formator under the crossAn Appreciative Paradigm

Fr. James Kannanthanam cmf

What we find depends on what we look for. Is that not commonsense understanding? Two things are, then, very important. One thing is our mindset. Do we have mindset which is attuned to the good that is around us? It is proverbial that a pessimist finds the half empty glass and an optimist half full looking at the same reality. Pessimists expect the worst and see the worst in all things. The optimist’s mindset helps him to perceive the good things happening in a situation. The pessimist is attuned to pick up the negatives! As formators do we have an ‘appreciative-eye’ to look for the good things already there in the formees?

The second thing follows from the first. When we have a positive mindset we search for the positive possibilities. What are we really looking for as we engage in formation? As formators, are we so much concerned about fixing the problem that we have our eyes focused on mostly on what is not working in the formees? The formation has been, in the Church, more of fixing the problem than building on the strengths of the formees! It did not occur to most of us that by focusing on the problems we hardly resolved the problems! It is good to remember a basic truth: what we focus on grows. If we focus on problems, they multiply! If we concentrate on the good in the formees, the good increase and become more fruitful. By amplifying the strengths the problems are indirectly resolved too.

So, let us change the perspective – expect good, and look for the best in the people. One of the latest approach in Organization Development to bring change is known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI is all about discovery of the best in people, organizations and situations and amplify them to impact positive changes. At the heart of AI is the assumption: what we focus on grows. If we focus on the best in people…, the ‘best’ grows further. A happy thing happens at the same time: ‘the worst’ disappears. AI is found a very useful approach in organizations, in transforming groups and individuals radically. AI seeks to build a constructive union amongst people about their past and present capacities : achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, high point moments lived values, stories, expressions of wisdom. Basing on such positive things already existing in organizations and people, through collective effort AI creates possible positive future for the group and persons. It envisions and designs future possibilities.

I believe that AI can bring a major paradigm shift in formation. What do we do in formation? The whole work of formation is aimed at transformation. It may be termed ‘Christ-formation’ or forming the candidates into the likeness of Christ. From the perspective of AI, it will take place easier from a positive approach rather than the traditional corrective approach. Let me explain.

Our traditional way of intervention to bring changes in the formees is the conventional approach to change: discover the problems, analyse the causes and root issues, suggest possible solutions and help to implement them. Hence when a formee with excessive emotional acting out (e.g. inappropriate expression of anger) is helped to understand how such behaviours are related to the psychological makeup of the person which in turn is connected to the family background, the past experiences, developmental issues, etc.,. Then the formee is guided to make conscious effort to find alternative and value based behaviours and transform himself. With AI approach, formator does not dwell on digging the past emotional turmoil and developmental deficiencies, but focuses on what is to be achieved. In the above situation formator may focus on developing positive emotions (in place of anger, compassion) and consequent behaviours (empathy for others). Formator may help to discover the positive strengths already existing in the candidate in achieving this end. The past is explored only to discover the positive-core of the person from the positive experiences where the formee acted with emotional maturity. By discovering the positive strengths of the person, the candidate is enabled to use them further for achieving the goal. As positive and negative emotions cannot be present at the same time, by amplifying the positive emotions, the negatives disappear gradually. Thus the desired transformation takes place.

In this module let us focus on the following:

  • A brief historical note on the beginnings of AI
  • The First Principle of AI: Constructionist principle
  • The Second Principle: Poetic Principle
  • The First Phase of 4-D Method: Discovery

Historical Sketch

It was in the 80s of last century by;usg=ALkJrhh_v9WUEhrvains4rPm7G9YqykbMg”>David Cooperrider of;usg=ALkJrhgLREnrZN8_4cPsGwu6-LXfofrwIA” title=”Case Western Reserve University”>Case Western Reserve University, USA developed Appreciative Inquiry (known as AI) as change management method in the management consultancy.Die Grundidee ist einfach: Menschen und Systeme bewegen sich in die Richtung, in die sie schauen und die Fragen die wir stellen, entscheiden darüber, was wir finden. The basic idea is simple: people and systems are moving in the direction in which they look and the questions we ask determine what we find. AI konzentriert sich daher auf die Stärken, das Positive, das Potenzial eines;usg=ALkJrhhkz900yKEx6fDqScNsD1R0Y1SoIg” title=”System”>Systems (z. B. Unternehmen, Organisation, Person) und stellt nicht die negativen Punkte in den Vordergrund. AI therefore focuses on the strengths, the positive, the potential of a;usg=ALkJrhhkz900yKEx6fDqScNsD1R0Y1SoIg” title=”System”>system (e.g., business, organization, person) and does not put the negative points in the foreground. Im Gegensatz zu traditionellen Ansätzen werden beim AI Probleme nicht direkt bearbeitet, sondern in Änderungswünsche umformuliert.

Der Einsatz von AI ist dort angemessen, wo Fähigkeiten, Verhaltensweisen oder Leistungen eines ganzen Systems weiterentwickelt werden sollen oder wo es darum geht, die Zukunft dieses Systems zu entwerfen und neu zu gestalten. Cooperrider identified five principles and four phases of Appreciative Inquiry. We will discuss these principles and the 4-D phases in different modules. The core element of AI is the “Appreciative Interview.” It passes through the four phases of Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny. In the Discovery phase, through interviews and collective efforts, the best in the organizations or persons are recognized and brought to light. In the Dream stage visions are created on the basis of the assets and strengths discovered in the previous stage. In the Design phase the attempt is made to identify the strategies to realize the Dream. Destiny is the implementation phase, bringing new ideas into reality.

Various people have applied these basic principles and phases with slight modifications in different fields and professions.

The First Principle of AI: Constructionist principle

Constructionists believe that reality in which people live is constructed by the persons according to their way of perception. It implies that we create our reality in the way we perceive. It also means, then, that we can create our world we live in. In the Appreciative Inquiry reality and identity are co-created. We engage with other people and re-create our world through conversations and communications. Applied to formation, the formators and formees create the situation they want to live engaging in dialogue. At the basis of the dialogue are the stories of life experience. The unique vocational story of each formee within the context of the charism of the congregation forms the substance for creating the vision for the individuals. The formator becomes the facilitator and coach in connecting the strings together. She or he can help to clarify and makes sense of the experiences and help to discover the life-forces and strengths of the individuals. They together identify the hidden possibilities and promises available in the concrete situations. Thus the formation becomes co-journeying involving discovery, visioning, designing and reviewing. Such an attitude of the formator is not threatening or hurting but creates trust and appreciation.

It implies that formators have to have time with each formee to engage in dialogue. If the reality is a co-creation, communication is at the heart of it. The constructions that we make of reality are primarily created through conversations. “Who we are and what we believe about things are not fixed notions, but are continuously re-created in conversations and communications with others.”[1] Another implication is that formators are to be very careful about the words they use to communicate with the formees. The words they use profoundly affect the meaning generated about the vision. The words create the world. The formators have to learn to dwell on the positive strengths discovered in the stories and communicate with profound respect for the formees and admiration of the mystery of every individual person.

Jackie Kelm, the proponent of Appreciative Living explains the constructionist principle with her own life experiences. (Read Appendix 1, attached to this module)

AI challenges us to examine how we construct the world. Do we approach the world from a deficit or positive possibility perspective? If we construct it from deficit model, the formee is seen as a person with many deficiencies, problems (lack of motivation, worldly values, lack of integration, psycho-sexual problems etc). Our intervention, then, is to find what are the problems, the causes, solutions and to bring change. If we approach from AI perspective, the formator looks at the formee as with multiple positive possibilities and engage with them to discover the strengths and assets in the formee and help to construct a positive vision of the future for him. The Poetic Principle which further explains how we construct our realities according to the focus of our attention.

The Poetic Principle

It means, “Pasts, presents or futures are endless sources of learning, inspiration or interpretation – precisely like, for example, the endless interpretive possibilities in a good piece of poetry or biblical text.” [2]We can find good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly according to our focus. It implies that life experience is rich and there are limitless number of things we can notice in any moment, and our choice determines the future. AI assumes that there are many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive in each person or organization.

We have set ways of seeing according to our beliefs. We tend to notice the same things over and over in given situations. We have certain “habits” about how we look at what is happening. The poetic principle reminds us that it depends on us what we pick up from the numerous possibilities of interpretation of the reality. In the context of formation, formators need to have an eye to pick up the positive strengths hidden in each situations and experiences and highlight them so that the formees can build on such strengths. Nobody is there without some good in them. If God has called a person to priestly or religious life, he or she is already appreciated and considered precious by God. The formator’s duty is then to “feed the sheep” with a sense of stewardship appreciating each person entrusted to their care. Poetic principle enables them to look for the positive interpretation available in the life experiences of the formees and build the future based on them. We are again reminded that the reality is in the eyes of the beholder. If the formator writes away the formee as hopeless, the reality he creates for him would be also bleak; if the formator identifies the little life-giving forces in him and enables the formee to focus on them, formator will construct a promising future for the formee.

What we focus on will grow. “People become what they think about, most of the time.” Cooperrider and Whitney observed that human systems grow in the direction of their deepest and most frequent inquires.[3] If one focuses on problems, he or she finds more problems, but if one focuses on successes, he or she finds more successes. We don’t just observe reality, but create it through our acts of observation. As we continue to observe more and more of something, we expand them more and more into our reality. In each individual there are many positive experiences worth discovering, appreciating and communicating. If we were to focus our attention on them we will find them growing further and creating positive atmosphere. Is it not that we are used to pick up the little mistakes of the formees and wail on them? Hence let us be keen on finding what we want more of than less of.

It means then that we need to develop an “Appreciative Eye”. Cooperrider explains that the appreciative eye “apprehends ‘what is’ rather than ‘what is not’ and… not only draws our eye toward life, but stirs our feelings, excites our curiosity and provides inspiration to the envisioning mind.”[4] Appreciating is a more open and generative way of experiencing what is present. When we appreciate, we are inspired to inquire into what we like, and our curiosity causes us to notice new things. If we have an appreciative eye, then, we will highlight the positive things happening in the formees and cause them to happen more.

The poetic principle may be expressed in such statements as the following from the part of the formator:

  • “Imagine all your possibilities”
  • “Where have you been successful?”
  • “Going through such experiences what quality is added to your life?”
  • “Exploring what you are capable of…”
  • “What of your passions can be best used for your present life?”

The formee expresses it in such expressions as:

  • “How different! I can move on”
  • “I can choose”
  • “It makes me feel grateful going through these challenges”
  • “I am pretty fortunate”

 The First Phase of 4-D Method: Discovery

The classical way of AI intervention is through a system of 4-D Cycle involving Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny. It is co-creation through a group process a desired goal. The schema can be adopted also for the individual and group intervention of the formators for the growth process of the formees in their accompaniment. While 4-D Cycle is used for workshops of three or four days in the organizational set up, it can be used as a continuous process of accompaniment in formation. Once the topic for the focus is chosen the 4-D Cycle is followed. The topic is always stated affirmative. In formation, even if the aim is to overcome a negative aspect of the personality, the positive quality to be achieved in its place is chosen as the focus. For example, if selfishness is the vice to overcome, generosity becomes the focus.


Discovery is the first stage of Appreciative Inquiry. It is describing the best of the person’s or organization’s past and present. Discovery is about identifying and valuing what gives life to persons and organizations. In the context of formation, it would mean that the formators engage the formees to discover the most important life-giving experiences of their past and present life. Their vocational story would be one of such experience. The task of the formator is to formulate appropriate questions that would help to explore such important moments of formees’ life. From all the narrations the important themes are highlighted and noted as the ‘life-forces’ of the individuals. This would be the building materials for the next phase of AI, the Dream.

The appreciative dialogue with the formees may start with reframing problem statements into neutral or positive topic so that the inquiry dwells on the positive than on the negative experiences. It is an important shift because generally people are better at describing what they no longer desire rather than what they would like in its stead. Hence it is critical to spend time in formulating some picture of a successful engagement. For example if the formee were to come with a problem of lack of self-confidence the questions of inquiry might be,

  • What are the times when you felt most confident?
  • Talk about some peak experiences when you were most comfortable with your performance.
  • What are one or two things you would like to do in order to achieve greater confidence?

To discover the life-forces, the formator may ask such questions as:

  • Describe your three greatest achievements to date
  • What made these accomplishments stand out for you?
  • What from your past accomplishments have you incorporated into your current actions?
  • Who are, or have been, your major role models?
  • What are the five most positive things in your life?
  • What energizes you?

Hence in the first phase of Discovery, the formator engages with the formee with

ž  Inquiry into formee’s talents, past and present success, and unmet desires

ž  Listening for words, phrases, or metaphors that will guide the formee toward the reality he seeks

ž  Discovering the life-forces of the formee from the stories he narrates

ž  Helping formee create a more holistic and balanced view of themselves

ž  Gently moving formee from problem language to appreciative one

ž  Helping to create a clear image of the key attributes that he wants to keep and build on for the future

In the discovery stage there is a great deal of exploration about the past and present skills, talents and successes. It is from the life experiences (stories) of the formee that the formator discovers the his assets. In his stories of achievements, experiences of God’s interventions and responses one can find the values, inspirations, strengths, and potentials that he carries with him already. Spending some time on a picture of success is an especially effective antidote to the formee’s feelings of being weighed down by a problem-solving approach or a primarily negative perspective of his situation. Orem et al found in their practice with clients that moving them to a place of positive, generative language and images helped to break the negative cycle and start building some positive emotional capital for their journey forward.[5]

To Practice

  1. Watch the movie Life is Beautiful. Make a list of the ‘life-forces’ of Guido, the main character in the film. (or watch any other movie with a positive character and list his or her ‘life-forces’.
  2. Make appreciative inquiry interview with 3 formees. Inquire into their achievements, most inspiring moments of their life, Vocational story. Make a list of the life-forces of each formee. (You may make use of the model questions in the Appendix 2 for the interview)

To Read

  1. The Introduction and the Constructionist Principle and Poetic Principle in the first instalment from Jackie Kelm (Given as appendix 1 in this module.)
  2. Klem, Jacqueline Bascobert, Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life, Venet Publishers, NC, USA: 2005

[1] Klem, Jacqueline Bascobert, Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life, Venet Publishers, NC, USA: 2005, 11

[2] Klem 31

[3] Klem 36

[4] Klem 47

[5] Orem 88