The Art of the Positive Question

In medicine we are taught to ask “open-ended” questions in order to allow our patients to elaborate on what is most important to them.  However, there is also an art to directing a question to elicit a positive response.  By asking an unconditionally positive question, you can encourage another person to look at a situation differently.  You might help them recognize previous successes or allow them to see that a challenging situation is not always bad.

  • Tell me what you liked best about your experience?
  • When have you successfully traveled through adversity?  What strengths did you draw on?   What did you learn from that challenge that can help you when you face future difficulties?

The Active Constructive Response

Read the article by Gable

The success of a relationship is in part determined by how the individuals respond to good events.  Seligman determined that the Active Constructive response is one technique that can lead to successful interpersonal relationships.   For example:  A colleague tells you about his or her promotion – you have options of how to respond.  

  • “Wow, that’s wonderful.  You really have worked hard and deserve the promotion.  When did you find out?  Will you have new responsibilities?” (active constructive response)
  • “That’s really great.  Let’s talk about this project we are working on – the deadline is coming up quickly. ” (passive constructive response)
  • “Congratulations.  Hope you are prepared to put in a lot more hours.”  (passive negative)
  • “Wow, I guess you must be pleased.  I really thought that Jim deserved that position but I guess you’ll be okay.  But, you know – he really has been here a lot longer than you and has seniority.  This decision doesn’t make sense to me at all.”  (active negative)

An active constructive response indicates that you are really listening and that you are interested in hearing more.  It validates the person with whom you are speaking and strengthens the relationship. (Seligman, Flourish)

Positivity/Negativity of High-functioning Teams

Read the article by Losada and Heaphy

Researchers observed high-functioning, mid-functioning, and low-functioning teams as determined by customer satisfaction, profitability and 360 evaluations.  Verbal communications among teams were coded on three dimensions (below), and the ratio of positive to negative comments was captured.  High-functioning teams were established to have P/N ratios similar to these averages:

  • Positive/negative  5.6:1 (support, encouragment, appreciation vs discouragement, sarcasm, or cynicism)
  • Inquiry/advocacy  1.14:1 (exploring or examinging vs arguing for the speakers point of view)
  • Other/self  0.94:1 (referring to someone outside the present group vs the speaker or someone within the present group)

Positivity/Negativity of Individuals and Relationships

Based on the same principles as the positivity/negativity of high-functioning teams, researchers (Losada, Fredrickson, Gottman) observed individuals and people in relationships and determined that the ratio of positive to negative comments and interactions can help determine if the individual or relationship will flourish.

Ratio of positive to negative comments/interactions:

  • Individual  3:1
  • Relationships  5:1
  • Overdoing it  11:1 or above is an excess of positivity

Three positive things

Watch a video of Seligman discussing the benefits of the exercise, and read a step-by-step guide

A positive psychology exercise - reflect on three positive things (big or small) that happened during the day and the reasons behind the occurrences.  This exercise has been shown to increase happiness and decrease symptoms of depression.

Assumption of Positive Intent

The idea of approaching all interactions with the assumption that behind all behavior is a positive purpose.  This allows for a greater opportunity for dialogue (by responding to the positive rather than the negative aspect of the behavior), and also separates the person and their identity from the behavior.

Practice of the Pause

Read more about the benefit of a 6-second pause

From reacting to responding.  By allowing ourselves time between receiving a stimulus and responding, we gain the power to choose our response.  Pausing allows the brain to move from instinctive (often ego-driven) response to one more aligned with our goals and values.  Research shows that incorporating a 6-second pause before responses allows your frontal lobe to add some reasoning to the emotional responses of your amygdala.

Moving from Judgment to Inquiry

The Choice Map shows some of the ways to move from inquiry to judgment

When in doubt, ask a question.  Going hand-in-hand with practicing the pause, when faced a difficult situation or conflict, rather than making snap judgments or assuming you already understand the background of the situation, ask a question first to move from assumption to fact and elucidate the motivations of others.

Appreciative Check-in

Affectionately referred to as “Appreciative Chicken,” the appreciative check-in is a technique for setting a positive and creative tone for a meeting or event. The goal of the check-in is two-fold. First, the exercise allows participants to shift their focus from a negative one to a positive one; given the stress of the health care environment, it is very helpful to provide team members the opportunity to reflect on what is going right in their lives. Appreciative check-in allows us to reframe our day or our work situation from stressful to remarkable. Second, research has shown that we are more creative and better able to solve problems when we are happy.

The leader of the group begins by explaining the exercise to the group (e.g., “I would like to ask everyone to think of something positive or remarkable that has happened to you in the past week (or day, or since our last meeting).” Or, “Think of something good that has happened to you today.”) The leader gives his/her example.

Go around the room and ask if anyone would like to share their story.  Sharing continues until time is up or there are no more volunteers. 

The first few times you do a check-in with a group, it may be helpful to have a "plant" who is familiar with the technique is is comfortable volunteering.

Improbable Pairs

The matching of "improbable pairs" is regularly used during the Appreciative Inquiry interview process.  The idea is to bring together two people who interact infrequently and have little in common - different genders, life situations, work roles, responsibilities - and encourage them to interact, build bridges, and discover the hidden commonalities (whether personal or professional). 

The Flip or Reframing

Seeing yourself differently

A webcomic reframes radiation therapy

By changing the way you perceive, or "frame," an event, you can have a significant impact on your response and approach to something that might initially have been perceived as negative but now may be flipped into becoming an opportunity.  For example, instead of contemplating the overwhelming challenge of ending world hunger, consider instead the steps needed to ensure everyone in the world is well nourished and flourishing.

Core Strategies of Appreciative Leadership

Taken from Appreciative Leadership by Whitney and Trosten-Bloom

Each of these strategies meets a different need that people have for high performance: to know they belong; to feel valued for what they have to contribute; to know where the organization or community is headed; to know that excellence is expected and can be depended on; and to know that they are contributing to the greater good.

  • Inquiry lets people know that you value them and their contributions.
  • Illumination helps people understand how they can best contribute.
  • Inclusion gives people a sense of belonging.
  • Inspiration provides people with a sense of direction.
  • Integrity lets people know that they are expected to give their best for the greater good, and that they can trust others to do the same.  

Ladder of Inference

Read an example of unconscious inference, and see examples of the ladder

Developed by Chris Argyris and popularized by Peter Senge in "The Fifth Discipline," the Ladder of Inference is a tool to help us become more conscious of our thought process and avoid conflict/ achieve resolution in the future