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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sue Chapman

Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Tool for Challenging Times

Unfunded mandates, additional duties, the lack of substitute teachers, ongoing concerns about COVID and the best ways to keep students and staff safe. It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed. We can rise above these and other challenges, however, by using our conversations with students, teachers, colleagues, and parents as a tool for building agency and efficacy in ourselves and others, creating a better world today and every day.

In their book, Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement, authors Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres tell us that “intentionally shifting our conversations to be appreciative and inquiry-based can transform our relationships and workplace outcomes” (p. 32). Appreciative Inquiry is a strengths-focused organizational improvement process.

Transformative conversations grounded in Appreciative Inquiry can be recognized by the characteristics listed below.

Conversations Grounded in Appreciative Inquiry are:

Stavros and Torres describe two simple practices (Positive Framing and Generative Questions) we can all use to have conversations which engage and energize others while helping individuals and teams realize their potential.

Positive Framing

Positive Framing is about focusing on strengths and choosing to notice the good that exists all around us. According to Stavros and Torres:

Relationships come alive where there is an appreciative eye, when we take the time to see the true, the good, the better, and the possible in each other and our universe of strengths, and when we use this concentrated capacity to activate conversations that open our world to new possibilities, elevate collective genius and purpose, and build bonds of mutual regard and positive power – not ‘power over’ but ‘power to.’ (p. 10)

Positive Framing also involves focusing our attention on where we want to go and how we will get there. Flipping is a conversational technique that can be used to help individuals or teams reframe their perspective about a problem by creating curiosity and helping stakeholders look at the challenge with fresh eyes. To “flip” thinking, we simply offer each of these three questions as an invitation to possibility thinking.

Generative Questions

Questions are powerful! Individuals, teams, and organizations move in the direction of the questions that are posed. Generative Questions, questions that generate new perspectives and possibilities, help us to extend existing knowledge and spark innovation.

Examples of Generative Questions

  • How do you see this issue?

  • What might we change to make this better?

  • How do other schools (or teachers or students) address this challenge?

  • What can we do that will allow everyone to get what they need?

  • What is possible?

  • What might happen if…?

  • How can we each contribute to the success of this effort?

  • Why is this important to us?

Generative Questions build trust, create energy, and inspire positive action. They spotlight the good that already exists and invite us to visualize what can be. As a result, we discover new ways to solve complex problems together and co-create vivid mental images of shared goals that continue to motivate collaborative effort.

What kind of conversations will you have today?

What conversations do you already know you will have today? How might you test out the practices of Positive Framing and Generative Questions in these conversations?

How can you determine whether your use of these practices has an impact on the outcomes of the conversations and, even more importantly, on the agency and efficacy of the people who participate? You might pay attention to changes in tone, body language, and the energy level of participants. You might also notice the direction conversations take as a result of your comments and questions, as well as the actions that result from these conversations.

Give it a go! At the very least, your intentional focus on strengths and your invitation to engage in fresh thinking will inspire pride and creativity. You may also set in motion a chain of events that builds capacity within individuals and your organization and makes a lasting positive difference in the lives of others.


Stavros, J., & Torres, Ch. (2018). Conversations worth having: Using appreciative inquiry to fuel productive and meaningful engagement. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Learn more about her at and connect with her on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.

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