Life re-design with Appreciative Inquiry (AI)

Look at your past through the lens of appreciation. Design your future by dreaming it up.

Like Comment

This is the holiday time! (at least for many people!) So, this is the time to travel, party with your family and friends, or enjoy a good book at the beach. And above all, this is the time to slow down, relax and turn off your mind!

Even though this is all true, during a holiday we often feel that is also time to put our lives in perspective, to reflect on what we envisioned and how we are actually doing in terms of our goals and resolutions… and, of course… on where we would like to be in the future!

But how can we do it in a positive way? In other words, how can we do it using the good feeling of the holidays, without being absorbed by the frustration of the unaccomplished goals, in order to return to our lives energised?

My suggestion is… Appreciative Inquiry (AI)!

AI is an approach to change that involves the discovery of what gives life and vitality to people, groups and organisations when they are at their best (Cooperider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008; Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010).

It is based on the art of asking questions, promoting meaningful conversations, and sharing stories about past and present successes, high-point moments and strengths, hopes and unexplored potentials, dreams and images of valued and possible futures (Cooperider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008; Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010).

As Sutherland (2012) points out, AI is a way of living and being. With AI we «change our default setting from focusing on what is wrong to seeing what is right. The more we do this in our personal lives, the better we are able we to respond appreciatively in our relationships, groups, and organizations.» (p. 21).

So, in this moment that we are reviving the legacy of Monty Python, AI is like the perfect lens to “Look on the Bright Side of Life”!

But how can you put the glasses of AI to help with your own your soul and heart-searching? Cooperider (the author of AI) and his colleagues have designed a solid framework and a set of valuable guidelines. I will try to summarize that brilliant work through the following five steps (Cooperider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008; Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010; Sutherland, 2012). I invite you to follow them! And in doing so, feel free to think, write, draw… whatever you feel more comfortable with in terms of giving wings to your imagination! .

Step 1 – Label this ‘Me, Myself and I’ Process

AI begins with a thoughtful and inspiring identification of what is called the Affirmative Topic. In other words, during this stage you have to name the main topic of your introspection and planning process. Some examples of Affirmative Topics would be: ‘Going Above and Beyond’, ‘Discovering News Ways’, ‘Happiness at My Life’, ‘Creative Growing’, ‘Being the Best’, “Me Tomorrow”, etc.

Step 2 – Discover You Past and Present Perfect

In this phase, your main task is to ask ”Who am I at my best? What is working well, and why?”. Thus, this is the moment for you to search and understand the successes and most vital moments of your life and/or year, and even to reflect about the positive exceptions in the negative events that you passed through. Same good questions that can guide you would be (choose the ones that you find more appealing to you):

  • What are you doing now that is working well?
  • What are the core factors that bring energy and vitality into your days?
  • Without being too humble, which ones of your qualities make you unique and strong?
  • What are your top strengths (use the strengths cards to help you find out)?
  • Describe an experience in your personal or professional life that was particularly meaningful for you. When and where did it occur? What worked well back then? Who was involved? Why was this experience so effective and memorable? What was inspiring?
  • What do you do when something threatening or stressful happens in your life to overcome it? What are your greatest strengths in these situations? What did you learn in the most recent and negative event that you went through?
  • What positive changes are you currently working on in your life that may lead you towards your best possible self?
  • What are the best things about close relationships within your life?
  • Describe a situation in your family or work community that made you feel loved.
  • Looking toward the future, what are you being called to become?
  • What two or three wishes do you have to further enhance your quality of life?

Now, please think about:

  • What was the most appreciative quotable quote that came out?
  • Did a particularly intriguing “golden innovation” emerge?
  • What three themes stood out most for you?
  • What small steps toward positive change emerged as being possible?
  • What broader steps of positive change emerged?

Step 3 – I Have a Dream

In this phase you will explore ‘what might be?’, your hopes and dreams, and you will envision a positive image of a desired future. To picture it you can do the next exercise:

Imagine a time in the future when you are sitting with your youngest grandchild or nephews and telling them the story of your life (and describing how wonderful it has been!).

  • What happened?
  • How is your life different?
  • What did you do that made a difference?
  • What decisions and choices did you make in order to accomplish that?
  • What were your main actions during your life?
  • What were the core events and stages in your personal and professional life?
  • Who was with you?

Now, please think about:

  • What are the three most energising themes emerge from your dream?
  • Based on your dream, what elements of your life —personal development, relationships, health, spirituality, professional development, and so on—offer the greatest opportunities for improvement?
  • What new possibilities highlighted by your dream best build on the strengths of your core self?

Step 4 – Startup Your Design

This is time to design your future! It is more than a vision; it needs to be a challenging statement describing your ideal life or ‘what should be?’. So, this is the moment to reflect on ‘What steps do I need to take to have my best possible life?’. To design your future:

First consider some key elements:

  • Internal – goals; strengths; meaning and purpose; health; preferred areas for development; etc.
  • External – relationships; groups that I am involved (family, friends, work, community, etc.); material resources; etc.

Now, think about:

  • How do I describe my ideal life? What are the key elements? What provocative propositions can I create? What principles do I have?
  • Who needs to be involved?

Finally, synthesise your Design using this table:

1. Your Chosen Design Elements

2. What you Learned in Your Discovery

3. What Your Dream Suggest You Want / Wishes

4. Your Ideas /Provocative

Propositions for the Future

5. Timing


Step 5 –

You finally got to the last stage! And the future is right now! So, this is the phase that you focus on ‘what will be?’, on the commitments and paths you have to take to move forward, on the inspired and innovative actions you have to carry out in order to get closer to your ideal life. So, you have to work on the which, when, and how to accomplish those key actions.

1. Key/High Priority Design Ideas/Propositions






A final suggestion: The process can be even more meaningful if you do it and share it with a significant one, because you can deepen your stories, dreams and conversations together. So, invite a co-worker, a friend or your partner to do it with you!


Cooperider, D. L., Whitney, D. & Stavros, J. M. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook - For Leaders of Change (2nd. ed.). Brunswick/San Francisco: Crown Custom Publishing, Inc., and Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Whitney, D. & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2010). The Power of Appreciative Inquiry - A Practical Guide to Positive Change (2nd. ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Sutherland, K. (2012). Appreciative Inquiry. In K. Sutherland (Ed.), Make Light Work in Groups: 10 Tools to Transform Meetings, Companies and Communities (pp. 17-31). London: Incite Press.

Dr Ilona Boniwell

Strategic Programme Leader, MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and CEO, Positran, Positran and Anglia Ruskin University

Who am I? I suppose, the very first answer would be a “positive psychologist”, since all my career and professional achievements have something to do with this wonderful area of scholarship. I founded and headed the first Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) in Europe, created the European Network of Positive Psychology, organised the first European Congress of Positive Psychology (June 2002, Winchester), and was the first vice-chair of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Nowadays, I run the iMAPP, international MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, teach positive leadership at l’Ecole Centrale Paris (a top engineering school in France) and run Positran, a busy consultancy dedicated to achieving transformation through positive psychology. When it comes to my areas of expertise, I have quite a few passions: psychology of time, resilience, eudaimonic well-being and applications of positive psychology to oneself, leadership, coaching, parenting and education. I am the author or editor of six books (including Positive Psychology in a Nutshell and the Oxford Handbook of Happiness) and multiple academic and popular articles. My media work included BBC, Guardian, Times, Psychologies, Top Sante and Cosmopolitan. I am often invited to give keynote addresses to psychologists, coaches, and other professional audiences, including delivering a TEDx talk last year. Every year, I teach hundreds of leaders and mature students in the UK, France, Portugal, Singapore, Japan and many other countries across the world on how to use positive psychology in very real, tangible, nuts-and-bolts ways. Who am I personally? First of all, I am a wife and a mother or step-mother to five children (2, 14, 15, 16 and 17 years old). In fact, I progressed from having two to five children in the space of one year, so I had to really learn to walk the talk when it comes to positive parenting. Since last November, I've had the pleasure and the privilege to be a monthly Psychologies columnist, writing about the triumphs and challenges of running a large step-family; being friends with the ex-wife and negotiating educational expectations… I speak four languages, and can no longer clearly say where I am from (mixing Russian, Latvian, British and French origins and experiences). I have two cats and one dog, and I love ideas, making sense, creating something new from existing elements, and making tiny baby steps to changing the world towards something better.