Working with people is much different than working with test tubes. A scientist can work with substances in specific amounts in controlled environments. He or she would also expect to function as a neutral observer who made no personal impact on the data itself.
Under these assumptions, a person might set up a survey or questionnaire for a church or group, believing the data collected would be objective, simply reflecting whatever the respondees believed. But the truth is, the questioning process itself, as well as the people asking the questions, have an effect on the people they are studying.
For example, a few years ago I was trying to work with a group of leaders to discern the way forward for our congregation. I had heard of the S.W.O.T. method for evaluating people and organizations. So we spent an hour or so working through the four components:
This seemed me like a holistic way to evaluate our congregation, but in practice, it felt to me like a sour experience. Why? Look at the direction of the questions. We started off with lots of affirmation and celebration of what was good. But as the conversation went, it ended with us focusing on things we believed were threatening to us. In hindsight, I think many of us said that the conversation had been “overall” positive, but no one walked away from it feeling optimistic.
Appreciative Inquiry makes the very important assumption that when you are asking questions to a group of people, the questions are actually making an impact of their own. Remember, what we focus on becomes our reality! If you ask questions that are negative, people will think about what is negative. If the people conducting the interviews come across as negative or anxious, it will raise the anxiety level of those being questioned.
There is no such thing as a neutral process of asking a group about their experiences and perspectives. Think about it. When the leaders of your church stand up and say, “We are going to be contacting you to gain your perspectives on ______,” you are going to have some sort of emotional response to this news. It could be excitement, nervousness, or anything in between, the fact that you are conducting a survey of a group of people affects the group of people in some way.
Appreciative inquiry is a method for researching people that intends to involve the same people in creating and implementing the future they are envisioning. It is important to ask questions about topics and in a manner that will promote positive thinking, focus on opportunities, and maximum ownership of what comes next.