About the presenter: John Wade, Ph.D. has been an active member of the National Stuttering Association for over 15 years, and has presented workshops on numerous topics at NSA National Conferences. He served on the NSA Board of Directors from 1996-98. He is currently serving on the ASHA Division 4 Task Force On Reimbursement and Diagnostic Codes. He is a Licensed Psychologist at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and two daughters.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

by John Wade
from Kansas, USA

We have probably all had experience trying to make changes, but finding it much more difficult than we anticipated. It has been estimated that will power accounts for only about 10% of the ability to make lasting changes. This paper will focus on how to "work smarter, not harder." Appreciative Inquiry, which is grounded in the traditions of Positive Psychology and Brief Solution Focused Therapy, is designed to be an approach to help us identify and create the changes we want. The basic principles of Appreciative Inquiry will be explored, and suggestions will be offered regarding how these concepts can be applied in practical ways to help us better manage our stuttering and perhaps our lives in general.

Appreciative Inquiry is founded on the premise that the basic problem solving approach, although well intentioned, often results with us feeling more stuck and frustrated. It seems natural to want to focus our energy and attention on problems, so that we can fix what isn't working. Although this seems logical, it almost invariably results in us getting more of what we don't want. This was very clearly illustrated to me when I was learning to drive as a teen-ager. For some inexplicable reason, I was very worried about running into the curb when I drove. Every time I drove, my eyes were glued to the curb, to make sure that I wouldn't run into it. But as you might expect, I was imperceptibly steering in the direction I was looking, with the very frustrating result that I was driving within inches of the curb the whole time. I was getting exactly what I didn't want, although I was trying as hard as I possibly could not to! And of course, since I was right up against the curb the whole time, it just reinforced my belief that I had to be worried about hitting it. It wasn't until I finally became more comfortable and started focusing more on the other aspects of driving that this changed. (During my initial attempts at driving it also became very apparent that I could not close my eyes when I blocked if I wanted to stay alive, but I digress.) A similar process happens with stuttering as well, that the more we try not to stutter, the more our attention is focused on stuttering and the more we stutter.

Borrowing from the foundation of Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry operates from the premise that positive change is created when we study and discuss what we want more of, not what we want less of. This concept is powerfully illustrated by a case example from the well-known psychologist Milton Erickson. When he went to the house of an elderly, depressed woman to conduct therapy, he noticed that everything was drab and neglected, reflecting her depressed mood, except for a collection of thriving African violets. Instead of asking her about her depression, he got her talking about her passion for flowers, and encouraged her to think of ways to expand her obvious talent. Within a few months, she became well known in her small community as the "flower lady," because she had taken it upon herself to provide an African violet for every patient at the local hospital. Needless to say, her mood also improved. Although not every case is this simplistic, the power of focusing our attention on what we do well cannot be denied.

Appreciative Inquiry starts with the assumption that inquiry is intervention. In other words, questions and discussion about our strengths, successes, values, hopes, and dreams are themselves transformational and bring about positive change.

Consider these questions for a moment:

If you could wave a magic wand and not stutter any more --

Answering these questions can help us to identify what we really want regarding our stuttering, rather than what we are simply trying to avoid. I will briefly describe six key principles of Appreciative Inquiry, and offer questions to consider for applying them to our stuttering.

  • Appreciative Inquiry Principle #1 -- The Constructionist Principle

    The Constructionist Principle is that words create worlds. How we talk about our stuttering shapes our world regarding our speech. We probably feel differently about our stuttering with people we talk openly about it to versus with people we try to keep our stuttering a guarded secret. How we talk about our speech to ourselves matters too. I think we are often critical of ourselves with the best of intentions -- to try to get ourselves to work harder on the things we want to change. However, negative self-talk invariably causes us to feel demoralized and defeated and keeps us stuck.

  • What words do you associate with stuttering?
  • How do you talk to yourself about your stuttering?
  • How do you talk to others about your stuttering?
  • Do you talk differently about your speech in different situations or with different people?
  • How does this affect how you feel about your speech and how you interact with others?
  • Appreciative Inquiry Principle #2 -- The Simultaneity Principle

    The Simultaneity Principle is that change occurs the moment we ask a question. Questions spark and direct our attention, energy, and effort. How we focus our attention determines our feelings and actions. Consider the differences you are likely to experience if you ask yourself a question like, "How can I project knowledge and confidence at my job interview?" versus "How can I stutter less?"

  • How do you want to be perceived when you talk with people?
  • What do you do to help create this impression?
  • What are some of the factors you think are important to good communication? To good interpersonal relationships?
  • Appreciative Inquiry Principle #3 -- The Anticipatory Principle

    The Anticipatory Principle is that images and stories inspire action. Positive images and stories provide a roadmap. Facts or figures rarely prompt us to take action, especially to take risks.

    Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right.
    - Henry Ford

    Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France for the seventh time is an example of a wonderful image/story that inspires us, and charts a path for overcoming adversity. One of the reasons a support group such as the National Stuttering Association can have such a powerful, positive influence is that we have the opportunity interact with people who can serve as role models, and inspire and teach us.

  • What images do you have of your stuttering?
  • Who are your role models for stuttering?
  • What are some ways you would like to challenge yourself more with your stuttering?
  • Appreciative Inquiry Principle #4 -- The Positive Principle

    The Positive Principle is that positive questions lead to positive change. Positive questions help us unleash enthusiasm and excitement, which in turn lead to hope and positive action. Positive emotions provide hope, help us thrive, and feel empowered to take risks. Negative questions and negative emotions constrain us. This does not mean that fear and anxiety must always be avoided -- obviously that is unrealistic. A lot depends on how we interpret and react to the emotions we feel. A very interesting study was conducted that looked at the physiological reactions to a roller coaster ride for people who self-identified as either liking or disliking roller coasters. The researchers were surprised by their findings -- that the physiological responses for people who loved or feared roller coasters was exactly the same. For both groups of people, their heart-rate increased by the same rate, breathing became more shallow and rapid, etc. However, how the two groups interpreted their identical reactions was radically different. Those who loved roller coasters labeled their reactions as excitement and wanted to do it again, while those who disliked roller coasters labeled the exact same physiological reactions as fear and discomfort and wanted nothing to do with roller coasters.

    The Positive Principle involves re-framing apparent problems into questions that are likely to yield positive answers. For example, "How can I avoid embarrassing myself when I stutter" is a negative and defeatist question that focuses our mind on embarrassment and shame, even if it is with the intention of avoiding them. A successful outcome to that question would be simply that you avoided embarrassment -- not a very lofty goal. Examples of positive questions are:

  • How can I communicate so that I motivate and inspire people?
  • How can I put people at ease at the party I am hosting tonight?
  • What positive quality do I want to really express today?
  • What speech control will I practice today?
  • Appreciative Inquiry Principle #5 -- The Wholeness Principle

    The Wholeness Principle states that wholeness occurs when we allow ourselves to recognize and fully incorporate the various aspects of ourselves, and that the experience of wholeness brings out the best in us. We have only a limited amount of attention we can give. The more that we focus on our stuttering, the less we can recognize and embrace our strengths, talents and skills.

  • How big a part of yourself do you view your stuttering?
  • When does your stuttering seem to matter less?
  • What are some of your non-speech related positive qualities?
  • What are three areas of competence you possess?
  • Appreciative Inquiry Principle #6 -- The Enactment Principle

    Even with the best of intentions, it is very easy for us to make excuses and put off making changes. Whether our goal is to practice the techniques we have been working on in speech therapy, to improve our eye contact, or to talk more at work, it is easy for us to find reasons why we should do it tomorrow instead of today. Honest self-appraisal will probably reveal that most of our excuses are based in fear -- that we would rather avoid the effort, potential failure, or potential embarrassment of trying something new.

    The bottom line is that we can keep ourselves very stuck and prevent ourselves from taking risks if we assume we have to feel ready before we can attempt something new. The Enactment Principle is to act "as if," to go ahead and start doing the things you want even if you do not feel ready. Another way of saying this is to "fake it till you make it." Research shows that doing so, in fact, does work. For example, people who make themselves smile and be friendly when they are in a depressed mood typically report feeling genuinely happier by the end of the day.

    Be the change you want to see.
    - Gandhi

    The following are a series of questions that you can answer on your own, or use for discussion in a group format such as a National Stuttering Association chapter meetings. (The following are some useful guidelines to share with the group if facilitating a discussion from an Appreciative Inquiry framework:

    Guidelines for discussion:

    Bring out the best in the other person.
    Share your own experience and ideas.
    Observe time frames.
    Focus on building the future you want.
    Imagine new possibilities.
    Create relationship-enhancing conversations.

    Appreciative Inquiry Exercise:

    1. Highpoint Experience:
    As you reflect on your communication, we have all had ups and downs, high points and low points. Please describe one instance when you were at your best as a speaker, a time when you felt you were communicating well, when what you were saying was being heard and understood, and you were making a positive impact on the listener or listeners.

    a. What was the situation? b. Who else was involved? c. What did you do that made a positive difference? d. How did you feel at this time? 2. Same as question one, but think of a time when you felt you communicated well even though you were having a "tough speech day".

    3. Valuing You as a Communicator:
    If you were to ask some people who know you well about you as a communicator, what would they say are your greatest skills, abilities, talents, and gifts?

    Good results flow from good questions. I encourage you to spend time and reflect on these questions, and think of other positively oriented questions you can use to incorporate the Appreciative Inquiry perspective into your daily approach to stuttering. I also encourage you to participate in a support group like the National Stuttering Association if possible. Support group meetings are a great place to find positive role models, to create success experiences, to find social support, and to experience in countless ways the focus being on the whole person, not just stuttering.


    Cooperrider, D.L. & Whitney, D. (1999). Appreciative inquiry. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler.

    Ludema, J. D., Whitney, D., Mohr, B. J., & Griffin, T. J. (2003). The appreciative inquiry summit: A practitioner's guide for leading large group change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

    Whitney, D. & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2003). The power of appreciative inquiry: A practical guide to positive change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

    You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

    August 8, 2005
    Return to the opening page of the conference