Over a number of years, I worked with a major telecommunications company and the two main unions that represented employees in the company. The goal was to use Appreciative Inquiry to form an enhanced partnership between the unions and management. There were many successes: contract negotiations were shorter and smoother, employee turnover decreased, satisfaction went up, and management and union employees tended to be more creative in resolving differences.

Out of hundreds of AI sessions, there’s one memory that stands out that illustrates the capacity of AI to bridge differences. I was presenting a four-hour overview of AI with a mixture of management and hourly employees. The executives in this region of the company were very supportive of the effort and attended sessions whenever possible.

The region president of the company was in this particular session. I had worked with him many times and knew he had reputation as a no-nonsense leader and a tough negotiator on union issues.

Each interview pair was a union worker and a management employee. Time of service was also used in the pairings, with those with the most experience paired with newer employees. The regional president, I’ll give him the name Fred, was paired with a fairly new hourly craft person that I’ll call Joe.

Before the pairs left, Joe came to me and said, “So let me get this straight. I’m supposed to ask him all these questions?”

“Yes, and he will ask you all the same questions.” I responded.

“So, right here, where it says, ‘what do you value most about the union?’ – I’m supposed to ask him that.”

“Yes, and he will ask you the same questions, including what you value about the union and what you value about the company.”

Joe pushed back his ball cap, scratched his head, took a deep breath and said, “OK, this should be real interesting.”

When we got back and I asked about the interview process, Joe said, “I’ve got something I’ve got to tell the group. I talked with Fred and I think you all know he’s the president of our region. I was afraid to ask him what he valued about the union because I figured he’d say, ‘not a damned thing.” But it turns out his dad was a union leader.”

Then Joe looked at Fred and said, “You tell em about it.”

“There’s really not a lot to tell. My dad was a local president for years and I heard about the union all the time. That’s what we talked about at meals. The union put food on our table, clothes on my back, and sent me through college. My dad was a union man to the bone and I very much value the union. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be tough the next time we negotiate.”

You could feel a shift in room as a little tension disappeared and some respect and understanding entered the space.

The next day, I did the same workshop in another town in the region. As people were filing in, one of the guys said, “Is it true Fred’s dad was a union president?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “Where did you hear that?”

“One of my buddies told me after someone in the workshop you had yesterday told him.”

I don’t know how far and fast that story spread, but I heard it many other times in future sessions.

AI is often used as a process to do something. In this case, the something was to improve relationships between the union and management. The magic of AI comes from the simple human interactions that happen in the process of trying to do something. When two people sit down to have an appreciative conversation, we can never know where the process will lead and can have no idea how their exchange will ripple out into the organization. Each conversation, each ripple, will in some way change the whole of the organization.

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”

– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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