The Art of Appreciative Conversations

Appreciative questioning and listening

When I think of the concept of appreciative questioning/listening, an image comes to me of a group of us sitting around a campfire. The fire sits at the center of a circle which, when viewed from above, is organized into slices like a pizza. There are as many slices as there are people, and each is sitting in their own slice of the pie. The campfire is at the center and there is no edge to the pie – it extends into the darkness behind us. 

Whatever is between us and the fire, inside the circle, we can see. It is what we know consciously. Stuff we’ve thought about and at this point probably more or less take for granted. 

Within us is stuff we’re noticing, mulling over, pondering, experiencing in the privacy of our own thoughts, but it’s not necessarily visible to everyone else.

Behind us is the mystery and the beauty of the collective consciousness.

In this place there is beauty that we may have unique access to, simply because of our personal fascinations and desires. What we have signaled to life that we love and want to understand more deeply is lined up, ready to be pulled through us.

When I am blessed with a circle of people who are interested in what I have been thinking about, what pulls new wisdom through me is a person who asks me questions and sits with appreciation as I report what is coming through. It’s actually a form of hypnosis: When other people can see what I am likely to know even if I don’t know that I know it, their belief that I might know a thing will cause me to open to the possibility, and connect dots that I have not yet connected. 

I believe this is one source of wisdom in the world…one of my personal working definitions of wisdom is The ability to connect dots in a new way, and share the ideas that are created in a way that other people can receive and benefit from as well.

Being able to open up and respond to an appreciative questioner/listener wholeheartedly takes tremendous courage…it entails the essence of vulnerability, to open yourself up and let life speak through you. In my experience, it is both the reason for and result of doing the deep inner work of healing and forgiveness – to cultivate that level of openness, of relaxed attention and expanded awareness.

And it is how we help ourselves and change the world, by helping other people.

Whenever I do what is needed to relax, open myself up and feel more safe in the world, I become safer: my awareness is released from the tunnel-vision state of vigilance, and opened up so I am more aware of more things in the environment around me. My energy calms. When I feel safer, I radiate safety.

When I radiate safety, it is transmitted to others. Not by my doing anything specific – simply by being more OK myself. The fundamental sense of safety (or lack thereof) transmits between us clearly and immediately – our animal bodies are extremely sensitive to the jagged, unnerving vibration of anxiety, as well as the fluid and calming vibration of relaxed attention.

So where do you start the spiral toward feeling more safe, open and connected, using this tool of appreciative questioning/listening? Where ever you can. Practice asking questions about something you want to know, and then practice being an appreciative listener. Notice when someone else is clearly needing an appreciative listener, and see if you can be that for them. Notice when you need an appreciative listener, and ask a friend who you believe has the capacity if they will step into that space for you. Be gentle as you go…this is not an interrogation. It’s a dance. 

Also, remember to practice it inside yourself. Develop a practice of your mind and your animal having appreciative conversations. 

I predict that simply noticing this will begin a very interesting shift in your experience.

Often, the people on the other side of the fire can see us more clearly than we can see ourselves. When I sit at a fire with you, and listen to the stories you tell, pay attention to what fascinates you and what you have thought about, I develop a feeling of what I might learn from you if I ask good questions and listen carefully. Anyone with a modicum of sensitivity can do this for others around the circle. 

I believe it’s a key reason we need one another – to pull out of us the things we didn’t really know we know, the dots we have not yet connected as completely as we do when they are teased out by an appreciative questioner/listener.

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