Join our Certificate In Leading Psychosocial Safety & Care. Click Here
Can A Question Change Your Life?

Can A Question Change Your Life?

BY Michelle McQuaid

When it comes to creating change in your life do you feel overwhelmed as you look at what’s not working, what’s left you feeling disappointed and what you think is in need of fixing? Or do you look for the true, the good and the possible and ways to build upon all the strengths you have to draw upon?

Unfortunately our brains are wired with a negativity bias, which means most of us feel that evolutionary pull to fix what feels broken. But researchers are finding that you’re more likely to feel motivated, confident and energized to create lasting changes if you can build upon your neurological, social and environmental strengths.

But how you can build upon your strengths if your brain isn’t good at spotting them?

Professor David Cooperrider has found that every action you take is preceded by a question and as a result change begins with the very first question you ask. To help you train your brain to look for the true, the good and the possible David and his colleagues developed Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a strengths-based framework for creating lasting change.

Initially designed to unite entire organizations or systems through large-scale summits, this simple framework has been used to grow the United Nations Global Compact for sustainability from 1500 to over 8000 of the world’s largest organizations, improve energy efficiency across Massachusetts delivering nearly $9 billion in benefits for residents and businesses, and unite the world’s religious leaders representing seven million people of different faiths. But an AI approach can be just as effective for individuals and teams wanting to create lasting change as well.

All it requires are these simple steps:

  • Define an appreciative topicthe first step in any AI experience is to get clear on what you’re inquiring about. All living systems have a tendency to move toward positive energy and away from negative energy, or toward what is life-giving and away from what is life-depleting. This is known as the heliotropic effect, and in the same way your topic should be affirmative, moving you towards what you want to generate more of.

Start by being clear on what the problem is, then consider what do you want to grow?; What do you want to see, hear, feel or do more of? What will success look like? Condense your topic down to two or three words. If you find it difficult to identify an affirmative topic try tipping a problem on its head. For example, rather than your focus being on ‘losing weight’ your affirmative topic could be ‘living well’.

  • Discover the best of the past – when you feel engaged, energized and enjoying life. This is the first step in the 4D framework, and is designed to help you uncover the strengths you and your group have to build upon. Discovering stories of past strengths, high performance, and best practices helps to create the confidence and momentum that unleashes higher levels of performance.

You can uncover stories about past performance by asking: “Tell me about..” and words like “most…” or “best…” For example, “Tell me about a time when you’ve felt most alive, engaged and proud of the work that you’ve done for an organization.”

  • Dream of what’s possible – creating vivid positive images of your future can pull you forward with optimism, hope, and motivate you to take positive action. Imagine what success would look like if everything went as well as it possibly could in the near future. Try to be as clear as possible on how this future would feel, what you would be doing, what you would be hearing people say and what achievements you would be proud of.

You can uncover visions of the future by asking: “Imagine everything went as well as it possibly could what would…?”  For example, “Based on the strengths you’ve just shared, if everything went as well as it possibly could over the next six months what would be your proudest achievement?”

  • Designing what might be – this third step helps you map clear pathways to turn your dreams into reality by identifying and prioritizing where you want to put your energy and resources. You may also find it helpful to explore the different obstacles that might arise, how these could be overcome, how you can maintain your motivation and what support might be needed to ensure your goals are reached.

You can identify possible pathways by asking: “What would it take to move from where you are right now, to where you want to be?” Or “If you could improve on where you are today by 5%, what are seven different steps you think you should take?”

  • Deliver what will be – involves stepping up to make a clear commitment to the changes you will create. You can shrink the steps required into small busy-proof steps to allow your confidence to grow and your fear of failure diminish as you start notching-up successes on your progress towards your desired goals. Instead of raising the bar you want to lower it so you can easily step over it.

You can test people’s willingness to take on responsibility for delivering change by asking: “If there was one action you could take, where would you be willing to start?”

If you started to use these appreciative questions to look for the true, the good and the possible, how could you create lasting changes by building on what works in your life?

For more examples to use Appreciative Inquiry in large summits, workshops or coaching conversations grab my free ebook: “Can A Question Change Your Life: The Art of Appreciative Inquiry”.

Quick tip:You can save this post to your favorites, so you can access it quickly and easily later! Just click the “Add to Favorites” button to save it forever. You can then find it later in My Toolbox -> My Favorites.

Free Leadership Toolkit

Supercharge safety, wellbeing, and performance for your team.

Download now

Free Leaders Survey Tool

Take our free five minute survey to minimize psychosocial risks and build on psychological safety

Learn More

Wellbeing Survey For Youth

Our free PERMAH Wellbeing Survey Tool For Youth is now available.

Learn More

Wellbeing Survey For Kids

Our FREE PERMAH Survey tool for Kids under 12 is now available.

Learn More


Listen to the world’s leading positive psychology researchers and practitioners as they share their insights on our top-rated podcast.

Listen Now


Do you want to help boost people’s wellbeing, resilience & performance? Then join us for the next round of Certificate In Creating Wellbeing.

Learn More