Three Key Practices for a Successful Career in Government 

Cheri Torres is a senior consultant at, partner at Innovation Partners International, and an associate at the Taos Institute. She works with organizations in every sector to support effective leadership, team excellence, and culture change. She has trained thousands of trainers and teachers in the use and practice of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Facilitation. Her book, Conversations Worth Having, co-authored with Jackie Stavros, is available May 22. The book will be accompanied by a training program and product. To learn more visit

Those working in government today face some of the most complex challenges in the world. These issues can no longer be solved by government officials using traditional problem-solving strategies. Complexity requires diversity in thinking, perceiving, sensing, and understanding. It requires many more people to engage in conversations across sectors, disciplines and divides.

The good news: People want to be involved. They want to be heard. They want to engage in resolving long-standing issues and in setting new policy. They want a say in how their communities, states, and Nation function. It’s no longer enough to just take their calls, listen and nod. There’s a growing demand for real engagement and a cry for real conversations that address the deeper and underlying issues plaguing our systems. They know it is possible for a system to work for everyone and they are demanding it.

For those in government, this means developing the capacity to foster conversations worth having. These are interactions that add value and move towards outcomes that are good for the whole. They are transparent and genuine rather than political, and they address the complexity of our communities and the world. Those who want to be successful and advance in government will learn to engage their government colleagues as well as the public in these kinds of conversations. There are three simple practices for doing so:

Prepare To Be Awed: Go into these conversations with an open mind, heart, and will. Look and listen for the wisdom of those who are engaged. Expect new knowledge and innovative ideas to emerge—ideas you couldn’t have imagined on your own.

Choose Positive Framing: Name the problem but frame the conversation to focus on desired outcomes. Instead of talking about the problem, what people don’t want, and what needs to change, engage stakeholders in talking about what they do want and how to get there.

Ask Generative Questions: Be the person with powerful questions instead of the person with the answers. Ask questions that generate understanding and awareness, new knowledge and information, a connection across divides and disciplines, possibilities and opportunities, and images of shared, desired outcomes.

You have to be willing to step into the unknown unsure of where it will lead.
These practices are simple, but not easy. They require us to set aside practices and beliefs that have helped make us successful in the past. Being the problem-solver and the answer-person got you where you are, but it will not take you into the future. That strategy cannot handle the level of complexity we are facing. Letting go of what has always worked takes courage. You have to be willing to risk admitting you don’t have the answers and cannot discover them on your own.  You have to be willing to step into the unknown unsure of where it will lead. And you have to move beyond trusting just yourself and a few colleagues to trusting the whole.

Children are great role models for this.  In a trusting environment, they naturally explore the unknown with curiosity and openness. They are not yet convinced of “one right way” or a set worldview, which results in an open mind, an open heart, and an open will. Still trying to understand the way the world works, they listen to many voices and keep trying to make sense of things. Children continually ask questions and especially want to understand why when adults tell them, “No, not possible.” We’ve all heard or experienced the child who keeps asking why until the parent says, “Because I said so!” When it comes to government, that answer will no longer work.

Here is a little more detail on the practices. You can learn more in Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement.

Prepare to Be Awed

Appreciative Inquiry, one of the most effective and widely used approaches for fostering positive change, is grounded in a set of principles or rules that help us understand how our conversations influence what happens and what’s possible. The principles are predictive of where we can go in our interactions.

  1. The Constructionist Principle: We create our social reality through conversation and shared meaning-making.
  2. The Simultaneity Principle: Change happens the moment we ask the question or make a statement.
  3. The Anticipatory Principle: Our expectations influence our experience and what’s possible.
  4. The Poetic Principle: There is more than one truth or way of seeing and understanding any situation, person, or organization.
  5. The Positive Principle: Words create images and images are compelling; the more positive the image the more positive the action.

Collectively, these principles invite us to stay open to the outcome and to be intentional with our words and thoughts, for they govern what possible.

Choose Positive Framing

Positive framing is about intentionally shaping a conversation to focus on a desirable outcome and to energize engagement to produce positive results. A positive frame draws people in and inspires curiosity, imagination, and interest. This should not be mistaken for focusing only on the positive. Quite the contrary, this is about dealing with even the toughest issues in a way that motivates everyone to find creative solutions and take action. Flipping is a tool to help you take any problem or challenge and create a positive frame. This is a simple three-step approach to move from a negative, deficit-based frame to a positive frame, allowing you to work towards solutions by engaging in conversations worth having.  The three steps are:

  • Name It. What is the problem, complaint, or the thing you don’t want?
  • Flip It. What is the positive opposite, the thing you do want?
  • Frame It. What is the positive impact if the flip is true; what is the desired outcome?

Ask Generative Questions

What Generative Questions Can Do
Elicit information, stories, ideas, and perspectives
Tap experience
Allow strengths to show up
Show us best practices and elements of success
Move toward solutions or to information and data that inform possible solutions
Identify new ways of thinking, new possibilities, opportunities, and aspirations
Inform what we might do, the results we might want
Make room for new knowledge, creativity, and innovation
Deepen connections
Strengthen relationships
Engage those on the sidelines
Generate Understanding

 Adopt an attitude of curiosity. When we are genuinely curious, we naturally ask generative questions.

  • Make room for diverse and different perspectives. How do you see it?
  • Surface new information and knowledge. How did you manage this process in Detroit?
  • Stimulate creativity and innovation. What might be possible if we . . .?

When dealing with any issue, even difficult issues, generative questions make unseen information visible and result in conversations that create trust, positive energy, and the transformative power to move the system forward in the desired direction. The result: new ways for solving complex problems and compelling images for collective action.


No matter what role you play in government, conversation is going to be a part of your work. The greater your leadership role, the more central a role conversation plays. If you want to evolve your career and become a truly effective leader for the future of your community, state, nation, or the world, become a master of fostering conversations worth having.

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