Appreciative Inquiry:
A Significant Tool for Effective Parent Coaching

Gloria De Gaetano

by Gloria DeGaetano,
CEO, Parent Coach International™ and Founder, Parent Coach Certification®

In the mid-1980s, Dr. David Cooperrider, consultant and professor at Case Western University in Ohio began an examination of a company by starting with his traditional method—collecting all that was wrong within the organization. He soon became bored because he had done this approach countless times. He suddenly asked himself, "What if I began by examining all the things that were right with this company?" This approach excited him and he proceeded. The results were exciting. By starting off in a positive direction, not only were problems solved, but deep positive transformation occurred on many levels.

After several years of similar research, Dr. Cooperrider and his colleagues developed Appreciative Inquiry (AI). He defines AI in this way:

"Appreciative Inquiry is about the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives 'life' to a living system, when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system's capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. It centrally involves the mobilization of inquiry through the crafting of the 'unconditional positive question'… In AI, the arduous task of intervention gives way to the speed of imagination and innovation; instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design. AI seeks, fundamentally, to build a constructive union between a whole part and the massive entirety of what people talk about as past and present capacities: achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper…soul or spirit, and visions of valued and possible futures. Taking all of these together as a gestalt, AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this 'positive change core'—and assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly…mobilized." (Cooperrider, et. al., 2003)

Over the past 30 years Appreciative Inquiry (AI) has been researched extensively and used successfully in corporations, community organizations, and in some school settings around the world. It has a wonderful track record because the AI process supports positive, long-term change, offering much hope and unleashing new levels of creativity, innovation, and inspiration.

Parent Coach Certification® Training adapts AI to parent coaching conversations, using its principles (which are in alignment with living systems principles) and its methodology as a basic structure for those conversations. Instead of jumping in to solve the problem directly, AI employs a four-stage process for coach and client to co-create exciting and sustainable solutions:

  • Discovery—finding out through well-crafted and careful questions what is presently working in the situation. What is currently giving life to the parents, the children? The family?
  • Dream—helping parents articulate a clear vision of what it is they want and to feel the positive emotions and qualities that living in that preferred future with their child would evoke.
  • Design—encouraging strategies, ideas, behaviors, parenting practices, reflective exercises, and other applications to help parents design both external and internal activities that would best support fulfillment of their dream.
  • Destiny—as a parent's dream emerges into actual lived experience, the role of the coach is to point out the "evidence indicators" that show this is happening, to help the parent gather the qualities and resources to make sure the emerging dream is sustainable, and to acknowledge that deep change has occurred and that the parent is a primary cause of this change.

Each phase may take a few coaching sessions within a series of weekly coaching sessions lasting over a period of three to four months. The Design phase takes the longest. For instance, in a series of 12 coaching sessions with a parent 7-9 would be in the Design phase. In this way, parents begin to value the process they are involved in and come to understand that in living systems such as families, many changes will occur when they are seeded properly and nurtured over time.

Beginning with the Discovery phase harnesses positive energy to solve the problem and keeps parents focused on what they value about their children. The coach uses a process which is the art and practice of posing questions that help to highlight, anticipate and apprehend the strengths of the current situation. The process is crafted by "unconditional positive questions." The strengths, successes, and potentials then become key ingredients in the solutions to the parent's challenge.

AI addresses the subtle, but powerful tendency of humans to make the person the problem and not the situation. For instance, when exhausted by discipline problems with a young child, a mother may be dreading to spend time with her son. She may not want to take him out in public. She may use TV more often to keep him quiet. She begins to see her son as "her problem." By seeking the positive qualities in her son and helping this mom begin to appreciate him in new ways, a PCI trained parent coach can help her get out of the energy-draining mind set. As the coach asks careful questions, affirms her, reframes her concerns to bring forth the good in the situation and in her child, she begins to see her son as the loveable, curious, beautiful child he really is. She becomes more hopeful and energized. She observes her child in his daily activities. She responds differently to him. Now she is ready to address his behavior issues in a pro-active and meaningful way that is much more likely to get the results she desires.

Before coach and parent start discussing strategies to help the child's behavior (we often find that the behavior has changed for the positive at this point because the mother is now responding more authentically to her child's needs), we begin the Dream phase. Here we ask her to picture an ideal day, if her son were acting and doing what she wanted. What would it look like? What would it feel like? Often during the Dream phase a parent may get an unexpected insight. This mother finds that in her ideal day, she would have a few short breaks to have tea and gather herself. She realizes that she isn't giving herself needed breaks, that she is tired all the time, and wants the coach to help her find out ways to do this. The parent and the coach can't be sure what issues will begin to come to the surface, but as they work together, usually other situations arise that the parent wants to change in addition to the original challenge that initiated the coaching in the first place.

The Dream Phase is critical because we cannot achieve our goals unless we have the image of goals at the forefront of our minds. It is true that "What we pay attention to grows." This principle, based on brain research and extremely important when considering the power of the positive image to reshape current and future realities. Indeed, the positive image of the future is a critical component of not only changing family life, but society as well. As parents learn to hold mental models of their preferred future, they also begin to include more and more systems in their positive images—the ideal school, the type of teachers that would support the child's learning, the playmates that would be trusted friends, etc. The dreaming of a preferred future naturally expands to encompass community and societal ideals. The Dutch sociologist, Fred Polak points out, "The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as society's image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose vitality, however, the culture does not long survive." (Cooperrider, et. al., 2000)

Design. What does that word make you think about? For me, Design brings to my mind the world of the artist, the capacities of the poet, the mind of an architect. David Cooperrider didn't call this stage, "The Plan," with a simple straight-forward, now here is all you have to do and you, too will figure out how to have what you want. Distinguishing it from problem-solving, AI theorists and practitioners emphasize the aspect of generativity during this dynamic phase. It's an alive, vital time with unlimited possibilities. Design, signals open-endedness. Roget's Thesaurus even demonstrates that design can be a lot of different things: a blueprint, arrangement, structure, doodle, shape, scheme, proposition, depiction. When we design, we could contemplate or achieve, aim as well as perform, prepare as well as fashion, produce as well as propose, and execute as well as invent.

The Appreciative Inquiry process makes us in the words of David Cooperrider, "explorers instead of mechanics." In the Design phase we coaches catalyze a building from the unformed to the formed. Here is where we find the unleashing of the client's creativity, with each inquiry we make. It is a time of holding the client in a trusting bond, with expectations for responsibility to their own creative process and an understanding of what power they have to transform their lives. We, in a sense, give our clients permission, to go for it. To do what they think needs to be done. To not hold back any longer. To remember all the strengths within, to actually take all the energy built up from the Discovery and the Dream stages, to now, burn up with focused action toward what they value most and hold true in order to be their best selves.

In an article, "Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life," Cooperrider explains, "As we know, a miracle is something that is beyond all possible verification, yet is experienced as real. As a symbol, the word miracle represents unification of the sacred and secular into a realm to totality that is at once terrifying and beautiful, inspiring and threatening. Quinney (1982) has suggested with respect to the rejuvenation of social theory, that such a unified viewpoint is altogether necessary, that it can have a powerful impact on the discipline because in a world that is at once sacred and secular there is no place, knowledge, or phenomenon that is without mystery. The "miracle" then is pragmatic in its effect when sincerely apprehended by a mind that has chosen not to become 'tranquilized by the trivial.' In this sense, the metaphor, 'life is a miracle' is not so much an idea as it is—or can be—a central feature of experience enveloping (1) our perpetual consciousness; (2) our way of relation to others, the world, and our own research; and (3) our way of knowing. Each of these points can be highlighted by diverse literature. In terms of the first, scholars have suggested that the power of what we call the miracle lies in its capacity to advance one's perceptual capacity what Maslow (1968) has called B-cognition or a growth-vs-deficiency orientation, or what Kolb (1984) has termed integrative consciousness. Kolb writes: 'The transcendental quality of integrative consciousness is precisely that, a climbing out of…This state of consciousness is not reserved for the monastery, but it is a necessary ingredient for creativity in any field.'" ((Cooperrider, et. al., 2003)

In the Design phase our main task is to organize for miracles. As coaches we orchestrate the landscape for the client to make the best decisions for him or herself to move in the direction of the identified ideal. We help clients bring a state of consciousness to a more integrated place with the fusion of ideas with actions. The doing and the being are merged in this phase unlike in the other three phases. The more we can support parents to take, even small steps in the direction of their preferred future, the more organized their thinking and behavior becomes around vitality, hope, appreciation, and creativity. Using such attitudes to design a unique path to their Dream, most parents will find that much of what they do pales in comparison to how they do what they do.

In Discovery and Dream, we wanted to put off the how for as long as possible, wanting our clients to discover the good in the situation and to envision and feel the ideal. That's because the How that clients are asking about in those phases is usually the traditional problem-solving how. It is a mechanical how of, "I do this and then I get this. Just tell me how to go about it and all will be well." This way of problem-solving keeps us mired in the same problems year after year. The Design Phase of Appreciative Inquiry, by contrast is a solution-finding process. It not only leads us to miracles but also leads miracles to us. In fact, the Design Phase techniques and questions, when truly understood and lived, can lead to a new way of solution-finding that will last a life-time.

The final phase of AI, the Destiny phase seeks to support the parents in collecting evidence of the dream emerging and in celebrating the goals accomplished. This is often a phase of jubilant announcements of positive changes and considerable gratitude towards the coach. But the coach knows and reminds the parent that it was the parent, after all, that has made all the achievements. With full participation and willingness, the parent accomplishes much more than initially expected and is filled with energy, joy, and hope at the outcome.

There is much in Destiny that is mystery that signals that the Design Phase has been successful. As we coach parents to continually discover the positive, much momentum is built and therefore lots of things can happen at once at the Destiny phase. And when they start happening, look out! David Cooperrider writes that "at some point apparently minor positive discoveries connect in accelerating manner and quantum change, a jump from one state to the next that cannot be achieved through incremental change alone, becomes possible." (p.328)

Since it's not simple and straightforward, quantum change can be very disconcerting. Your client may be expecting incremental change and get sweeping changes that may delight, but may also instill fear or anxiety. Another form of challenge emerges here for both coach and client: How to discover what works to keep stability amidst the new occurrences, so that the client's Dream doesn't disappear as suddenly as it seemed to appear. To be able to sustain the Dream requires a new form of self-empowerment.

Let's examine this process. The client comes to you seeking help with a specific parenting challenge. Often that challenge also has a lot to do with the parent's self-care and/or daily decisions made on behalf of self and the family, as much as it does with the child's behaviors. Usually, at the beginning of the coaching conversation, the client is usually totally focused on what isn't working. Often he or she wants you to fix it or at least offer suggestions or advice "to make it better." Or even "make it go away." As your client works with you through Discovery, Dream, and Design major shifts occur in how the client is interpreting the challenge to him or herself. There are also new ways of self-understanding and usually much more confidence for relying on inner strengths and one's own creativity to figure out ways to productively address the challenge. The client is basically feeling self-empowered at the beginning of the Destiny Phase. Inklings of the preferred future are emerging. This gives much hope and energy, and more trust in the efficacy of the process itself.

Using the four phases of Appreciative Inquiry, PCI Certified Parent Coaches® are catalysts for transformational changes in the family. Appreciative Inquiry can be a powerful tool in the hands of family support professionals willing to apply and trust its dynamic process.