Active Appreciation: A strategy for evolutionary change agents

Appreciation is usually thought of in relatively passive, personal terms, as in “art appreciation”. But I’m beginning to think of it in more active, socially transformational terms. It turns out the several definitions of appreciation can be woven into a focused concept of tremendous potential power. I’ve only begun to explore active appreciation, but the more I appreciate it, the more nuanced and potent it seems to grow….

You aren’t likely to be empowered by what you don’t appreciate.
—Michael Dowd

Few people think of appreciation as a mode of social change work. But I’ve begun to see it as having a multi-dimensional nature that could theoretically make it one of the most powerful approaches available to evolutionary change agents.

Consider how the definition of “appreciation” intriguingly includes the following:

a. liking, finding blessing in – as in “appreciating the beauty of the sunset”
b. gratitude for – “as in appreciating the kindness of strangers”
c. deep understanding – as in “appreciating the difficulty of climbing the mountain”
d. increase in value – as in “their property kept appreciating as they completed home improvements”

Take a moment to think about that. What would happen if we deeply understood what was going on, if we saw and were truly grateful for the positive aspects of it and, in addition, if we used that recognition to help those positive aspects and possibilities become more present and alive in the situations we were addressing? How far could we take this as a practical approach to change work?

Personally, I’ve noticed a common thread running through many of the approaches to change that I find myself attracted to. It’s a dynamic many of us are familiar with:

Through noticing, believing in, highlighting and/or supporting the (sometimes hidden) positive qualities or possibilities in a person or situation, we can invite those qualities and possibilities to show up in the world more fully.

So appreciation obviously CAN be used to foster change. In fact, we could even think of it as a powerful form of nonlinear, evocative causation. Using it, we’re not pushing what we want to change towards a pre-determined outcome. Rather, we’re evoking responses from the aliveness that’s already present or trying to help that aliveness show up more fully among us. As an approach to purposeful action, it’s more aligned to the nonlinear nature of chaos and complexity than traditional problem-solving approaches and the demands of most activists.

Interestingly, it just might also reduce the need to invest undue energy and resources in transforming undesirable situations. Because we’re not trying to MAKE some particular outcome happen, we can use a lighter touch. We just need to help positive energies already present awaken and find channels to manifest in reality, following their own deep motivations. We’re finding the energy needed to heal and transform the situation in what is already right there.

The skills we need in order to do this involve discerning, evoking, fostering and moving with that energy – using active appreciation every step of the way. This whole approach seems more like improvisation, like creative noticing and responsiveness, like the kind of approach used by masters of jazz, Aikido, permaculture and basketball.

When we use such an appreciative, respectful, helpful approach, people tend to behave better – and solutions and insights often show up as if by magic. Remarkably, they sometimes even move things to a good place without explicitly addressing the original problem.

Change agents engaged in appreciative work tend to be more energized and energizing than those engaged in solving problems and pushing solutions against the inertia of business-as-usual. I would expect to find less burnout among them than among their more linear activist cousins, since they would often gain more energy and aliveness from their work than they expend doing it.

So I’m imagining us combining all four dimensions – the 4 definitions of appreciation noted above – into one idea, featuring them together as a synergistic holistic approach to action in the world. Through doing that, appreciation moves from being a friendly, passive spectator sport to becoming a truly powerful force for transformation.

In other words, we could do for Appreciation what Gandhi did for Truth and King did for Love: Use its power to change the world.

By using the positive aspects of a situation to transform its dysfunctional aspects, we join the force of evolution that reinforces what’s workable and composts everything that isn’t workable into new and better forms.

Actively practicing appreciation as central to our transformational work might look something like this:

developing and using
our deep, engaged,
inspired understanding of
and positive regard for
a living entity, system, or situation
so we can better partner with it
into fuller manifestations
of its aliveness and evolutionary potential

In the midst of complex challenges full of destructive, traumatic energies, appreciation-based change agents would feel empathy for suffering while being alert for the inevitable presence of positive possibility, and grateful for disruptions that create spaces and energies for better things to emerge. We would use tools like these:

Appreciative Inquiry – exploring what has worked and what we want in ways that inspire creative action now

Positive deviance – identifying who in a system is addressing a problem well, and engaging them to help the system shift

Asset Based Community Development – identifying all the possible gifts available from all the people and institutions in a community and helping them be available to meet community needs

Community Visioning – a participatory effort to identify what a community wants to be like by a certain future time, and then co-creating plans to achieve that

Backcasting (example) and imagineering – inviting people to imagine themselves in a positive future and then “remember” how they got there, usually in exercises like writing articles for an imagined future magazine or in works of fiction like solar punk authors

Callings / vocations – seeing where people’s individual gifts and passions meet the needs of the world, and living lives that nurture that “sweet spot” of meaning and service

Open Space – a self-organizing conference to help people productively pursue their individual visions and passions with others who share them

Nonviolent Communication – exploring what each person (especially in a conflict) is feeling and needing and finding ways to meet those needs in mutually satisfactory ways (its approach to empathy is also notable)

World Café – using a café seating format, convening mix-and-match “conversations that matter” around “questions with heart and meaning”

Strategic Questioning – powerful questions designed to call forth the best in people, often stimulating positive change even when they are not answered (by invitationally reframing how people think about things and evoking new possibilities)

Dynamic Facilitation – translating “impossible problems” into breakthroughs through reflective listening and helping a group stumble into previously unrealized possibilities

Possibility Journalism – for all news stories – in addition to the usual who, what, when, where, why, and how – ask “What is possible now?”

Focusing – inquiring into what’s at the heart of a situation by deepening into our “felt sense” about it

HSLing (“hizzeling”) – a compassion practice arising from the Dalai Lama’s saying that “All people want and need to be Heard, Seen and Loved.”

Pattern Languages – mapping out interrelated design elements in a situation or practice that together help it to generate wholeness and aliveness

Theory U – clearly seeing current reality, sensing into its field, letting go of assumptions and outcomes, opening to what wants to emerge, and helping it crystalize into a vision that can then be prototyped.

The Positivity Project’s Character Strengths – using 24 thoroughly researched positive character traits to increase people’s awareness and ability to manifest them

Self-fulfilling prophesy – consciously using positive expectations to invoke positive realities (examples include affirmations, the Pygmalion effect, and the placebo effect)

These and many other active appreciation practices and dynamics call forth or tap into the positive life-force — passions, dreams, successes, gifts, callings, energies, capacities, opportunities — in people, nature, and situations. They help us align living realities (including ourselves) into newly whole (healthy, sacred, vibrant, coherent) patterns of relationship.

It seems to me that the focused study and practice of active appreciation could generate tremendously valuable tactical and strategic guidance for evolutionary change agents.

So: What could appreciation ALSO be?

PS: Also see the wise democracy patterns Appreciative Thinking and Possibility Thinking

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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