Appreciative Inquiry: An Effective Tool to Connect Across Boundaries

Appreciative Inquiry humankind
BY JARROD RUSSELL

The best conversations are often driven by sincere questions and active listening. Appreciative Inquiry, defined as the act of recognizing the best in people or the world around us, is a great way to frame questions, enrich conversations, and overcome potential impasses between people.

In June 2016, humankind co-hosted an event with Jeffrey Brown at his beautiful San Diego studio. This was the fourth and final appreciative inquiry event in a series that encouraged attendees to share their stories. The previous three were at San Diego Museum of Man, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, and UC San Diego. A special thanks to Jeffrey and his team over at Tallgrass Pictures for supporting this event.

Sharing of our own stories is fundamental to appreciative inquiry: by sharing personal stories we uncover new pathways to developing mutual respect and positive action between people. And this is precisely what we want to achieve at humankind, particularly around challenging topics.

Thanks to these four events humankind learned the incredible power of grounding conversations in personal experience--rather than opinion or rhetoric. Appreciative inquiry really can help deepen connections. We’ve put it into action and seen the results.

For this fourth and final event, the topic of the day was focused on exploring the following questions within the San Diego community:

Has there been a time when you felt division, separation, or fear and were able to transform that relationship into a positive connection with the person, group, or community involved? What was the essence and/or circumstances that made that transformation possible?

While attendees’ personal situations were diverse, what their stories had in common revealed the underlying conditions that allow us to overcome division. From the stories we heard insights such as choosing courage over fear, developing compassion out of personal struggle, accepting to be vulnerable when feeling threatened. And of these insights, the next theme for humankind's work flowed naturally. Dignity.

How do we take indifference or conflict between people and turn it into an opportunity for meaningful connection? This is not a trivial question; however, it is incredibly timely and important given the level of polarization in America.

Based on our experience, those who were able to transcend divisiveness still felt a sense of respect, of being heard, in spite of division. There were many synonymous words used, but they all linked back to dignity.

This makes sense when looked at through the lens of the event’s guest speaker, Taylor Harrell. Taylor is a doctoral student in the University of San Diego’s Leadership Studies program, specializing in Organizational Leadership. Her video from the event is included below, in which she presented a report with the findings collected from the previous appreciative inquiry events.

When asked about what stood out to her from this series of events Taylor said, “What struck me the most about this research was that our ability to meaningfully connect across boundaries depends upon our willingness to confront the places within ourselves that feel fear and judgment. It depends upon our willingness to have clumsy conversations that shine a light on our assumptions about ourselves and the world.”

Taylor went on to add, “I think the next step for people is figuring out what to do when these relationships form. Insight and connection are beautiful, but they must manifest themselves in the physical world in the form of equity, inclusion, and justice. I believe humankind provides a launch pad for this process of social change.”

Taylor’s research interests include the impact of group dynamics on organizational decision-making and effectiveness as well as effective interventions that improve inter-group relations.


The learnings from this event sparked an idea that would last all of 2017: The Dignity Initiative. Want to affirm dignity in your community? Let us know.