Appreciative Inquiry as a Dispute Resolution Strategy


Appreciative inquiry as a dispute resolution strategy: Bryan Hansen, Assistant Director Werner Institute


In my course regarding consulting and systems design for conflict resolution specialists, I devote time to looking at the utilization of the appreciative inquiry method within the assessment phase of the conflict management system design process. Simply stated, Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that attempts to study what is working within an organization to help overcome some of the challenges the organization is facing. This approach contrasts that of the typical problem-solving method which tends to be our default when challenges arise. In his article, Appreciative Inquiry as an Organizational Development Tool, Charles Martinetz describes the difference between the problem solving and appreciative inquiry methods as follows (Martinetz, 2002):
The steps in problem solving are as follows:

1. Identify the problem.

2. Conduct an analysis of the causes.

3. Analyze possible solutions.

4. Plan some action or treatment.

The steps in AI are different:

1. Appreciate and value the best of what is.

2. Envision what might be.

3. Dialogue about what should be.

4. Innovate and create what will be.

Coming from the field of dispute resolution, we can clearly see how the power of reframing the situation from a problem that needs to be solved and extinguished into a challenge that will be overcome by seeking out our strengths can really play an important role in ensuring that the change or interventions developed will be effective and sustainable.
Therefore, something I have been thinking a lot about with my mediator’s hat on and want to propose as a potential discussion topic is how this methodology could be related to the work we do in the mediation room. Specifically, I work with a lot of families as they are going through divorce and often the dialogue includes accusations of what problems the other person has in terms of their ability to raise their children. This often leads to a contest of who can prove the other person is less capable than the other and the objective of keeping the children’s best interest in mind is left behind.
I feel transforming the conversation into one that looks at the strengths that exist within each parent, the idealized vision of what caring for the children entails, and what potential plans could be made leveraging the identified strengths could lead to a collaborative dialogue that does maintain the children’s best interest as the top priority.
I understand this may be difficult to bring into the room right off the bat with the fresh emotions attached to the divorce process; however, I feel there is potential in introducing it into the process at some point. I would be very interested to hear what others think about this. Please feel free to share your thoughts in this forum.
Martinetz, C. (2002). Appreciative Inquiry as an Organizational Development Tool. Performance Improvement. Volume 41, Number 8. September 2002.


Bryan Hanson
Assistant Director

Bryan Hanson, the Assistant Director of the Werner Institute received his Master of Arts degree in Organizational Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, his graduate certificate in Organizational Conflict Management from John F. Kennedy University and his Bachelor of Science degree in Speech Communications from Minnesota State University - Mankato.

Bryan is a practicing mediator with well over a hundred hours of training in various mediation contexts. He is an approved Parenting Act mediator and Specialized ADR mediator by the state of Nebraska. Bryan provides many workshops regarding conflict engagement skill development for various organizational contexts. Bryan also is an experienced facilitator and has provided his services to assist organizations with visioning processes, the development of strategic plans, and other collaborative processes that necessitate the voice of multiple stakeholders.

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Comment by John C. Turley on January 25, 2012 at 8:46pm

I learned about AI for the first time in Bryan's class.  I am grateful for this learning experience. I try to use AI regularly as I call on my prospects.  Traditionally, the business case study approach focuses on the problems and the potential pitfalls of the organization. How would one attempt to solve their problems and offer consultative solutions? I found that company executives are very receptive to one's ideas and proposals when the AI approach is utilized. 

It is not exactly flattery but more of a genuine recognition of what the company does very well.  The deeper one goes with this technique, the stronger the response.  Research with a depth of understanding beyond the superficial is important for AI to produce a favorable return.   Executives love to talk about their accomplishments. Another important point is to leverage their successes by adding your outside value and giving the client even more credit for their brilliance.  My mentor once told me, "Remember, we are in the hero creation business!"  AI helps the good people look even better to their bosses.  There is even hope for the bad ones.

I also found that disputants welcome the AI approach.  For example, I ask people about their backgrounds at the beginning of the mediation session.  I posed more questions of a medical technician to put her at ease and to engage her in the discussion as she expressed her position in more detail.  Once I acknowledged the complexity and challenges of her hospital job and what see accomplishes daily......well, let's just say that she became an advocate for finding an ADR solution rather than the plaintiff.  Anyway, AI works and is another powerful arrow in your mediation and consultant's quiver.


Comment by Michael Toebe on October 3, 2012 at 3:08am

This was a very interesting post Bryan. What stood out to me the most, the beacon, was "appreciate and value the best of what is."

That takes strength within the context of conflict. It takes willpower and commitment to the process. Yet reframing a situation to see the best, what is working, and maybe extend that thought process, if at all possible, to the other party and what they might be doing to some level of competence should surely put disputants on a different path, a healthier one, to conflict management and quite possibly, resolution.

It is a more positive approach which should bring into the interaction something mutually agreeable as well as bring down defenses of the parties if each side expresses sincerely some positive behaviors and accomplishments about one another.


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