Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Appreciative living

Where do I begin?

It's been more than a year since I posted a real update on my life.  There have been some snippets here and there - little vignettes that captured moments - and there have been more of those on the Facebook page than here on the blog.  But I haven't posted updates about the real stuff - the big stuff - going on behind the scenes.

My last real update was in September, 2011, when my dad's Alzheimer's was advancing rapidly and I felt like my life was in a tailspin.

So, what has changed since then?

Well.  Everything.

That's why the updates have been hard to post.  How do you write about everything?

So here are the thumbnails, to get you up to speed.

My parents moved to another state just a couple of months after that September post.  Bud had seen them every day since he was two months old - had lived in the same house with them since he was two years old - and then, suddenly, they moved two hours away.  It was a good move - it was the right move - but it was a big move.

My dad's Alzheimer's has continued to progress.  It's hard for everyone, though I imagine that it's hardest for my mom.  He just turned 90 - a happy occasion and a bittersweet milestone.  And, despite the distance, despite the difficulties, he and Bud continue to have a relationship that takes my breath away.

Bud and I are living in a residence hall on the college campus where I work.  The planets aligned at just the right time personally and professionally and the plan fell easily into place.  It's a few miles and a thousand light years from our little house on the dirt road in the woods, but it's been a good move for both of us.

My house is on the market.  Where it sits.  And sits.  And sits. 

There are new relationships in my life and in Bud's - new game-changing relationships with people who have come to mean more to us than we could possibly have predicted a year and a half ago. 

And, of course, there's Bud - the boy who has historically struggled with transition and change more than any other issues.  In this year full of external change - different settings and locales, new people in his daily life, new kinds of relationships - he has also turned 13, an age marked by tumultuous, ongoing internal changes.

So, yeah.  It's been a fast-paced, head-spinning, change-everything eighteen months for Bud and me.  And every bit of it has been hard and messy and challenging and painful and really, really good.

I can't really go into detail on any of it.  As I've said a million times before, I am hesitant to tell stories that are not mine alone - to share information that's not really mine to share.  So, instead, I want to tell you about something else - a philosophy that has helped ground me and guide me through this time of head-spinning change:

It's called Appreciative Inquiry.

I was introduced to the concept at an academic advising workshop at work almost two years ago.  The premise of the workshop went something like this:

You are an academic advisor.  You're meeting with an advisee about her mid-semester grades.  She has a D in Biology, Bs in Writing, Math, and History, and an A in Psychology.

How do you start the meeting?

If you're like most advisors, you start with a little chit chat - how are you doing, isn't this weather beautiful, my what a lovely scarf you're wearing - and then you jump to the heart of the matter: the D.  What's going on in Biology?

But the workshop encouraged a different approach - one called "appreciative advising" - in which the advisor follows the chit-chat with an entirely different focus: the A.  What's going on in Psychology?

It's a simple shift, but it's transformative.  It changes the whole paradigm of the conversation, moving it from "what's going wrong?" to "what's going right?"  It encourages the student to focus on her success - to identify and articulate why she is successful, what conditions are enabling her success, what talents she's using, what strategies are working.

And then, once the student has explored that, the question expands:  How can you do more of that?

In other words, what can we take from our analysis of your work in Psychology to apply to your work in Writing and Math and History and Biology?  How can we build on the success you have already established - the skills you already exhibit - the strategies you already know how to employ?

It's likely that an advising session framed through the lens of appreciative inquiry leads a student to feel  empowered and prepared for success, because it starts with the assumption of strength.  In contrast, the more traditional "What's going on in Biology?" conversation starts in a place of challenge.  It starts where the student feels least confident, where her footing is least sure.  It is a less sturdy foundation on which to build.

But it's not just a model for academic advising.  When my department was asked to re-engineer in an effort to save money and increase efficiency, we read  a monograph, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond, which introduces appreciative inquiry as a model for approaching organizational change.  The book transformed my thinking.  "It never occurs to us that we can fix an organization or even our society by doing more of what works," Hammond writes.  "We are obsessed with learning from our mistakes.  But, why not allow our successes to multiply enough to crowd out the unsuccessful?"

Hammond draws a distinction between having a problem-solving focus, which is how we typically approach change, and having an appreciative inquiry focus, which she suggests is more effective.  When we problem-solve, we try to do less of something we don't do well - we try to fix what's broken.  When we employ appreciative inquiry, we try to do more of what works - we try to capitalize on the things that are already effective.

Hammond suggests that the traditional problem-solving approach is the old "Don't think of an elephant" directive.  How do you NOT think of an elephant?  If you're like most of us, you start by thinking of an elephant, and then you try to unthink it.  The unthinking is nearly impossible to do, and you find yourself hopelessly stuck with a mind full of nothing but elephants.   

But what if the elephant is out of the equation entirely?  What if we use the appreciative inquiry model instead and we focus on the thing we want more of? What if we simply say, "Think of a lemur?"  Instantly, our imaginations are full of leaping, swinging primates, and there's not a trunk or an ivory tusk to be found.  Suddenly, through appreciative inquiry, we don't have to worry about the elephant problem, because it has gone away on its own.  There is no elephant to eliminate.

When we use appreciative inquiry, says Hammond - when we identify what's working and then do more of it - the problems that have existed will fade away naturally.  She identifies a four step process in making that happen:

- Appreciating and valuing the best of "what is"

- Envisioning "what might be"

- Dialoguing "what should be"

- Innovating "what will be"

It's a simple premise, but it can be difficult to employ - especially for those of us raised in a culture that has encouraged us to tackle problems head on - to focus on the D in Bio instead of on the A in Psych.

But I'm telling you - when I've been able to do it - when I have really focused on it and been very intentional about it - it works.  It's been instrumental in shaping organizational change in my workplace.  And, truly, I can't imagine how some of the changes that I've experienced over the past 18 months would have been possible had it not been for appreciative inquiry.

I wish I could say that things are leveling out in my life and that the waves of change have calmed, but I don't think that's the case.  That's life, though, right?  Change is the only constant.  There's a lot to think about, both in the short term and the long term, for Bud and for me.  At times, it can be completely overwhelming.  So I'm glad my subconscious led me back to this post today - a post that's been lingering in draft form for at least four months - to remind me that I already know what I need to do next.

Next, I need to figure out what's working.

And then, I need to do more of it.