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How to Revitalize Your Goals with Appreciative Inquiry (5 Simple Steps)

by Sarah Evans MCC


We've all been experiencing an unprecedented time of turmoil, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, fatigue and massive transitions. In this context, many of my conversations with clients, colleagues, family and friends—and even with myself—have focused on purpose, meaning, intention, commitment and wise action.


As a new year dawns, and when I think of ‘futuring’ and goal setting to support me or my clients in moving in that direction, I’m particularly drawn to a principle of Appreciative Inquiry1 (AI) - the study and exploration of what gives life to human systems when they function at their best.


The Appreciative Inquiry approach to personal and organizational change proposes that inquiry, exploration and dialogue about strengths, successes, values, hopes and dreams are themselves transformational.


The power of the Anticipatory Principle

The mind has an astounding capacity for shaping reality by linking positive image with positive action. 2


One of the five principles of Appreciative Inquiry is the Anticipatory Principle. According to this principle, images inspire action: we move in the direction of our image of the future and anticipate being there.


Thus, our image of the future can guide our current behaviour and actions toward that desired future state. The more positive and hopeful the image, the more positive the present-day action.


Picture the way that some plants track the sun's movement across the sky (known as heliotropism). For example, young sunflowers turn toward the sun, the life-giving force that literally fuels their growth. This optimises their ability to photosynthesize—converting solar energy to chemical energy, literally fueling growth.


Appreciative Inquiry proposes that we (and human systems) have a similar innate heliotropic tendency: "An observable and largely automatic tendency to evolve in the direction of positive anticipatory images of the future." 3


Imagining the future - a creative power

So, a clear and compelling image of our desired future is not only a destination, but a source of creative power. It inspires and mobilizes us with a "move toward" energy, which increases as we get closer to the desired future.


When we imagine the future, we are literally propelled forward toward our future self—and this momentum influences our thoughts, intentions, conversations and actions.


Goals as stepping stones toward the future

Once we have a compelling image of our desired future, specific goals provide focus and clarity on where we are going. It's goals that inspire the committed, wise action needed to move in that direction.


Goal-setting theory 4 teaches us that our conscious goals affect what we achieve. So, committing to a goal helps us focus our attention, and the thoughts we focus on get reinforced in the brain.


The benefits of clarity

A clear goal energizes us, supports us in persevering when it gets difficult, serves as a motivator and helps hold us accountable for what we've deemed important.


And, with any journey, it is important to clarify the steps or route and recognize the milestones, celebratory moments and points of (re)calibration along the way.


To link your goal setting with Appreciative Inquiry and the Anticipatory Principle, consider how you can creatively and flexibly visualise, map, track and align your goals to make them aspirational—and support your clients in doing the same.


5 simple steps for applying Appreciative Inquiry and the Anticipatory Principle

So how can you apply these lessons right now to inspire yourself and your clients? Here are 5 simple and practical ideas to play with:


1) Cultivate a Possibility Mindset

Learn to cultivate a mindset of positive thinking about possibilities. Ask yourself:


  • What is possible if _____?

  • I wonder if I could _____?

  • What could be possible if I _____?

2) Be Positive

Focus energy on what you want, rather than what you don't want.


If we constantly think about—and therefore picture and focus on—what we don't want, we will be drawn towards that. So be positive and focus thoughts and energy on what you want to move towards.


3) Visualise the future

Practice visualizing the future—and every step toward it.


Visualizing activates many of the same neural networks as if you were engaged in the behaviour or action itself. Use imagery and all of your senses to feel the results:


  • What are you seeing, hearing, feeling, sensing?

4) Use Metaphor

What phrases or metaphors do you or your clients use to paint images of, and express longing for, a desired future?


Draw these out in detail with your clients in order to make decisions and commitments for action.


5) Ensure Goals are SMART

Once you have a compelling image of the desired future, use the SMART tool to develop, map, track, align and recalibrate goals:


  • Specific (simple, significant)

  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating)

  • Achievable (attainable)

  • Relevant (resourced)

  • Time-bound (timely)


Some of the most transformational coaching experiences I've had have been rooted in the Anticipatory Principle and the compelling pull of aspirational goal setting.


What future can you imagine for yourself this year?


A vivid imagination compels the whole body to obey it. Aristotle




1 A few resources that will help you explore Appreciative Inquiry: Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Changeby David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney; The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom; and Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change by Sara L. Orem, Jacqueline Binkert, and Ann L. Clancy.

2 Sara L. Orem, Jacqueline Binkert, and Ann L. Clancy. (2007). Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change. Jossey-Bass. p. 76.

3 Cooperrider, David L., Diana Whitney, and Jacqueline M. Stavros. (2003). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: The First in A Series of AI Workbooks for Leaders of Change. Berrett-Koehler. p. 370.

4 Gary P. Latham (2004). The Motivational Benefits of Goal Setting. Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 18, N

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