Scaling Up Great Conversations 

Imagine the potential for organizations and communities if we could have those kind of conversations with the whole system? Contrary to what research would have us believe, these powerful whole-systems conversations have taken place with 50, 100, even 4500 people at the same time. It is actually made possible because the appreciative inquiry are formalized in a structured process that catalyzes whole-system conversations worth having. The process is called the Appreciative Inquiry 5-D Cycle, named for its five phases: Define, Discover, Dream, Design and Deploy. 

In “Define”, use positive framing to clarify the task or focus for the inquiry and to create generative questions that will be asked in this phase. Some general questions as an example are:

  • What gives life to you now?
  • What is a high point or peak experience in your life or work up to now?
  • What do you value the most about yourself in your work?
  • What do you value the most in your relationships?
  • What do you value the most in the nature of your work?
  • What one or two things do you want more of?

Another example:

  • Describe a high-point experience working as a team in your organization. A time when you felt most alive and engaged as a member of the team.
  • What do you value the most about yourself in your work?
  • What do you value the most in your relationships?
  • What do you value the most in the nature of your work?
  • When our team is at its best, what are the core factors (our strenghts) that give it life, without which the center would simply not be at its best. 
  • Imagine that three years from now the team has improved significantly. Describe in which we work together as a team and how that has enabled the team to contribute to the organization’s success. 
  • What three wishes do you have to strenghten our teamor the organization itself?

Table 4: Five Classic Questions for an Appreciative Inquiry

The first three questions focus on the best of what is.

  1. What would you describe as a high point experience in your organization?
  2. What do you value most about yourself, your work and your organization?
  3. What gives life to your organization?

The next question focusses on what might be, of possibilities.

  1. Imagine that it’s three years later, and everything you even thought possible is happening at your organization. What’s going on? How have things changed?

The final question helps transition to what can be.

  1. What three wishes do you have to enhance the health and vitality of your organization?

In “Discover”, engage first in one-to-one interviews and then in small group discussions, based on questions crafted in the define phase. The purpose of this phase is to identify the group’s strenghts, which is the positive core of their system, along with their purpose and possibilities for the future. 

In the group discussions, first share (without discussing) the highlights of your partner’s answer to the questions and what stood out for you in these answers. Capture these ideas and make them visible. After everyone has shared, have a conversation as a group about key themes that emerged. Identify important values and strenghts. Then, based on the important values and strenghts, write a brief but focused mission statement.

In “Dream”, create shared images of the future, present them in creative and imaginative ways, and write vision statements. Do ‘as if you are in this future’. Keep in mind that (positive) imagery is compelling, as proven by research. And that positive affects have positive effects. Positive framing is correlated with our capacity to thrive. 

In “Design” develop paths or prototype(s) for ways to move towards the group’s vision, leveraging the positive core and staying focussed on the mission of the group. Questions in this phase can be:

  • How will we make this happen?
  • At this moment, what can we design rapidly and test with our colleagues?
  • What’s the story we would like to tell about how we will do this?
  • If we were creating a business to do only this thing, what would that business be, and what product or service would it provide?

In “Deploy”, further develop the paths or prototype(s) and adopt a learning mindset. This will help the group to move towards their desired future, and learn and adapt when moving foreward by continuously engaging in worthwhile conversations. 

Table 5: Appreciative Inquiry 5-D Cycle: Phases and Activities

5 D Cycle


Phase 1: Define

  1. Frame the task.
  2. Craft the interview guide and small group discussions.
  3. Design how to implement phases 2-5.

Phase 2: Discover

  1. Engage in 1-to-1 interviews, using the guide.
  2. Share and analyze the stories in small groups, identifying the positive core, oppertunities, and possibilities.

Phase 3: Dream

  1. Envision the future grounded in the positive core.
  2. Create shared images that ignite your sensory imagination.
  3. Craft word images that align with the visual images.

Phase 4: Design

  1. Generate (How) possibilities for achieving the dream.
  2. Craft possible statements.
  3. Engage in rapid prototyping.

Phase 5: Deploy

  1. Craft action plans.
  2. Enlist champions and commitment.
  3. Take action.
  4. Engage in cycles of prototyping and learning.
  5. Value (not evaluate) the progress that has been made and inquire into what made it possible.

So, at the end of this summary, keep in mind, as the authors of this excellent book write: 

  • Ideas, words, and actions have impact. Be mindful how you use them in your conversations so that they have the impact you want.

  • Conversations create images, which in turn create a blueprint for our future. Create the most positive images by asking the most generative questions.

  • You have always many options for a conversation (critical, destructive, affirmative and great). Make choices that generate conversations worth having.

  • Nothing is static. Everything is dynamic and fluid. It’s not about you. And it’s not about the other. Rather it’s about the intersection of the two – the conversation – that can change a heartbeat.

We live in worlds our conversations create.
– David Cooperrider – 

For more information about this book and its authors, go to 

Max Herold 
June, 2019