Curious About Appreciative Inquiry? with Robyn Stratton-Berkessel

by | Jul 13, 2021 | 0 comments

Robyn Stratton-Berkessel is a long-time practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry, author, speaker of a TED conference, “Playful inquiry”, teacher of Advanced Applications of Appreciative Inquiry  at the David L. Cooperrider Center of Appreciative Inquiry, Champlain College, VT  and host of the podcast Positivity Strategist. In this episode, Robyn dives deep into the underpinning principles of Ai and guides us through beautiful examples of embodying Ai in our daily life and at work.   

Find Robyn Stratton-Berkessel:



Site Positivity Strategist

Free ebook 



Book: Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions: 21 Strength-based Workshops

TEDx Talk Playful inquiry


If you’ve ever done any Improv, you already may be familiar with the “Yes and” technique.
When you hear ‘Yes but” from a colleague, a friend or even a family member, you are likely to feel disengaged. At best, you stop listening, at worse you do the same to others: “Yes but”.
What happens when you hear Yes… BUT ? It’s so natural after all to find what is not working well in anything.
Research shows that Yes BUT… acts on our state of mind and nervous system, and limits the possibilities while a Yes And opens up possibilities, allows you to expand on ideas, and based on the response of the other person, you start a process of co-creation.
“Yes and” is much more than an improvisation technique, it is a posture, it is a philosophy of life, it is an “open space” for collaboration.
I think it’s high time to unlearn the from Yes but and pay attention to Yes and.

Today my special guest is none other than the founder of  Positivity Strategist, Robyn Stratton-Berkessel. I was lucky enough to do a Discovery interview with Robyn while doing my Appreciative Inquiry certification with the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry at Champlain College.  I am so happy to share our discussion with you!



As an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner, I wonder how the Anticipatory and Poetic principles come into play in the life you lead and the work you do.

The definition of Appreciative Inquiry is quite prosaic  in my thinking, and that is,  it’s  the co-operative and co-evolutionary approach to discover the best in human and organizational systems. And I think it’s a little prosaic after living with Appreciative Inquiry almost 18 years, that once the principles and the Anticipatory and the Poetic that you reference, two of those and there are in fact 10: five foundation and five so called emerging.  Once they become integrated into our life, and who we are I think appreciative inquiry is far more of a practice that addresses not only the work that we do, but who we are in the world.

And we talk about AI as a way of being, and a way of doing. So, with the Anticipatory in the Poetic principles that you’re referencing, when we think about the more positive our future, or the more positive images we hold of the future, the more likely we are to live into that. So that Anticipation is key. And we can shape our futures by virtue of the images we hold the language we use, the work that we do, the relationships that we have. So, in anticipation of what is possible.


So, it’s that sensation of possibility that is so rich, the poetic is something that, to me affirms life. And I think why I say that the original definition of Appreciative Inquiry is a little prosaic it’s because that affirmation of life, and touching into the wholeness of our full being is only truly appreciated once you’ve had the opportunity to be appreciative inquiry. And that for me, is living into the principles. So, with the Instagram feed, I have to say that Nature is my nurturer. I just love being in nature. And I live in, in Florida at the moment, and it’s very tropical. So, there’s a lot of natural beauty around and the water and so on. And my husband was a photographer by profession. So, I’ve, I’ve learned something about photography, and all our vacations are around photography. So, the poetic lens, you know, the lens of looking at through with an appreciative eye,  what is life giving, is the poetic principle. And I think that comes out for me in those two principles, and maybe that’s what you’re responding to, on the Instagram feed, and that the pics that are there.


If you had to define Ai, what role would the word curiosity play? In your podcast, you always welcome your listeners congratulating them on being curious. Why is that important in Appreciative Inquiry?

Curiosity, it’s linked to inquiry, and it’s being open to possibilities again, and I like to think of it it’s like, it’s, again, moving to the more philosophical, I mean, AI is really a methodology and a practice for OD. But as I referenced earlier, it also is a way of being and a philosophy in the world. And so, when I think about curiosity, it’s being open hearted. So, you know, coming with an open heart, as well as an open mind and staying in that place of inquiry. And so, I’ve always rebelled, and this is perhaps to do with my Australian heritage of being anti-authoritarian by culture, against the word “expert”.

I’ve rejected the term expert. I think we’re all so called experts, if you will, in what we do, but to be perceived as an expert at something I find difficult to accept. So, I think when you’re curious, you don’t come necessarily across as being an expert  in something.  I’m not saying it’s inappropriate, or it’s negative. It’s just that I think curiosity is more about, well, I have more to learn. I don’t know everything, and I’m here to learn with you. And, you know, the students, when I’m teaching, I talk about my students as co learners.  I know we’ll get to social constructionism but  there is this construct that there’s the teacher and the student, but I love the expression that ” when the student is ready, the teacher emerges.”
It is that co creative, that collaboration, that curiosity coming from a place of curiosity, enables, it’s all about affirming life, and what can be, and I think that’s why nature is so important to me law, because there is such an abundance of everything in nature. You can discover and you can find out so much more when you’re curious when you’re when you’re walking in nature or playing in nature. So yeah, curiosity is really about being open hearted, open minded, and really, just wanting to find out more about the way the World works. There’s always other ways of seeing things. And all of these things are kind of interconnected, right, you can see the connection between a lot of these different principles.


I think it will interest a lot of people because expert Thought Leaders are very well regarded in our world of knowledge. And it brings me to this connection. Curiosity is open heart open mind. And, the realization of the importance of connecting your heart, and your head, and, and your mind. You mentioned at one point in one of your podcasts that you were very much living in your head. And on the other hand, you are very curious, so open to sensations and feelings and therefore the curiosity of the heart. And you can be a curious expert, which I think you are. You are definitely a thought leader for me.
So, let’s continue with the next question, which is around Season Four of your podcast, which was about a topic you did not know ( back to talking about expert and curiosity). It was Appreciative embodying, and I love how you are demonstrating the power of Beginner’s Mind, to curiosity. The topic of embodying AI came up when you became sick and had no energy. And I find it amazing how, as an AI practitioner, you’ve used AI to empower yourself to question to inquire your inner self outer world to find new possibilities in a complex and difficult time.
Would you have other examples you’d like to share of a time when you experienced AI doing its best work having impact on others? Or even you spoke about organizational development? impact on an organization or community?


I think you know, coming out of last year 2020 is such a story, such an indication of how we can default to AI. Those of us who have the opportunity to know about Ai, what AI can offer us as a worldview, as a philosophy as a process and as a practice, I talk about the four P’s: AI as a philosophy, as a set of principles as a process and as a practice.
So those of us who have the good fortune to know this, we can apply it to suffering and grieving, as much as to know, focusing on the strengths and the successes of the past. And I think it’s in these challenging times, both personally and in society, in society when we think about it,  a lot of the social injustices that we’re also encountering, other pandemics that we can have both the empathy and the compassion, along with our curiosity, if you like, so there’s curiosity with compassion.


And we are able to reframe a lot of the pain in ways that are still very honoring and respectful. But helping ourselves and others to see there are other ways of seeing there are other ways of being in the world. And so, I think, now is a wonderful opportunity. We’re almost at a pivotal moment. And I know you’re working with AI and studying AI, and I’m sure you’ve addressing this in your own inquiries, and studies and case studies and so on yourself.
But I think this is such a classic example of AI is not just about the positive. And in fact, I started to get a little concerned about my brand, which is positivity strategist, thinking, Oh, my God, people are just going to think I’m all about having a smiley face and a happy day. And it’s not that at all. So, in fact, I asked David Cooperrider about that. I said, you know, when I first started with appreciative inquiry and I first started learning it, and that was a Case Western Reserve, in 2003, I asked: “Is appreciative inquiry, all about having a smiley face?”.  And I was a little skeptical because I was actually at that time looking to put another tool in my OD toolkit. But after the Discovery interview, and the intimacy and seeing the depth and the breadth and the theoretical underpinnings and the practice, I very quickly changed my mind. So, I know I’m giving you a rather complicated long answer.

Some examples then, other than coming out of, I ‘m hopeful that we’re coming out of the pandemic right now, globally, I have found that Appreciative Inquiry has definitely helped me in hard times, as you refer to,  I had cancer 15 years ago. It wasa very bad cancer stage four, and you know, it was life threatening. And my oncologist said to me, and this is what shifted me, he didn’t know anything about Appreciative Inquiry. He knew that I like to run and walk along the beach, and I was, you know, always outdoors. And I said to him, if I take,  (in a very kind of aggressive manner, I suppose, even though I knew about Ai, I was kind of stressed),  I said,   “if I follow your advice”, which was radiation treatment, and chemotherapy things that I was really resisting –  I said, “if I follow your, your protocols, what will my life be like, in two years?” Because  I had maybe a year to live. And he said, “I imagine that you’ll be running along the beach doing the work you love, and what more can I say to you?” And he had me, he was able to give me a vision of a future that I could align with. And as I say, he just asked me a question, how I imagine your life will be, you know, just as you wanted, and I said, okay, and that this just gave me a sense of relief and a sense of trust. And I then committed to, you know, all the horrible treatments that I was so resistant to. So that’s another personal story.
And I’ve got many organizational stories to tell. I mean, a very quick one.

So, this was an engineering organization. And there’s actually a case study on my website. And they were in the defense industry. And again, I had some resistance, did I really want to work with a defense organization, but my client, my direct client was the Diversity and Inclusion executive. And so, I thought her objective was to bring diversity, equity and inclusion into the strategic agenda. And this was a very male oriented engineering culture. And with a lot of ex military folk working there, so they did this stuff in the military. And so, we did an Appreciative Inquiry Summit there. I was the consultant, she engaged. And there were over 300 people in the room and after their first discovery interview, and that’s the first interview that we design. And there’s a long process that we got to that. One of the chief executive officers, a white man stood up and looked down at the interview partner he had, who was an African American guy who, you know, didn’t have a very elevated position in the organization. And he declared, you know, he was about the first person to speak after all of these interviews. And he said, I have a confession to make. I have been tolerating DEI in this organization. And I’ve done it a disservice, from here on in, I commit to you all, I’m going to embrace it. And that just set the tone, it was almost like the permission regrettably, you know, it happens in organizational context, where you have usually white men of privilege, who give permission to people to kind of be a bit themselves. So, it was almost like those, you could feel this collective like, gasp of Oh, my God, we have permission to be who we want to be. He was very powerful. And that’s what I find that can happen. You know, that’s the magic we talk about when we design the right questions, and engage people in conversation, conversations about things they care about, which is usually their future.


Yes, I was just about to say that’s what great conversations do to people, they shift or they give this aha moment that you wouldn’t have found out about unless you asked those powerful generative questions, work on as Appreciative inquiry practitioners. And what I have close to my heart is to say that those questions and the building creating of those questions are feasible. Anybody can do them, anybody can, you can teach, you can learn that. And Appreciative Inquiry just develops that muscle, even more intensively. But I’m not surprised about the first step of AI being this discovery. And already, they’re having an impact on people and the way they think.

(INTERMISSION) Today, we invite you to listen with a beginner’s mind, and see how you could use the Yes, and in your life.  My podcast is usually in French, you can find a condensed version of this episode in French. But once in a while, I’ll do an English version with them special guests, like today, sign up for my newsletter to stay in touch, because I’d love to start the conversation with you the appreciative way.

Robyn: Being Ai and Moving out of your head

And, you know, this question came out of the season on appreciative embodying, right. And so, I mean, one of the things that I was curious about when I started that particular season is, for me living, living as an AI practitioner, or as an AI person, you know, the being part of AI really had to be integrated into the body. And so, I was curious about how, how that came about. And so, what you’re saying here about the various, the intimacy and the conversations that you have, through these generative questions, when they touch, when they move out of their head, they go from their head space, as I like to say, and they touch your heart, and you feel it in your body, that’s essentially the embodiment piece.  I used to live very much in my head. And, and so I’ve, I’ve been actively working out in, it’s always about, you know, the practice and, and consciously working at shifting, you know, and so I just think that the being the embodiment pieces, so much, is so valuable, so important. And that, of course, brings in all the positive emotions and the value that we know from neuroscience about the positive emotions and what that does. chemically, and neurologically, you know, come together.


Yes, these terms are a little bit obtuse. As constructionist, we say that it’s about an orientation to life, it’s not about this belief, or this. It’s not a religion, it’s nothing like that. It’s just a way of looking at the world, right? It’s a perspective on the world. And with social construction, we say that our worlds, the worlds that we live are actually constructed through, or created through the words that we use, and how we engage in relational processes. And even if you think about, you know, our very conception, before we’re even born, is a relational process. And so, we say that, you know, the idea and this is very much a Western notion that it’s the self and the power of the individual. With social construction, we say it is in alignment, and it is in collaboration with others, that we shape the world. And so, our family, our structures, our policies, our educational system, our police practices, all of these things have come about through how we use words, the language, the linguistic, and then how people come together and coalesce around a specific, you know, principle or practice.
My grand-mother and mother would say to me things like “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you”. And I have changed that, I don’t believe in that so much, I think words can hurt you very much. And again, we only have to think about, you know, the kinds of language we use, and how we might use derogatory terms or sexist terms or racist terms against each other, that is very destructive, and it feeds into the narrative that we live into.
Part of the construct is, actually this is part of poetic principle, but they’re all linked, that we can change our stories by changing our words, and changing who we hang out with. So, to think that we live in a world or that we are independent, how the news media shapes us how, our history shapes us, how our culture shapes us, from a socialist constructionist perspective, they’re very important to really recognize that, that we are created or that we are we shape ourselves and our realities in relational ways.


I realize that a lot of our myth of a good leader, a powerful or empowered person relies on the Self, it is Ego-centric. It is almost ego centric, whereas the constructionist principle allows us to open the space so that we become not ego but Eco, co create, collaborate, co think everything becomes, of course, impacted by the other as well in your space. There is an African A proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a kid”. And it’s true. It’s through all those relationships that we become who we are. And not only the ones that we had in the past, but the one, the ones we are developing now, the people you have around you and that you meet through. And again, if we link it back to the appreciative inquiry, five D process, exactly the discovery interview, you learn you, you actually get to know somebody else by asking those questions, which is usually very constructionist, I guess, in principle, yeah.
What do you think the world is most calling for from AI today, where is AI’s greatest opportunity to have even more impact in the future?


I’m thinking more about how do we use appreciative inquiry, to heal some of the brokenness in this world?
And if anything, I think if we can focus on how, we can create deeper and more meaningful connections, through listening to people’s experiences and stories, that is a wonderful way of, you know, finding our common humanity.
So, we have a great opportunity to do that coming out of a challenging time, because if there’s ever been anything in our lifetimes that we’re aware of, that talks to our interconnectedness, this is the moment right do these other times. So, leveraging that I think is, you know, a fantastic opportunity. A lot of the people that you’re connecting with, and in my world of the appreciative inquiry world, we think that with this approach, this worldview, and the practices that we have, and the process, that we are well poised to help people heal, and connect and share their stories. That is the opportunity we have today. The images we have of the future shape cultures.
If we have a healthy, collaborative, compassionate image of humanity going forward, we’re more likely to live into and create that culture together than the opposite. It speaks to our responsibility to share those kinds of images that we want, you know, what is the direction we want to go in? And what have we learned that we can do more of? And that’s the kind of foundational approach short, simple questions that Ai asks. So, I think those things are still highly important and highly relevant, and perhaps even more relevant today.

That’s why I feel so important to have the conversations we’re having today, for example, together and, and try to not convince anybody to use this. But to be curious about it.
And even if you remember only one principle because it speaks to you, then you can practice it and see where it leads. And that’s what I love. Also, you don’t have to take everything, just a small piece of it. And already the world changes. Because as we know, questions are not neutral. And the question already changes the atmosphere and the interaction.
Many clients ask us how do I find my voice? What is appreciative leading?
What in your mind, or right now, as we’re talking are some of the most impactful practices you would like to share with others who are seeking to leverage AI?


Something that just came to mind now and relates to your previous question, I think, another possibility of what’s required for appreciative inquiry or how appreciative inquiry can have a, you know, facilitate deeper and more meaningful and more life affirming conversations, is a conversation I’m engaged in a conversation with some of my AI practitioner colleagues around power and privilege. And again, this comes out of a lot of the social unrest that has been with us for ever, but it just came to the fore, particularly the United States, and I know you’re in Canada, but in the United States where I’m living.
So that’s just one thing I wanted to bring in. I think, you know, talking being vulnerable, I think is being vulnerable, is one of the gifts that appreciative inquiry allows us to be when we feel that we’re safe to have conversations like this. So, you know, as a facilitator, you know, you think about psychological safety as a leader you think about, well, if you’re a compassionate, loving leader, then you would think about, you know, am I creating the right kind of context and environments for the people that I’m leading to feel that they can be truthful to themselves, and I’m responsive to what their needs are, and what their aspirations are, and what their visions are.  They’re the kinds of things that I think Appreciative Inquiry, through the conversations and the deliberate language that we use, facilitate enable to happen.


So, I think you know, what you’re doing: Ongoing learning, I’m forever a student of Appreciative Inquiry and Neuroscience and Positive psychology, all of these things are very interconnected and related and support each other. In fact, you know, I do mindfulness practice, because I think, you know, that’s being very centered and being very conscious  how I’m relating and how I’m feeling and what I’m doing is really important. And that links to self care, I think, you know, my appreciative embodying season was around about finding self care, that’s important. Of course, I mentioned compassion number of times.


The other thing I think, when it comes to appreciative leading, and you, I’m sure you notice that all of these titles other than the first now the first one was very general, but then appreciative voice, and appreciative leading and appreciative embodying and appreciative all the social construction, but in the middle there, were all about the ongoing capacity. So, it wasn’t about appreciative leadership, the state of leadership, it was the very ACT of leading, and it wasn’t about embodiment. It was Act of embodying so I’m, I’m very attuned to the process of, you know, being engaged in this. So it’s the appreciative leading is standing is the activity of leading through an appreciative mindset or appreciative lens. And part of that is kind of, I think, being very open to possibilities.  Joep C de Jong, Dutch AI practitioner, he was a guest, and he introduced The L Word, you know, talked about leaders who love. And we’re talking more and more about the quality of love and what that means in community and in organizations, and of course, in families. And you can be leading in any of these contexts, right, leading in your family leading in your community, leading in your recreational pursuits, leading, you know, at work, leading in your study, so all of these things, how do you take on this act of leading through a lens that is valuing, and inclusive and collaborative and appreciative? So I think it’s all of those, they’re all very positive states. So being attuned to what’s the state, or the mindset that I’m coming from. And, you know, that’s that appreciative eye or the poetic principle. And I think one more thing I might say to this is, I think something that I find  works for me very well is the ability to reframe, so, you know, taking the usual suspects. And if it has a negative or a direction that isn’t serving, how might we reframe that to something that we do want or aspire to, or is possible? So, I think that takes a skill and all of this takes work. All of it is something that we can learn. So that’s why I put probably at the top of my list, ongoing learning.

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