Conversations are the heart of what we do. The type of conversations we have impact all aspects of our business and personal life. Creative organizations have conversations that lead to creativity. In this episode, Dr. Cheri Torres shares how to engage in conversations that matter and how to help your organization be more creative. It is surprisingly simple and you can start implementing change immediately.
What You’ll Learn
- Four types of conversations and which ones to avoid
- The two simple Appreciative Inquiry practices
- The impact of conversations that matter and how one hospital went from low patient satisfaction scores to amazing within one quarter
About Cheri Torres, Ph.D.
Working with Cheri, people learn to use everyday conversation to dramatically improve outcomes for their organization and relationships. Leaders and team members develop their capacity to use Appreciative Inquiry to foster productive and meaningful engagement, even when facing complex problems. The success her clients experience is not magic. Her approach is grounded in the most current research in positive psychology and neurophysiology. Leaders working with her learn to create the kind of relational dynamics that ignite the full potential of their teams and organization, resulting in high performance, innovation, and goal achievement. Culture change and strategic planning become opportunities for engaging all stakeholders in conversations that create change from the inside out.
She has worked across all sectors: corporate, government, education, and social profit/NGOs, supporting their capacity for learning and innovation, shared leadership, teamwork and collective impact. She has trained thousands of trainers and teachers in the use and practice of Experiential Learning, Appreciative Inquiry, and other strength-based processes. In addition to North America, she has worked in India, Mexico, Canada, South America, and Europe.
Cheri holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Collaborative Learning from the University of Tennessee. She also holds an MBA, a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology, Level 2 certification in Cultural Transformation Tools/Barrett Values Centre, and Level II certification in Spiral Dynamics Integral. She has authored numerous books and articles. Her most recent book, Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement, was published by Berrett Koehler in May 2018.. She lives in Asheville, NC with her husband, Michael; their two dogs, Logan and Annabelle; and two cats, Ziggy and Lucy.
- Book: Conversations Worth Having
- Cheri’s website
- Karl Rohnke Creativity Award
- Leave a review on iTunes
Pay attention to the conversations you have this week. When you find yourself in a negative conversation, ask a generative question. See what happens and how it flips the conversation into something with a more positive, hopeful, and productive spin.
Feel like reading instead of listening? Download the free transcript or read it below. Enjoy!
Transcript for Episode #095: Conversations Worth Having with Dr. Cheri Torres
Amy Climer: Welcome to The Deliberate Creative Podcast Episode 95. Today’s episode is about conversations worth having. Before we get into that, I want to say I am super excited that it is Episode 95, which means that just in a few weeks, Episode 100 will be coming out. I want to do something a bit different for Episode 100 because that is a big milestone. I did not even think about whether or not I would reach 100 when I first started this podcast. Now that we are here, I want to make it extra special.
What I would love is to hear your stories about what you have learned on the podcast, what you have implemented from what you learned and then what happened. If you have a story to share about something you learned and how you used that to help your team be more creative or how you helped change your team meetings or something that helped shift your organization, or even in your personal life, I want to hear your story. I would love for you to be on the podcast.
Here is how this will work. I am going to give you a phone number in a moment. You call into that phone number and you can leave a three-minute message introducing yourself and then sharing your story. It is only three minutes so you will have to be succinct and think through what you want to say. Then at the end of that message, you will share your email address and phone number and I may end up following up with you or I may just put that recording on the podcast.
But I would love to get some stories. I have heard from many of you over the last three years. Many of you have sent me messages or called or whenever we have met at a conference, you have talked about how the podcast has helped you be more creative. I want to hear those stories in a format that I can share those with everyone else. Hopefully, this Episode 100 will end up just being this huge inspiration where we are motivating each other and learning from each other.
Your stories do not have to be a big success. They actually could be something that you tried and it was maybe a small disaster or did not work quite well, those are cool stories to hear too. We learn from our mistakes and failures, as you have heard me talk about on this podcast, so share those as well. The successes that you have, they can be really small. They do not have to be huge. Huge ones are cool and so are small ones because small successes lead to bigger successes. That is how it works.
Anyway, here is the phone number 828-571-0884. Call that phone number, leave me a message and we will go from there.
Today’s guest is Dr. Cheri Torres. She is one of the authors of the book Conversations Worth Having. She has done some deep work over the last many years around Appreciative Inquiry and how to use Appreciative Inquiry to deepen engagement and increase creativity within organizations. I love the way she has codified and broken down how to have these conversations worth having.
I think that this concept of a conversation worth having is so powerful because when you think about it, everything we do is around a conversation. That is how we make change, that is how we are more creative. Especially, within a collaborative context, within a team or organization, it is all about the conversations. It is about the meetings and the conversations that happen in meetings, the conversations that happen in the hallway, the conversations that happen over email or social media. How do you make those conversations worthwhile, creative, engaging, generative, where they are actually generating some positive output and creative ideas.
Cheri has done a lot of research and practice with this and she is going to share what she has learned and share some incredible stories of clients who she has worked with. I am super excited to have her on the show. Here is Dr. Cheri Torres.
Cheri, welcome to The Deliberate Creative podcast. Thanks for being here.
Cheri Torres: Thanks so much for inviting me.
Amy Climer: Can you start off and tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Cheri Torres: The generic for what I am is a consultant. But I think of myself more as a catalyst for positive change in organizations and communities. And so what I do is I bring Appreciative Inquiry and other strength-based practices to help shift the kinds of conversations that people have so that they are actually moving towards what they want instead of trying to figure out how to fix what they do not want.
Amy Climer: Nice. You just released a new book.
Cheri Torres: I did.
Amy Climer: Tell us about that.
Cheri Torres: It is called Conversations Worth Having. With a lot of help from our editor at Berrett Koehler, he kept pushing on us to simplify, simplify, simplify. It was really effective to get us to do that because we got it down to two very simple practices for shifting your conversations from being depreciative and negative to having a tone and a direction that moves you towards where you want to go.
Amy Climer: Wow! It is so powerful. As you know, I have read the book and it is amazing and I am excited to dive into this.
Cheri Torres: Thank you.
Amy Climer: Let’s talk first just what do you mean by a conversation worth having?
Four Types of Conversations and Which Ones to Avoid [06:29]
Cheri Torres: If you think about conversations, you can break them into four different categories based upon are those conversations adding value or are they devaluing people and situations. And are the conversations inquiry based or statement based. You end up with four different kinds of conversations. If they are inquiry based and depreciative, they are critical conversations. Sometimes those are valuable, but if that is all you were ever in, it is going to be distractive. And then there are statement based conversations which are depreciative which we call destructive conversations and those are never worth being in.
Amy Climer: Is that where like someone just telling you how it is, or what do you mean by statement based?
Cheri Torres: Yeah, they are just giving their opinion or their comments or spreading rumors or tearing things down, making categorical statements without any questions. There are just people talking back and forth at each other as opposed to moving it anywhere or deepening a conversation.
On the adding value level, there are inquiry based and statement based. If it is a statement based and it adds value, we call those affirmative. That is when you are acknowledging somebody or you are advocating for your position on something but not in a critical way, but instead of just stating here are my thoughts on that.
The final one is inquiry and appreciative, which it adds value and you also ask questions to deepen and broaden understanding, connection, make room for new ideas and the emergence of possibilities. And that is what we call Conversations Worth Having.
Amy Climer: Awesome! I love that. I love that diagram. I can visualize that. Let’s talk about you have used this word inquiry and Appreciative Inquiry. Tell us a little about what you mean.
What Appreciative Inquiry Means [08:44]
Cheri Torres: Appreciative Inquiry, which is also called AI in the organizational development and business management world, is an approach for organizational change or organizational design that basically has people inquiring into the organization and people when they are at their best. When people are most alive or when they are succeeding at something that the organization or the team wants to grow. From that place of strength and knowledge of we know how to do this, having conversations about how do we do more of that? What does it look like in the organization if that is our normal way of functioning, if that is our culture? And then designing systems and structures to facilitate that so it comes naturally rather than trying to force it.
Amy Climer: I guess I am curious what have you seen of like why is that important to have those Appreciative Inquiry type of conversations? Like what happens?
Cheri Torres: People come alive. What might be helpful is to just take a brief detour to look at what goes on for us neurophysiologically in our conversations. Our nervous system and our brains are continuously and constantly responding to all the stimuli. We are also getting signals in those conversations; is this safe, is this something I have seen before, am I okay. And if it is safe and we are okay, we can bring our full capacity, all our creativity, our critical thinking, our higher order thinking into that conversation.
But in a conversation, if we detect any kind of threat, the nervous system actually pulls oxygen and nutrients from the higher order thinking parts of the brain, the neocortex and gives more energy to our primal brain in order to make sure we stay safe. So we see separate two tigers where there are not any because our system is not wired for where we are today, it is wired for where we were 50,000 years ago.
Amy Climer: It is almost like we temporarily become less intelligent?
Cheri Torres: We do. We absolutely do. And if you get really panicked, you can be completely unable to respond. You can lose your vision, you can lose your hearing, but you certainly, first thing you will do is lose your capacity to think clearly. The more a parent or a teacher yells at a student, “Can’t you get this,” the more their brain cannot get it. No, they cannot.
Amy Climer: That is fascinating and I am just thinking it makes so much sense when I think about experiences I have had. It is amazing.
Cheri Torres: You can feel your whole body freeze. Part of it is the neurochemicals that are getting released; norepinephrine, which fuels negativity; adrenaline, cortisol, they all kind of fuel this fight, flight, appease, freeze. And the opposite is true. When we are in conversations that are affirmative or worth having where there is this sense of safety and we are being asked to bring our whole selves and our ideas into the conversation. The neurotransmitters and hormones associated with that are dopamine and endorphins. All of those are the oxytocin, the connections, the love hormones, the feeling good hormones and it frees us up to have full access to memory, creativity, all of that, as well as, bonding with the person that we are talking with.
Amy Climer: It is just making me think about this conversation I had this morning with a woman, a new friend, I would say, great conversation. I was like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve been here for an hour and a half. I got to go.” Because we were just so into it. It was like all those positive hormones were flowing and feeling this love like I love this person. I just met her, but…
And then yesterday, kind of an acquaintance, I guess you could say, called me on the phone and the conversation got kind of awkward. It was only like 10, 15 minute conversation, but it was one of those where later on I was thinking, “Oh gosh, I wish I had responded differently and I wish I had said this.” I think part of it is it triggered more of those negative hormones in the moment.
Cheri Torres: Yes. I was actually last week in a conversation with a group and we had talked about doing a particular thing around an evaluation for a woman that was in the group. She was all fine and ready and engaged to do that and then in the midst of the conversation, she could not even think of one thing she had done right that year. She said, “I just don’t feel safe in the conversation right now.” Afterwards when I talked with her, she said, “Just that little bit of conversation that had happened prior to this, I could just feel what happened as I went into that primal brain and I couldn’t think. I literally couldn’t think of one thing I had done all year long that went well.”
Amy Climer: Oh wow!
Cheri Torres: And there were tons of them.
Amy Climer: Sure. It is making me think about, and I know this is not the point of all this, but just as a sign in that situation, showing up to this meeting with these things written down so that if that happens. Or thinking about how when you are in that sort of emergency situation — to be extreme — the people that have prepared and practiced and it has become rote, that is why do that. So then in the moment when all these negative hormones are flowing, they can still operate and do well.
Cheri Torres: Right. It is also the reason to have, at your disposal, how do I shift my own neuro soup, so to speak, so that I can open myself back up to what I know is there. There are some ways of doing that. It is also incumbent on people in the group, in the conversation to be creating a conversation that is allowing everybody to bring everything they have got into the conversation.
Amy Climer: Really, that is the whole point of a team, I think.
Cheri Torres: Yes, absolutely.
Amy Climer: Like why get these people together and spend all this time and money if you do not actually want their full intelligence and their full being?
Cheri Torres: Yes. And in today’s complex world, we cannot afford not to have everybody’s ideas in the mix.
The Two Simple Appreciative Inquiry Practices [16:02]
Amy Climer: Let’s go there a little bit and talk more about how might the techniques that you have developed, the Appreciative Inquiry techniques and then the book, how might those foster creativity within a team or within an organization?
Cheri Torres: I think one of the ways they foster creativity is by two ways. One of our practices is Positive Framing. It is framing conversation around what do we want or what is the outcome or what is the thing that let’s say you have got a problem, if the problem was not there or if the problem was fixed, what would we have? What would be possible then? And so how do we inquire into that thing that we want to make possible? And because it is not currently present, it inspires questions; how are we going to get there, what does it look like.
That is where that whole piece of creativity comes into play. You want people to be able to access their most creative ideas and insights to bring in. And then when you have a group of people bringing those kinds of ideas in, one thing sparks another and creativity flows.
Amy Climer: It is making me think sometimes when I am working with clients, they struggle with being able to imagine what might be possible. They know they want to be creative, but looking at all of these options and just having this really open mindset can be really challenging. And this sounds like a great technique for that.
Cheri Torres: Yeah. I think asking generative questions is really key. They can start small, but each question stimulates another question. Especially if people come to it with “I do not know”. Staying in that place of we are asking questions none of us know the answers to, but we all have possibly little glimpses into what it would be like when we get there.
Amy Climer: And that there are no right answers.
Cheri Torres: Correct.
Amy Climer: We are not looking for like the one solution, it is like we are looking for something that is going to work.
Cheri Torres: Yes, exactly.
Amy Climer: Or that we think might work. We’ve got to figure that out. You mentioned that was one technique, was the positive framing. What is the second?
Cheri Torres: Generative questions. It is just those two; positive framing, generative questions. And then in the book, we introduce a technique for flipping the negative or the problem into a positive frame. It is a pretty simple process of whatever the problem or the issue is, flipping it to the positive opposite and then looking at if we have the positive opposite, then what is possible and that is the positive frame to go forward.
Amy Climer: Can you walk us through an example or a situation to kind of put all this and make it more real?
The Impact of Conversations That Matter [19:11]
Cheri Torres: Let me tell you a story that is right out of the book. It is a powerful story. There was a woman who was the head of quality at a large medical hospital. They had grown over a three year period and during that time, their census went up, but they ended up not hiring a lot of new people and so the stress of that growth was causing lots of issues. Turnover was starting to increase, absenteeism, people just not showing up for work was increasing. That caused stress and their patient satisfaction scores were showing that. They had been falling over several quarters.
Alicia Patel, who is the woman in the book, in working with the nurse managers for the unit floors, kept harping on them to, “You have got to fix this, you have got to do something.” They kept coming back saying, “We’re doing the best we can. People don’t show up, we’ve got nurses doing double shifts, there’s nothing more that we can do.” She got very frustrated, went online to see what is out there that could help with this kind of a thing and she happened to land on an Appreciative Inquiry training page that was going to be happening in the not too distant future close to her.
When she was at the training, right in the midst of the training, she realized that she actually was part of the problem. With the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, one of the main ones is the principle of construction. We socially construct our social realities together in our conversations. She was doing nothing to help move towards what they wanted. Instead, she had kept them focused on the problem of low patient satisfaction.
She thought when she went back, she would shift her conversations. She used flipping to go from the problem was low patient satisfaction scores. The positive opposite was high patient satisfaction scores. What she really wanted was exceptional patient satisfaction. When she thought about that, she thought of course that is what the nursing staff want as well. They probably want it more than I do because they are on the floor with the patients. That got her starting to think about generative questions like I wonder if we already have some patients that are satisfied. We do not have a completely bottomed-out patient satisfaction score so what is happening with those patients that are satisfied? What are the nurses doing with them?
When she got back together with the nurses, she told them a little bit about Appreciative Inquiry, apologized and she said, “Let’s try something totally different. This week I want you to pay attention to the nurses who are working with patients that you know are satisfied and just look at what are they doing that is helping, and come back at our next meeting to share at least one story.”
When she came back into the next meeting, she walked in and they were all just chatting and buzzing and she was like, “Wow, this is such a different energy!” All of the nurse managers they shared stories. Some of them had said, “We started observing things and implementing things right away. They left super excited and charged with all these ideas. And when they walked out of the room, when she was conveying this to me she said, “I was just stunned by how simple it was to turn all the energy around.”
You asked how these conversations impact people. Energy goes up, ideas flow, people connect. They support each other. Teams become real teams and solving problems becomes so much easier. It is not enough just to have those nice warm fuzzy conversations. The next quarter when the patient satisfaction ratings came out, all of them were up and two of the units had 100 percent patient satisfaction in one quarter.
Amy Climer: Wow! That is probably unheard of.
Cheri Torres: I do not know, but she attributed it solely — because she had been working on it for so long, she said that is the only thing that shifted. They went on to train nurses and some of the physicians and all the administration staff in shifting their conversations.
Amy Climer: I would imagine that this had a huge impact on their financials as well.
Cheri Torres: It absolutely did. On financials, on patient flow through, on employee engagement.
Amy Climer: And maybe even on – I do not know what the term is in health care, but like deaths in the hospital or like the negative ramification. Going to the hospital is so dangerous because you are around all these sick people and disease.
Cheri Torres: Right, and then you do not come out.
Amy Climer: Right, exactly. You are going to get a staph infection. I wonder if that decreased.
Cheri Torres: I do not know. I am not sure that they measured and correlated that with it. But you know that when people are in a more positive and up space, it elevates everything. Research on being in a state of positivity at a ratio of about four to one actually can lengthen your life by ten years.
Amy Climer: Ten years? Wow! I believe that.
Cheri Torres: It is what we are flooding our systems with. All those stress hormones they kill us.
Amy Climer: Yeah, they really do. I feel it those days, especially if it is more than a day and it is a few days where I am just like ugh. It feels so painful, for lack of a better word.
Cheri Torres: Yeah.
Amy Climer: Cheri, talk to us a little bit about – I love that example of positive reframing and seeing the impacts of that. This completely changed this hospital. Talk a little about generative questions. Tell us a little about what those are, what do they look like.
Cheri Torres: Generative questions can take on many, many forms. Not every conversation worth having is about creating something new or solving some big problem. Sometimes, a conversation worth having is meeting somebody where they are and asking them a question and what makes it generative is it helps them open up. If somebody shows up with a significant issue or a problem, just invite them to share. Tell me what is going on, and to follow that thread and I guess to also trust your intuition about when is it time to look at is it time to invite the person to shift, to entertain shifting if they are in a really down place?
Those kinds of questions might be questions like, what would you like to happen? Or if this was working for you, what would it look like? Another question might be when have you been in the same kind of situation, but you had a much more positive outcome from it or you were in a more positive hopeful space? Can you tell me about that time and what was it about that time that is different from now? It is just about kind of opening up awareness and possibilities.
The other kinds of questions can be questions to come in and shift a conversation that is spinning in negative and just by asking a question, shift it into a positive. For example, when I first learned Appreciative Inquiry, it was a five day training and on the night before the last morning, they did a wine and cheese event. I was talking with a head of a hospital that was there and he was going on and on about how awful physicians were. That they are never on board with changes, they are always wanting to do their own thing, they are not team players. And I was of course saying yeah, yeah, and then I suddenly realized wait a minute, we have been in these four days of focusing on strength and what is right and positivity and I thought I am going to see if this AI asking a simple generative question really does anything.
All I asked was, “Do you have any physicians that are on board with you?” And his entire being lit up. He stood up straight, his face brightened, he got animated and he was like, “Oh, I have got 15 of the most incredible physicians that are working with me on this.” He was off and running and I was like, “Holy cow! This is very positive, very powerful stuff.” You can shift the dynamic with – that was a really simple question, not complex at all.
Amy Climer: Then I can imagine continuing to ask questions of what are those 15 people doing and looking at that and then pretty soon he has solved his own problem.
Cheri Torres: Yes. Ideally, if you are in a management position or you are a parent working with a child or coaching or anything, is asking those kinds of questions that help the person go, “I know how to do this. I know the answer or I know how to find it.”
Amy Climer: I would imagine like in those coaching conversations there is a fine line or sort of a sweet spot where sometimes they do have the answer that can come out of them and then sometimes they really have no idea. And then that is where you can shift into like a mentoring mode or help them find the answer.
Cheri Torres: Exactly. Sometimes it can be something like who could you interview to find out some answers that might help. Again, that is a generative question. It is like I can go outside of myself to look for something.
Amy Climer: I do not have to be expert at everything.
Cheri Torres: Exactly.
Amy Climer: Sometimes we forget, right?
Cheri Torres: Yes. Generative questions help you deepen a relationship, get to understand where somebody’s perception or perspective is that might be different from your own.
Amy Climer: That is awesome. Cheri, I like to end each episode with a weekly challenge, something simple that listeners can use to apply what you have talked about so that they can practice that this week. What would be a weekly challenge you would give listeners?
Weekly Challenge [31:01]
Cheri Torres: I think the simplest way to get started on something like this is pay attention and observe the conversations you are in. Do not try to force yourself to change anything or do anything drastic. When you find yourself in a negative conversation, ask a generative question that flips it. If you are talking about whatever — conversations these days around our country are often very negative. Asking a question that flips the conversation into something that stays on topic, but shifts it to a more positive spin, a more hopeful spin or a place of curiosity. You ask a question and somebody is like I do not know if there is anybody that has done something positive in their community on this. And then you are both googling and you are googling solutions to the thing you are talking about.
Amy Climer: I love that.
Cheri Torres: It is its own positive feedback loop because when you start to ask those questions and you realize oh my goodness! And people’s physical state, emotional state and mental state change just like that.
Amy Climer: That example you shared earlier with the guy at the wine and cheese event, his whole body language shifts.
Cheri Torres: Yes, everything does and it’s instantaneous.
Amy Climer: Love it. Awesome. Cheri, if people want to learn more about you and your work where can they go?
Cheri Torres: Our website is www.conversationsworthhaving.today. That is probably the best place to learn about the work and the book.
Amy Climer: Awesome! Thank you so much for being on the show. This is wonderful.
Cheri Torres: Thank you so much. This has been a lot of fun.
Amy Climer: Cool. Thank you, Cheri, for sharing your wisdom, your insights and your experience with us. Such awesome stuff. I am particularly excited about practicing this weekly challenge that Cheri shared with us of paying attention to the conversations that I have, especially the ones that start moving in that negative realm, and shifting them to be more positive by asking questions. I am excited to play with that. That is something that I have explored in the past, but sometimes we get a little lazy and a little complacent and so I am excited to look into that.
I would also say I highly recommend Cheri’s book. It is one of those books when I was about a third of the way through I realized this is really good. This is some really good stuff. I do not say that about many books, but it is a small book with a lot of power in it. Check out the book Conversations Worth Having. You can find it on Amazon. You can also find it in the show notes at www.climerconsulting.com/095. And if you have any questions or comments for me or Cheri, you can go to that page and you can leave those there and we will respond to you.
I want to repeat what I mentioned at the beginning of the episode about Episode 100 where I am going to be highlighting listener’s experiences and stories around being more creative and applying the learnings from The Deliberate Creative podcast. If you would like to be a part of that, you can call this phone number and leave your story. The number is 828-571-0884. Call that number, leave your story. You can call any time of day. It does not actually ring to me so you will not wake me up or anything like that. Whenever that works for you, feel free to call that number. I look forward to hearing your stories. I am really excited about Episode 100.
Thank you so much for listening to the podcast and for being part of making the world a more creative place. Have a wonderful creative week. Talk to you next time. Bye.
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