Welcome back to our Appreciative Inquiry (AI) journey. If you’ve missed it, our first blog introduced us to the Constructionist Principle, which reminds us that our reality is the one we create for ourselves, it is not one and the same for all of us. In this post, we discover the second principle of AI, the Poetic Principle, which takes this idea a step further.
Life as a poem. The Poetic Principle invites us to view the world as a poem that can have endless interpretations. There are as many ways to describe a situation as there are unique individuals. Every time a story is told, there is more to be discovered, there are new details that can inspire us, there is something to learn. Every moment there is an infinite number of details we can choose to pay attention to, and our choices are fateful. In her book Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life, Jackie Kelm says “what we choose to notice creates our experience.”
What we focus on grows. We have all experienced the frequency illusion phenomenon: if you’re considering adopting a dog, all of sudden you notice dogs everywhere, including many in your neighborhood that you feel you’ve never seen before. What we put our attention on becomes a larger part of our reality. So if we focus on the shortcomings of a person or situation, resulting feelings and actions are likely to be a lot less pleasant than if we watch for what is valuable. In our society, we strongly value problem-solving and critical thinking. Sure, from an evolutionary standpoint, detecting dangers ensures survival, but this instinctive response may not be the most productive in modern society. By digging deeper into our negative emotions we can find very valuable information (learn more about it in The Upside of Your Dark Side, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener).
AI suggests that there is an important difference between affirming and appreciating. Developing an appreciative eye means more than noticing what is there; it means being curious and inquiring deeper into it. When tasting wine, for example, you consider its many characteristics. Appreciating is a creative process. To practice your appreciative skills, think of a time you were at your best. What did it look like? How did it feel? What did you do or say? What did others do, say, or feel? Taking the time to relive those moments of bliss solidifies the memories, lifts our spirit and gives us strength in the present. Stavros and Torres list more appreciative exercises in Dynamic Relationships: Unleashing the power of Appreciative Inquiry in Daily Living.
Finding what we want more of, not less. Sounds obvious, right? A lot of times, it is harder than it seems to identify what we want, instead of what we don’t want. We often notice the things that make us uncomfortable, then we know right away that we that we want less of it: less stress, less noise, less work, less arguments. But what we focus on is a choice. When we deliberately rephrase these statements into what we want, we’ve already taken the first step in creating this reality. Thinking “I want the audience to be attentive during this meeting” instead of “I hope people won’t get bored” will automatically shift your attention to the most engaged participants in the room. To positively influence your relationships, think of someone you have difficulties with and identify one small thing you value about them and why, then share it with them. Observe the impact this “tracking and fanning” technique has on future interactions. AI tells us that thoughts tend to spiral up or down, so appreciating something very small and simple like a smile can lead to another grateful thought, and another, and another. A powerful way to develop our AI muscles indeed, is by practicing gratitude. This is not to suggest that we ignore challenges, but that we sincerely try to find the lessons within them. The way Appreciative Inquiry differs from positive thinking is that it trains us to look for the good that is already there instead of what we wish was there.
The Poetic Principle is about acknowledging that there are endless ways to interpret reality. It is about inquiring into past successes and truly appreciating what is, to create upward, life-enhancing spirals. It is about being more deliberate about where we put our attention in the now, because that’s what shapes our future.