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Appreciative Inquiry: How to ask questions that focus on growth

How an approach from organisational psychology can help journalists craft questions to make their reporting more constructive. Part 6 of the series “Psychology for Journalists”.

By Margarida Alpuim and Katja Ehrenberg

2 Figuren beim Interview

Appreciative Inquiry in a nutshell

Human systems move in the direction of the questions they most frequently and authentically ask.

Cooperrider & Godwin

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of interviewing someone and realised that you’ve started to go down a spiral of negative questioning, ending up with answers that only allow you to tell a rather heavy-hearted story, full of problems but no solutions? Many times, when we are covering an issue, usually focused on something that went wrong (e.g. a conflict, a socially vulnerable context), our instinct is to attempt to understand the negative causes or impact of the situation, e.g. asking “When did the aggressions start?”, “What consequences does your family suffer?”

Now, imagine that, instead, you flipped the script, (also) asking: “When was the last time this community’s members felt close and connected? What was happening at the time?” or “What three hopes do you have for your family’s future? Which of those is most likely to come true first?”

These last examples could have been part of an interview plan based on Appreciative Inquiry, an approach to questioning that advocates for constructive and strengths-based conversations, instead of focusing on a problem-solving analysis.

Appreciative Inquiry was created in the 1980s by US-American organisational development expert David Cooperrider and other researchers (1) and it has since been adopted in many other fields — from government and education to family and personal relationships (2).

Appreciative Inquiry is based on theoretical principles supported by empirical research, and it provides a roadmap for an inquiry process with “generative” questions — invigorating creative questions that lead to higher levels of well-being and to sustainable social development (3). The roadmap is called the “4-D cycle” and it consists of four stages: discovery, dream, design and destiny (1).

The idea that a constructive inquiry style promotes sustainable development is similar to other strengths-based models which inspire much of Bonn Institute’s work. The Solutions Journalism Network, for instance, has been doing great work for a decade, focusing, among other aspects, on deeply listening; asking constructive questions that “complicate the narrative” (4); and reporting on successes and failures in the search for responses to problems. Another example is the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, developed by US-American psychotherapists Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg (5). We will expand on that later on. Appreciative Inquiry is unique in that it proposes a specific model to structure the inquiry process, as well as a set of features that characterise Appreciative Inquiry-based questions.

In this article of the series “Psychology for Journalists”, you will learn about:

  • The theoretical foundations that support Appreciative Inquiry’s approach.
  • The 4-D cycle.
  • How to apply Appreciative Inquiry to journalistic interviewing.
  • Why this approach is not merely about being positive.

Theoretical and empirical foundations

As Appreciative Inquiry evolved, David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney systematised “five principles and scholarly streams” they considered central to its “theory-base of change” (6). Here, we complement those principles, as described by their authors, with findings from other fields of psychological research.


Constructionist principle: “Words create worlds” — According to this assumption, there is no objective reality. For proponents of this perspective — e.g. renowned psychologist Paul Watzlawick, one of the biggest names in human communication theory —, reality is constructed and perceived through social interaction and language. In Watzlawick’s work, the term used is “constructivism” (7). Based on this principle, the world is not a fixed construct waiting to be observed, but is instead established through people's communication. If that is true, then the more we use language that is focused on solutions and constructive relationships, the more likely it is that reality will come closer to that vision.

Because the news is one of the most common ways people have access to what happens in the world, the responsibility journalists have to choose their words carefully, not only in their stories but also in their research interviews, is immense. In Part 2 of this series, “The power of language”, we learned how language has a real impact on emotions, thoughts and attitudes.

Simultaneity principle: “Inquiry creates change”— “The moment we ask a question, we begin to create change” (8), i.e. influence reality in some way. One good example of this principle in action is the so-called "order effect", which shows the impact that the first question a journalist asks about a certain issue can have on the interviewee's thoughts and statements for the rest of the conversation (you can learn more about this effect in article 7).

Anticipatory principle: “Images inspire action” ­— The vision people have of the future influences what they do in the present. Research in social cognition, for instance, suggests that creating mental images of a future one hopes to achieve (this is called “mental simulation”) can have a positive effect, under certain circumstances, in engaging in behaviours toward the desired goal and in problem-solving activities, as well as in emotional regulation (9, 10).

A journalistic discourse that evokes images of a hopeful future will most likely diminish feelings of apathy or helplessness, and make people feel more confident and active about their own lives.

Positive principle: “Positive questions lead to positive change” — There is a lot of psychological research that shows how limiting exclusively focusing on problems can be, and that focusing on what works allows “individuals, communities, and societies to flourish” (11).

  • In social psychology, for example, “self-fulfilling prophecies” research has demonstrated the powerful influence that positive expectations and beliefs can have on positive responses and behaviours of individuals as well as their interaction partners (12).

  • Research on the Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions (13), developed by Barbara Fredrickson, a reference expert in the field, has consistently shown that when people experience positive emotions (joy, interest, love, etc.) they become more open to new ideas, more creative, more prone to engagement in new social relationships and activities, etc., “which in turn serves to build their enduring personal resources” — including those that are physical, intellectual, social and psychological (13).

  • Also, as mentioned in the introduction, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg’s Solution-Focused Brief Therapy is an evidence-based brief therapy approach that invites people to focus on what is working or has worked, in order to articulate and envision future specific goals and behaviours (5, 14). Some tenets of the approach are well aligned with Appreciative Inquiry’s spirit: “If it works, do more of it”; “The language for solution development is different from that needed to describe a problem”; “The future is both created and negotiable” (15).

  • Regarding larger scale impacts, findings from community psychology suggest that the so-called SPEC approach (focus on Strengths, Prevention, Empowerment and Community change) is more cost-effective than deficits-based models, and therefore more sustainable (16).

Poetic principle — The original principles include this additional one, which states that “human organisations are a lot more like an open book than, say, a machine. An organisation’s story is constantly being co-authored. [...] We can inquire into the nature of alienation or joy, enthusiasm or low morale, efficiency or excess” (6), also alluding to constructionist assumptions.

Other proposals have been made in the last decades, but these five principles have remained generally accepted by the Appreciative Inquiry community since they were first articulated in 2001. However, it is important to stress that focusing on the positive is not about ignoring the problems. We’ll talk more about this below.

Appreciative Inquiry for journalism - Reporting and interviews based on the 4-D cycle

For the founders of Appreciative Inquiry, it was very important that the approach not be reduced to just a method, a set of activities or rules; the main emphasis was on its principles and on being a paradigm to facilitate generative conversations. But as David Cooperrider and his colleagues started putting Appreciative Inquiry into practice in various organisational settings, some stages of the process became more stable and were finally arranged in a sequence. In 1997, a systematised set of guidelines to implement the model was developed (1, 17). It is called the 4-D cycle.

The 4-D cycle starts with choosing an affirmative topic followed by four stages: discovery, dream, design and destiny. Quick note: Some use the word “define” for the starting point, therefore calling it a 5–D cycle (1). Both terms are accepted.

While Appreciative Inquiry and the 4-D cycle have been around for decades, to our knowledge there are only a few who have applied it directly and comprehensively to journalism and reporting. In a 2019 collection of essays [Interviewing: The Oregon Method, from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication], Mike Fancher, US-American journalist and former senior editor of the Seattle Times, advocates for the integration of Appreciative Inquiry in journalism, describing Appreciative Inquiry interviews as one of the solutions that could help reinvent journalism, so that people trust in and feel connected to news again (18). There are also a few examples of Appreciative Inquiry tenets applied directly to reporting: a program in Malawi, Chuma Chobisika (Hidden Treasures), explicitly used this model to collect stories from local farmers about solutions they had successfully implemented for sustainable uses of natural resources, so that the audience could apply them in their own lives (19).

The goal of this article is to create a systematic implementation of Appreciative Inquiry in journalism, since these stages can be a source of inspiration for solution journalists both when framing issues and preparing/conducting interviews. In this section, we are going to explore and display, side by side, theoretical descriptions of each stage of the cycle and potential interview questions, based on those notions.

Affirmative topic


Every inquiry or project starts with a topic. In the case of the Appreciative Inquiry model, the topic is “affirmative” — it represents what people want to improve or want to have more of. One way to do this is to articulate the problem and then reframe it into an affirmative sentence or question. This is the foundation of the 4-D process and spending time on this step is generally regarded as “essential to the overall success” of the cycle (17), because it sets the stage for all the questions to come. For the inquiry to be as fruitful as possible, the topic should be both compelling and of high interest to those who will be involved.

In Practice

In reporting, this is somewhat equivalent to the angle of the story. What do you want to learn more about? Write it as a sentence or a question from a positive perspective. For instance, in the context of a natural disaster or accident, instead of asking “What did this community do when they lost everything?” you could reframe it as “Which (personal/institutional) resources did this community use to build back their lives?”

After a story has been written, many times this approach is articulated in headlines like “How X are doing Y” (e.g. “How one small Syrian NGO is tackling period poverty, one pad at a time”).

It’s also possible to set an affirmative topic through framing, like in a story from the Portuguese online media outlet Mensagem de Lisboa (April 2023): “Climatic refuges. When the heat hits, where does the city cool us off?” . The article shows which parts of the city are most impacted by heat and why, and how other areas of the city offer a respite.

Discovery: The best of what is (recalling successes)


After setting the topic, it’s time to start the actual inquiry in four stages. In the Discovery stage, questions are meant to help individuals or the community recall moments of success and excellence, (re)discover strengths and potential, and co-construct new narratives.

This stage is very familiar to those who engage in solutions journalism: “What makes solutions journalism compelling is the discovery the journey that brings the reader or viewer to an insight about how the world works and, perhaps, how it could be made to work better” (Bansal & Martin, 2015, cited in 20).


In Practice

The main idea in this stage is to ask interviewees to recall and highlight past successes and strengths. For example, you might ask:

  • Describe a time when things worked really well. What were the conditions that made that possible? Who was doing what? What did you do?

  • What are the core factors that give life to your community?

  • What do you value most about your community?

  • What do you value most about yourself in this context? What are you very good at?

  • What would cease to exist without you/your community?

  • What have others done in the past that surprised you in a positive way?

  • What is your most memorable moment of this issue? What positive experiences did you share with others at that time?

Dream: What might be (envisioning the future)


People identify and express what they envision for the future of their community or group. This phase is about describing what it will be like when the vision is fully implemented — the anticipatory principle is particularly inspiring here. Taking into consideration what was described in the discovery phase, the goal here is to expand on that potential. This phase is intended to be invigorating, generative and practical.

In Practice

These questions are intended to help interviewees get out of the “here and now” and envision a desired future.

  • If you could make three wishes to improve this community/situation, what would they be?

  • What are your three most important hopes for the future of this situation?

  • Picture an ideal day in this community. What is the first thing you see when you leave the house? Name three things that make you feel good.

  • Imagine that you’re exactly where you want to be in one year. What are the biggest things that have been accomplished between now and then? What is happening? How are people interacting?

  • What do you think other people in this situation hope for?

  • Is there something you wish for that nobody else has thought of?

  • Have you heard of any unexpected, good ideas?

  • What common visions for the future do you and other people share?

Design: How to co-construct (creating a plan)


While the dream phase articulates a vision of what people believe could be a better future, the design phase defines what they want to do to work toward that vision. Here, people identify concrete steps that need to be taken and create a plan.

In Practice

At this stage, we want interviewees to articulate concrete actions to achieve their envisioned future. This phase is particularly helpful for impactful climate journalism: Because climate change is often felt to be very complex and broad (in time and space), asking those impacted what concrete actions they can take in the present to contribute to change can promote a perspective of empowerment (21).

  • What are three things you could do in your life to move in the direction of your vision?

  • What personal strengths can you/your community use to contribute to the desired future?

  • What have you/your community done in the past that was helpful in similar contexts?

  • What can keep you motivated to bring about the new behaviours?

  • Name two other important actors for this transformation process. What innovative actions do you believe they can bring?

Destiny: What will be (describing next steps)


This is a very practical stage: people bring the designed actions into the daily routine of the group. Everyone is invited to a planning session, commitment is collectively assumed, and each person must have a clear idea of what to do, day to day or week to week, for the successful implementation of the design plan.

In Practice

In reporting, “destiny” questions can be addressed to all stakeholders involved in the situation being covered — citizens, decision-makers, members of different groups, etc. For instance, to decision-makers, questions such as “What is the first concrete thing you will do regarding this issue and when are you going to do it?” can be asked to help the audience envision change, as well as to ensure accountability.

  • What is one thing you can start doing tomorrow?

  • What will your first next step be? When are you going to take it? What is your second step?

  • Who can you share those next steps with?

  • What creative thing can you do if something goes wrong or doesn’t go as planned?

Before we continue, a warning from Gervase Bushe, one of the world's top AI consultants: During the Appreciative Inquiry process interviewees shouldn’t be prevented from talking about what they don’t like or what is making them feel uncomfortable, because that “is likely to turn people off”(22). Instead, the idea is to give people room to share those feelings and experiences, and ask amplifying future-oriented questions, such as “what do you want more of?” (22).

Why Appreciative Inquiry is not sugarcoating

Just as Appreciative Inquiry, solutions journalism is also sometimes misunderstood as reporting that focuses on “good news” and ignores or undervalues problems. But just like Appreciative Inquiry, solutions journalism’s focus on what works is much more than being positive. Solutions journalism is rigorous reporting (23) about lessons learned “to inform the public and policymakers about what works and what doesn’t” (24).

“The thing that concerns me most about the current excitement and interest in appreciative inquiry (AI) is that many of the consultants and managers [...] seem to get blinded by the ‘positive stuff’”, Bushe says (22). However, Appreciative Inquiry is not about being positive, it is about being “generative” (22). According to him, that means being on “the quest for new ideas, images, theories”, by making “available decisions and actions that weren’t available or didn’t occur to us before” (22) .This is something solutions journalists probably relate to very easily.

However, Bush says that the transformational process cannot happen by “simply getting people to tell their ‘best of’ stories” (22). Appreciative Inquiry processes require us to craft questions very carefully. The above questions are just examples, and of course will be written to fit the individual topic and story. But there are some general characteristics that most questions should have (22):

Appreciative Inquiry questions are mindfully designed to:

  • be surprising and invigorating;
  • generate curiosity and creativity;
  • evoke emotional experiences, leading to people feeling connected and engaged;
  • encourage storytelling;
  • focus on growth;
  • challenge common assumptions and open new perspectives;
  • engage a widespread group of people, so that the overall community feels committed to bring about the change they design.

Bushe, G. (2007). Appreciative Inquiry is not (just) about the positive. OD Practitioner, 39, 30-35.

About the authors

Margarida Alpuim is a Portuguese psychologist and journalist. She completed her master's in Community Psychology at the University of Miami, where she focused on issues of collective well-being. As a journalist, Margarida wants to explore more constructive ways to tell stories that consider both the audience and media professionals. Margarida currently works from Lisbon on innovative projects that unite psychology and journalism.

Katja Ehrenberg holds a PhD in psychology and is professor at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. For almost 25 years, she has conducted research, taught and published on topics of social, communication, organisational and health psychology. As a freelance systemic consultant, she advises teams and individuals and enjoys applying social science findings to the various challenges of everyday human (work)life.


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