The Art of Asking: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Bring Out the Best

by Melissa Bouse
Northern Essex Community College
Haverhill, MA


Three years ago, when we were still working remotely during the pandemic, I volunteered to take part in our strategic planning process. I was a fairly new employee and thought it would be a good way to connect with colleagues and learn more about what makes Northern Essex Community College tick. Both of those things rang true. But I learned about an unexpected third thing. The thing that is at the core of all major decisions at our college. The thing that I could use both with my team and with people I interview as the director of public relations. The thing I refer to as the “other AI:” Appreciative Inquiry.


As we sat in our Zoom boxes, ready to get started on the new strategic plan, we were joined by Dr. Jeanie Cockell and Dr. Joan McArthur-Blair, who I would come to learn are well-known Appreciative Inquiry (Ai) facilitators. They told us we were going to “plan for the plan” by using the Appreciative Inquiry process.


As the name implies, the process asks participants to look into what is going right, what sparks positivity, and how participants feel when they’re doing their best work. Through a series of steps, the process builds on those answers to develop change or sharpen vision. As the Ai website states: “Appreciative Inquiry (Ai) is built on a deceptively simple premise that organizations grow in the direction of what they repeatedly ask questions about and focus their attention on. Ai does not focus on changing people. Instead, it invites people to engage in building the kinds of organizations they want to live in.”


A couple years after the plan was complete, our Office of Professional Development organized an Ai Facilitator training on campus. I, along with about 30 of my colleagues, spent four days with Joanie and Jeanie- in the flesh! – learning the ins and outs of Ai. I’m currently awaiting approval of my practicum report so I can follow in Jeanie and Joanie’s footsteps.


So, what does this have to do with marketing and PR? While we used Ai to tackle big college-wide projects like the strategic plan (and to develop the Paragon-winning Strategic Planner, thank you very much), the process can be scaled for many scenarios. Our MarCom team recently discussed ensuring our marketing materials were inclusive and representative of our student population. I led us through a mini-Ai to discover how we could build upon what we were doing right to meet this goal. I had the honor of presenting on this process at the D1 District Conference.


Ai also influences how I approach interview subjects for the stories I tell in my daily work. By asking positive questions about a time when things were going right, I find it unlocks a new level of connection with the interviewee (and leads to some really great quotes!)


Ai is a powerful tool for change. I feel lucky to work at an institution that values its use and I look forward to my official certification so I can bring Ai to others.


Melissa Bouse is the director of public relations at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, MA. She holds a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and worked as a television news producer before transitioning to marketing and public relations in 2019. Melissa was named the 2023 NCMPR District 1 Rising Star.

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