Acknowledging the negative in leading lasting positive change

By Jen Hetzel Silbert @jhsilbert

In my organization development and strategy work I remind people that, “we see more of what we look for.”  This principle is fundamental to Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which asks questions about moments of success and triumph, then builds on the strengths of stories to explore bold—yet possible—stretch goals for the future. 

One of the questions I am often asked is…what about the negative? How can we move forward when there is deep-seated pain and resentment that makes conversations about the positive and what’s possible impossible to initiate or comprehend?

Storms brew in many forms, and the pain they bring is real.  Be the ill feelings from a company acquisition, an unwelcomed re-org, leadership change, or lost job, or from a fall-out with a friend, a lost loved one, broken home, community, or nation – hurt is hurt is hurt.  So where does Appreciative Inquiry (AI) – strength-based, positive change – fit when it comes to moving beyond hurt and despair?

Justice Albie Sachs, Constitutional Court of South Africa

In 2009 I had the honor of hearing Justice Albie Sachs of the Constitutional Court of South Africa speak at the World Appreciative Inquiry Conference in Nepal1.  He captivated his audience recounting his experience of being severely injured in 1988, losing an arm and sight in one eye when South African security agents placed a bomb in his car.

Sachs also told stories about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which addressed the competing, yet often interdependent forces of accountability and amnesty.  He recounted how certain persons who engaged in the most horrific criminal acts during the Apartheid regime gained amnesty when they were held accountable to telling the truth. 

The TRC was not a closed-room confession – it went public and involved the whole nation.  Gross human rights violators testified before television cameras, radio, and the press in ways that licensed the country to relive the unforgettable horror and publicly acknowledge its moral defeat.  With tears streaming down his face, one sergeant told of placing a plastic bag tightly around a teenage girl’s neck as she sang the national anthem on her last breath.  Another told of an outdoor barbecue where, within yards of grilled beefsteaks the bodies of the tortured were also burned.  The horror was unfathomable, the tears real.  In an auditorium of 350+ conference attendees one could hear a pin drop.


As Sachs pointed out, the TRC allowed a sharing of knowledge with public acknowledgement; and from acknowledgement came reconciliation and a readiness to heal.  South Africa [and the world for that matter] knew what happened during the Apartheid regime; but it needed to connect to that information in order to lay the foundation of national reconciliation.  More than satisfying the objective of information gathering by the courts, the nation needed a process for healing – to connect to the information and acknowledge it together.

“It was not about victory for either side, but about victory for a set of values,” noted the Honorable Sachs.  “It meant that for the first time, we as South Africans were living in the same moral country.”  Amnesty in this sense, with the price of public acknowledgement, replaced impunity.  And in Sachs’ view, it was the turning point, only after which a new democracy could be born.

On a personal level, Sachs recounted his reunion with the man who planted the bomb in his car, the acknowledgement that came with that experience, and the healing thereafter.  Following the TRC trials, and on the very grounds of the prison that once incarcerated Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,  a new court was built to symbolize healing, openness, and peace.  The facility was decorated with artwork from around the country, and choirs are said to be regularly singing on the grounds. 

There were three points that I drew from hearing the honorable Justice Sachs speak, all of which underline the importance of acknowledgement in leading lasting positive change:

     1. Healing is more than the mere absence of pain.

     2.  The process is as important as the outcome.

     3.  Lasting change is at the scale of the whole.

1. Healing is more than the mere absence of pain.  Likewise, peace is more than the absence of violence; it’s about flourishing societies.

To heal from difficult experiences (regardless of context, culture, or scale), we need to do more than get rid of the unwanted or the negative.  As Justice Sachs argues, we need to acknowledge, and from this we can create space for positive growth.  In South Africa’s case, healing was far more than the abolition of Apartheid, far more than the cessation of violence.  The TRC enabled public acknowledgement in ways that paved the way for reconciliation and democracy – something far beyond the mere punishment or elimination of gross human rights violators. 

Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, wrote that optimism in the face of tragedy can turn suffering into a human achievement.  He called this “tragic optimism” and related it to his own experiences as a Holocaust survivor.  As a prisoner every freedom is taken away but “the last of human freedoms”—the ability to “choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”2  No matter the circumstances, no matter how tragic or horrific the experience, we all have a choice in attitude that makes possible positive growth.  And far more than the absence of pain, the path of healing is one we must choose for positive growth to begin. 

2. The process is as important as the outcome.  The “truth” is not something you “get” toSachs (1) but something you “talk” to. Justice Sachs originally recommended that the TRC hold trials in more intimate settings where, in his opinion, the criminals would be more likely to fully disclose their heinous crimes.  Fortunately the TRC disagreed with him and instead went public.  Many painful “truths” from the past were openly aired and acknowledged and a nation’s process of healing could begin – a process that was (and is) inclusive, dynamic, continuous, and ongoing. 

Where most court systems rely exclusively on observational and logical truth, Justice Sachs speaks of  “dialogical truth,” something you experience through dialogue and the exchange of stories.  He has said that “judges are the storytellers of the 21st century” 3, recognizing the unique responsibility and opportunity a judge has in integrating a judicial opinion with judicial passion in ways that generate  meaning for society. 

Storytelling itself is a process, and it is society’s oldest, most universal means of creating and sharing knowledge.  Its power comes not only from the “data” it reveals but also from its generative process of engaging, moving, and inspiring connection – connection to new perspectives and learning, as well as connection among people. 

Appreciative Inquiry can be a highly effective means of sparking the exchange of stories – stories that do more than “look for the positive,” but also force us to examine the assumptions we’re holding and examine reality a little differently.  In his article “AI Is Not (Just) About The Positive,” Gervase Bushe encourages people to “be thoughtful in how we make a space for inquiry into hurt, anger, injustice, despair – doing that in a way that contributes to the group’s ability to understand, and bring into being, its collective aspirations.”4

3. Lasting change is at the scale of the whole.  We’ve all heard that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and yet we’re often challenged to expand our thinking around who/what really can and should make up the whole.  South Africa didn’t need another human rights violations report published by legal experts. It needed a nation to come together, publicly witness and acknowledge moral defeat, reconcile, and heal.  This process didn’t require the wisdom of a handful of individuals; it took the wholeness of a nation [with the world watching].

Sachs’ presentation moved me to tears.  As a mother – as a human being – the stories were hard to bear. At the close, I retreated to a nearby ladies room for tissues where a stranger, a petite elderly woman from Korea, approached me.  She put her small hands on my shoulder, and we wept together, complete strangers in a strange place far from home. 

And we were.  It was what David Cooperrider later called a “prophetic experience5,” a shared moment where we experience the past, present, and future simultaneously in connecting to the “whole”.  Justice Sach’s story let us relive his past in ways that fueled our compassion for the present, and stirred within us a compelling vision of hope for the future. 

Following a physical injury, such as a cut or scrape, we bleed at first, then new tissue forms – not a fixing of the damaged old tissue (resolution), but creation anew (renewal).  Renewal of this sort is at the heart of any lasting positive change effort, and Appreciative Inquiry helps makes this possible, elevating and increasing that which we not only value, but need in order to live.  We value and need acknowledgement.  Furthermore, we value and need courage and compassion, and acknowledgement requires much of both.  With acknowledgement there is great risk, such as the release of deep pain and hurt; and when received with courage and compassion, there is also space for renewal and growth.


1 Justice Albie Sachs, World AI Conference, Kathmandu, Nepal. 19 November 2009.

2 Sider, N.G. (2003.) “Discovering Resources for Post-traumatic Healing and Growth” in Positive Approaches to Peacebuilding. PACT Publications: Washington DC.

3 Gorman, N. (February 2010.) “Uncommon Interview with Justice Albie Sachs.” Chicago Maroon.

4 Bushe, G. (August 2007.) “Appreciative Inquiry is Not (Just) About The Positive.” Segal Graduate School of Business, Simon Fraser University.

5 David Cooperrider, World AI Conference, Kathmandu, Nepal. 19 November 2009.

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