Embracing the Mystery:
Reflecting on Appreciative Inquiry

Hands holding globeThere are times in my life when I’ve seen a film or documentary, or read a book or blog post, that has resonated so deeply for me it has left me breathless and with tears in my eyes.

Reading Dr Samuel Mahaffy’s post Embrace the Mystery was one of those times. A time when someone else put into words exactly how I feel about Appreciative Inquiry.

As an AI practitioner himself, Dr. Mahaffy says, for example:

The chatter I hear in AI circles is more about methodology and less about the mystery. I wonder if we have lost some wonderment about the mystery in our collective search for ever-perfected techniques … I want to return to the mystery of Appreciative Inquiry. It called to my heart and not to my head … The mystery is the place of unknowing.

For me also, working with AI has always been about the mystery. The wonder of what it means to be human and alive in this amazing and diverse world of ours. To explore, with those around us, what it means to be part of this group, this family, this organisation, or this community. To embrace and somehow ‘hold the space’ that honours the delicious diversity and powerful paradoxes of human ideas, personalities, perspectives … and of our very existence.

It’s about articulating our dreams and highest hopes, about building bridges between us and understanding how we are all connected. It’s also about recognising that what unites us is far more powerful than what divides us … if we can only be open to seeing it.

It’s about finding a way to sit comfortably with uncertainty – with ‘unknowing’. And, even more powerfully, it’s beginning to understand that through embracing uncertainty we can create new and exciting possibilities for living, caring and working together towards a better world.

Appreciative Inquiry is about engaging genuinely and deeply with our fellow human beings – in every context. It’s about ‘generative’ conversations that take us beyond the known into the unknown, then further into a new way of knowing.

To do this I need to get to know you as deeply and respectfully as I can. I need to be genuinely curious about you, your hopes, your dreams .. and yes, your fears and your pain.

I know that last sentence may not sit comfortably with some AI folk. I can hear them say “No, surely that’s not AI – you’re sliding right back into a deficit conversation!” And I certainly agree it’s important not to dwell in the negatives – or stay in spaces where anxiety, fear, pain and anger prevail.

But for me, as an AI practitioner, it’s important to value and appreciate the whole of human experience. The dark side as well as the light, the painful and sad times as well as the joyful and aspirational ones. I need to see you, this organisation, this community, or this world as fully as possible; in as multi-faceted a way as I can. I need to honour you in all your wholeness and humanity. Only then can I play a part in helping you … helping us … transcend the ‘dark stuff’ on our journey to becoming the best we can be.

One of my favourite quotes is from the song Anthem, by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

… That’s how the light gets in.

And, as another AI colleague and friend, Gervase Bushe once said, as AI practitioners we need to have:

a poetic ear, an eye for beauty, a keen sense of what others find inspiring, and an open heart to feel the unconscious yearning in the group

As an AI practitioner myself, these are the skills to which I’ve always aspired.

So all this is why reading Dr. Mahaffy’s post moved me to tears and took my breath away. It is because he speaks for me.

Appreciative Inquiry is not a ‘technique’. Nor is it a ‘tool’ that we use. It is an appreciative way of seeing and being in the world. It is about curiosity and compassion. It is about openness, honesty and generosity of spirit. It is all about the relationships we build with others … and it is truly about embracing the mystery.

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