Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Andy Smith (UK)

A while ago I was interviewing a fellow coach for some research I was doing in creating an online course. Later that day I was pleasantly surprised to see that she had posted on her Facebook page: ‘What an amazingly enlightening conversation I had this morning! Forever grateful, truly!’ Her life-affirming revelation had sprung from one question that I had asked her: ‘Tell me about one of the best experiences of your professional life.’ What was so powerful about this question?

Psychologists characterise motivation as either ‘approach’ (reward) or ‘avoid’ (threat). It’s easier to trigger the ‘threat’ response than the ‘reward’ response, especially if a coaching client is already feeling anxious or down. Many commonly-used coaching questions, such as ‘what stops you?’, ‘why haven’t you achieved that goal already?’, and ‘what prevents you from being at your best?’ focus on the negatives of a situation and can easily set off ‘avoid’ rather than ‘approach’ motivation.

I’m not suggesting that coaching should be all about the positives, merely that you may get better results for your clients if you first ask them questions that remind them about their strengths, qualities, achievements and what motivates them. This gets them to a place where they can view problems in perspective, and find it much easier to come up with creative ways of solving them.

The best model I have found for achieving this Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a method of change that works not by focusing on problems and trying to find their causes, but rather by looking for what’s already working and doing more of that. Developed by Dr David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University in the mid-eighties, AI grew of out the field of organisational change, but can also be applied to one-to-one coaching.

To get started with using AI, you just need to act as if these assumptions, widely shared among coaches, are true:

  • In every group or individual’s performance, some things are working
  • We get more of what we focus on – so let’s focus on what’s working to get more of that
  • The language we use, and the questions we ask, create our reality.

The most common model for applying AI is the 4D model, standing for Discovery (of what’s already working), Dream (envisioning the ideal future), Design (creating options for how to get there), and Destiny or Delivery (planning and implementing the changes you want to make).

When it also shows the preliminary step of Defining the ‘affirmative topic’ (setting the frame for the inquiry), it becomes the 5D model.

In this article I want to focus on the most distinctive features of AI, which are also the most immediately useable for coaches – the affirmative topic and the appreciative interview.

Most coaching starts with a problem that the coachee wants to solve, or a performance gap they want to improve. If we use that as the frame for our inquiry, we will learn a lot about the problem, its symptoms and its causes, but not necessarily much about solutions. By contrast, the affirmative topic focuses on what we want instead of the problem. I have found that ‘How do I <what I want instead of the problem>?’ is a good structure for formulating the affirmative topic, as it does not assume a particular route to a solution. For example, if someone wants to improve their time management, ‘How do I manage my time better?’ is a more productive avenue of inquiry than ‘Why am I so bad at time management?’

Having set the frame for our coaching with the topic definition, we can now turn to finding what’s working in relation to the topic, and where solutions are already happening, even if only partially. In Appreciative Inquiry we are not interested in assessing average performance; rather, we are looking for the times of exceptionally good performance, what the coachee was doing differently then, and what conditions were in place that made it possible.

The chances are, if the coachee is feeling helpless because they are faced with a seemingly overwhelming problem, they will forget about the skills and resources they have that would help them solve the problem. The easiest way to help them regain access to a more resourceful emotional state is to ask them to tell you about a time or times when they showed the qualities needed to overcome a similar situation.

A typical appreciative interview might use these questions:

  1. Tell me about one of your best experiences relative to <topic> – a time when you were at your best, when you felt fully alive, and in the right place?
  2. What’s really important about this experience? What do you value most about it?
  3. What made this experience possible? What conditions were in place that enabled it to happen?
  4. If you had one wish for yourself in relation to <topic>, what would it be?

What you are looking for here is a story, not a detached overview. You will know when you are doing a good interview when you see the coachee start to relive the experience, feeling the same emotions they felt then (you will know when you’re doing a really good interview when you yourself start to feel some of those same emotions).

Telling the story puts the coachee into a more positive emotional state – a state that will help them think more quickly, see the big picture more easily, and become more resilient (Barbara Fredrickson, (2003). The Value of Positive Emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330-335). The coachee will feel more capable of dealing with whatever problems they face.

Each follow-up question has an important role. Question 2 starts bringing out their values, helping to ensure than whatever ideas they come up with in subsequent stages of the process will be in line with their motivations.

Question 3 recalls information about the conditions in place and what they were doing at the time that resulted in success. If they can put those conditions in place and act that way more often now, that will allow good performance to happen more often.

Finally, the ‘one wish’ question forms a bridge to the future, and primes the coachee for constructing their ideal vision of the future in the Dream stage.

The emphasis on finding what’s good in current and past experience before you look at the desired future is what really distinctive about AI, making it easier for the coachee to construct their future vision than starting with an intimidating ‘blank page’. It also makes the vision easier to believe in, because the coachee will have reference experiences of aspects of it already happening, even if only partially.

The further we go round, the remaining stages of the cycle, the closer AI gets to conventional coaching. The Dream stage is about what it would be like in the ideal world, if everything you wish for in relation to the topic happened. At this stage we are not concerned with how to get there, with how ‘realistic’ the Dream is, or with quantifying a goal. We are setting a direction. Even if you only get 50% of the way there, that’s a 50% improvement on where you are now.

On the Design stage the coachee comes up with ideas for bringing some or all of the Dream into reality. They are not committing to any of them, nor are we concerned about the quality or viability of the ideas at this stage. We just want lots of ideas. A ‘bad’ idea may spark off a process of association that leads to good or even life-changing ideas.

Finally, in the Delivery stage (like many AI practitioners, I prefer this term as more business-friendly than ‘Destiny’), you help the coachee select from the options they have generated. Depending on how formal your coaching session is, the output could be one small step they decide to take or a full-blown action plan. Delivery also includes implementing the selected actions and noticing the results.

You can then go round the 4D cycle again in your next session, to Discover what worked, modify your Dream on that basis, Designing fixes for anything that didn’t work, and so on.

In this model each stage psychologically primes the coachee to do better in the next stage. Discovering what’s already working makes it easier to envision the Dream; as soon as the client starts to see their Dream, the part of their brain that solves problems and comes up with new ways of doing things starts to think of ways to get there; and having a wealth of options generated in the Design stage makes it easy to select the best actions in the Delivery stage.

I encourage you to incorporate an Appreciative attitude into your coaching and your life. As one of my AI students said, the method on its own is just another tool. It’s the mindset that makes it life-changing.

Find out more about AI at The main online resource for AI is the Appreciative Inquiry Commons at


About Andy Smith

Andy Smith is an Appreciative Inquiry facilitator, Emotional Intelligence consultant, and NLP trainer based in the UK. He has been assisting individuals and groups with accelerated change for 25 years.

He is the author of Leadership EQ: How To Lead With Emotional Intelligence, Achieve Your Goals: Strategies To Transform Your Life, and The Trainer’s Pack of NLP Exercises. Andy is accredited to administer the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI™) 360º assessment and is an ANLP trainer member, but spreading the word about practical Appreciative Inquiry is now his main focus.

Website: Coaching Leaders




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