In the field of health coaching, various methodologies and interventions are employed to facilitate positive and sustainable behavior change in individuals. Among these approaches, appreciative coaching and appreciative inquiry have gained recognition for their effectiveness in fostering sustainable improvements in health and well-being.

Grounded in principles of positivity and strengths-based perspectives, these methodologies offer valuable tools for both coaches and clients to explore and leverage existing strengths, successes and resources to achieve desired health outcomes. This article explores the principles of appreciative inquiry and appreciative coaching, their theoretical foundations, practical applications, and the evidence supporting their efficacy in promoting holistic well-being.

To better understand these concepts and methodologies, we’ll start by defining them.

Appreciative Inquiry

Developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, appreciative inquiry concentrates on what works well within an organization or in an individual’s experience. It revolves around four stages—Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny—and encourages a visionary approach to future possibilities. Here are the four stages or phases explained in greater detail:

  1. Discovery: In this phase, clients explore and appreciate the best of what is, uncovering strengths, values and past successes. Coach’s focus: Establish a positive connection with the client and lead them to a more empowering perspective by affirming a sense of possibility and cultivating their belief in their positive future.
  2. Dream: Here, clients envision an ideal future or a picture of health based on the insights gained during the Discovery phase. Coach’s focus: Encourage the client to create images of possibilities, invite them to give voice to their preferred future and affirm their dream.
  3. Design: Building on the shared vision, coaches and clients work together to co-create strategies and action plans to realize the desired future state. Coach’s focus: Assist the client in bringing the dream into focus, affirm the reality of their dream, and support mindful choices and actions.
  4. Destiny: The focus of this phase is on implementing and sustaining positive changes, while continuously learning and adapting to new challenges and opportunities. Coach’s focus: Help the client recognize their dream in the present and enable them to expand their capacity to create their dream. Additionally, support the client in holding faith when they face an obstacle or challenge.

In short, appreciative inquiry is intended to help us discover, understand and foster innovation. At its foundational level, appreciative inquiry is based on the following tenets (Orem, Binkert and Clancy, 2007):

  • Inquiry should first begin with appreciation.
  • Inquiry into what is possible should yield information that is usable and applicable.
  • Knowledge that appreciates “what is” can motivate action.
  • Inquiry into human potential should be a partnership; it is collaborative.

Appreciative Coaching

Appreciative coaching, which is based on appreciative inquiry, is rooted in the belief that focusing on what is already working well in an individual's life fosters positive change and growth. Rather than dwelling on problems or deficits, appreciative coaching encourages individuals to identify their strengths, accomplishments and aspirations. By highlighting these positive aspects, individuals are empowered to envision a future aligned with their values and aspirations, thus motivating them to take purposeful actions toward their desired health goals.

There are four key practices of appreciative coaching (Orem, Binkert and Clancy, 2007):

  1. Positive Reframing: Appreciative coaching involves reframing challenges or setbacks into opportunities for growth and learning. By shifting the focus from problems to possibilities, individuals can uncover untapped resources and solutions.
  2. Strengths-based Approach: Emphasizing strengths and past successes enables individuals to build confidence and resilience, facilitating sustainable behavior change.
  3. Visioning: Encouraging clients to envision their ideal future promotes goal setting and facilitates the development of actionable plans to achieve their desired health outcomes.
  4. Collaborative Partnership: Appreciative coaching fosters a collaborative relationship between the coach and the client, built on trust, empathy and mutual respect. This partnership empowers clients to take ownership of their health journey and make informed decisions.

By integrating appreciative inquiry with traditional coaching practices, appreciative coaching involves identifying strengths, setting positive goals and strategically planning actionable steps toward achieving those goals in health and fitness settings.

Impact on Client Well-being and Effectiveness

Combining these methodologies has been shown to positively impact clients’ well-being by enhancing motivation and adherence, building psychological resilience and supporting emotional well-being. Let’s take a closer look at each of these positive effects:

Enhancing motivation and adherence: Focusing on clients’ strengths and past successes rather than their failures increases motivation and adherence to fitness programs. This positive focus boosts clients’ self-esteem and self-efficacy, which are key drivers in sustainable physical activity.

Building psychological resilience: The visualization and goal-setting stages of appreciative inquiry help clients mentally prepare for challenges, which enhances their resilience. This is crucial in maintaining a consistent exercise regimen and healthy lifestyle changes.

Supporting emotional well-being: The coaching relationship, characterized by positivity and support, plays a critical role in managing the stress and emotional strain often associated with lifestyle changes. This supportive dynamic can lead to better mental health outcomes and overall life satisfaction.

Further, research supports the efficacy of appreciative coaching in health and fitness contexts. For example, a 2020 study found that fitness clients who underwent appreciative coaching demonstrated greater long-term commitment to fitness routines and reported higher satisfaction levels compared to those who received traditional directive coaching.

In the three area of personal trainingexercise program design, nutrition and recoveryusing these combined methods improves the client experience.

Exercise Program Design: Personal trainers can use appreciative coaching techniques to create more tailored and responsive fitness programs that align with clients’ strengths and preferences, thereby increasing the likelihood of sustained engagement.

Nutrition: Appreciative inquiry can help clients identify and expand on their successful dietary habits rather than focusing solely on restrictions and limitations.

Recovery: For clients recovering from injuries, appreciative coaching can focus on capabilities and progress, which is essential for maintaining a positive outlook and motivation during the recovery process.

Appreciative Coaching: Practical Applications and Strategies

Practical applications and strategies of appreciative coaching for health coaches and exercise professionals encompass a range of approaches aimed at leveraging strengths, successes and aspirations to support individuals in achieving their health and well-being goals. Here are some practical applications and strategies:

Strengths Assessment

  • Conduct strengths assessments with clients to identify their unique strengths, talents and resources. VIA is one option.
  • Incorporate strengths-based language and affirmations into coaching conversations to reinforce clients’ confidence and self-efficacy.

Positive Reframing

  • Help clients reframe challenges or setbacks into opportunities for growth and learning. Focus on what’s going well.
  • Encourage clients to view past successes and achievements as evidence of their capability to overcome current obstacles.
  • Explore alternative perspectives and interpretations of situations to foster a positive mindset and resilience.

Goal Setting and Visioning

  • Guide clients in clarifying their values, priorities and aspirations related to health and well-being.
  • Facilitate visioning exercises to help clients envision their desired future state of health and vitality.
  • Collaboratively set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals that align with clients’ values and aspirations.

Asset-based Problem Solving

  • Focus on identifying and leveraging existing resources, support systems and coping mechanisms to address health challenges.
  • Help clients recognize and build upon past successes and coping strategies in managing health-related concerns.
  • Encourage clients to tap into their social networks and community resources for additional support and encouragement.

Cultivating Self-compassion and Resilience

  • Foster a compassionate and non-judgmental coaching environment where clients feel safe to explore their challenges and vulnerabilities.
  • Support clients in developing self-compassion and self-care practices to navigate setbacks and barriers with greater resilience.
  • Explore mindfulness and relaxation techniques to help clients manage stress and cultivate emotional well-being.

Celebrating Progress and Achievements

  • Acknowledge and celebrate clients’ progress, milestones and achievements along their health journey.
  • Use reflective exercises to help clients recognize their growth and development over time.
  • Encourage clients to express gratitude for the positive changes they’ve experienced and the support they've received.

Empowering Client Autonomy

  • Foster a collaborative partnership with clients based on trust, empathy and mutual respect.
  • Empower clients to take ownership of their health and well-being by involving them in decision-making and goal-setting processes.
  • Provide guidance and support while encouraging clients to explore their own solutions and strategies for achieving their health goals.

By incorporating these practical applications and strategies into your practice, you can effectively apply the principles of appreciative coaching to support clients in achieving sustainable behavior changes.

Appreciative coaching and appreciative inquiry offer valuable frameworks for promoting positive change and growth in individuals and organizations. By focusing on strengths, successes and aspirations, these methodologies empower individuals to envision a future aligned with their values and take purposeful actions toward their desired health goals. With a growing body of evidence supporting their efficacy, appreciative coaching and appreciative inquiry represent promising approaches to fostering holistic well-being and creating positive organizational change in healthcare settings. As a health and exercise professional, integrating these approaches into your practice can enhance your ability to support clients in achieving sustainable improvements in their health and well-being.

In this video, Dr. Nitschke explains how to use a practical strategy of appreciative coaching called positive reframing to connect with clients and help them find solutions to challenges they may be facing.


Interesting Reading and Resources

Cooperrider, D.L. and Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In Research in Organizational Change and Development (Vol. 1, pp. 129–169).

Orem, S.L., Binkert, J. and Clancy, A.L. (2007). Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, J., Thomas, R. and Quinlan, C. (2020). Effects of appreciative inquiry in fitness coaching on client motivation. Journal of Fitness Research, 29, 3, 202–210.