The Power of Imagining Positively



The Power of Imagining Positively: T Group Possibilities for the Future
by Jane Magruder Watkins, Cathy Royal, and Walt Hopkins from the NTL Reading Book for Human Relations Training
• What is the best thing that has happened to me today?

• What is the most life-enhancing story I have heard in the group so far? 

• What positive possibilities do we see in the diversity of our group?

• What is the most wonderful thing that can happen in our group today?

Imagine what happens in a group when we ask ourselves such questions and then listen appreciatively to the answers.

For 50 years, NTL has been developing the T Group as a way of helping people grow and change. As we enter our second 50 years, we believe that Social Constructionism theory and the Appreciative Inquiry approach provide powerful new possibilities for personal growth and development in the T Group setting.

Social Constructionism Theory

New studies in psychology suggest that we do not make changes by solving problems. Instead of solving problems, we resolve life issues by leaving the old situation behind and moving in the direction of something more creative and appealing.

Problem solving fits the analytical paradigm. (A paradigm is a model or a way of experiencing the world.) In the analytical paradigm—which looks at people or groups as machines—we take things apart, analyze them, and fix them with new solutions and new behaviors.

The old paradigm is too limiting. As our experience of the world becomes more holistic and situational, we shift from machine metaphors to organic metaphors. An organization is more like a river than like a machine; a person is more like a flower than like a clock. Instead of seeking one truth, we accept Social Constructionism theory. The theory states that we create our world by the conversations that we have about it. Instead of saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we say, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

Many of the models for looking at what happens in a group are linear and sequential—as is appropriate in the earlier paradigm. In the expanding new paradigm, models are holistic. Things, information, people—and the interactions among people in small groups—are holistic. In the earlier linear paradigm it makes sense to form, storm, norm, and perform. In the expanding new paradigm, it makes sense to transform continually.

In the linear paradigm there is one truth about the world and we keep repairing and correcting in pursuit of the ideal state. The glass is half-empty. Our task is to identify what is wrong and fix it. In the holistic paradigm, there are multiple possibilities. Truth depends on the situation, person, or group. We focus on what is good and on creating a future built on positive images. It is not that the glass itself is half-empty or half-full, but that we make our own choice to see it as half-full.

Appreciative Inquiry Approach

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that helps people and organizations move from the linear to the holistic paradigm. Appreciative Inquiry uses the power of positive images to socially construct reality. The process is simple: People tell stories to capture their best moments, events, and practices. Then they use those best moments as a basis for describing a desired future. Since most people prefer this positive vision, they transform their behavior as they move toward that vision.

Appreciative Inquiry builds on extensive research in a variety of areas from medicine to sports. It was originally developed by Dr. David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Organization Behavior—a curriculum originally designed by NTL members in 1960. As Suresh Srivasta says, “Appreciative Inquiry is a habit of mind, heart, and imagination.”


Appreciative Inquiry is Appreciative, Applicable, Provocative, and Collaborative.

1. We appreciate “what is.”

2. We generate knowledge that is applicable to our work.

3. We generate provocative propositions of “what might be.”

4. We collaborate throughout this process.

We base our behavior on what we think and feel about reality. If knowledge is socially constructed, then there are multiple realities. We are often influenced by historical reality (what we think and feel about the past) or by current reality (what we think and feel about the present).

Appreciative Inquiry builds on anticipatory reality (what we think and feel about the future). From a child anticipating the first day of school to an Olympic runner anticipating the final race, what we think and feel about the future does affect the future. We construct the future.


Consider these propositions:

• What I think and feel affects what happens.

• When I think and feel positively, positive things happen.

• When we think and feel positively together, positive things happen in our group.


These propositions are based on research in many areas. Here we summarize some of that research from Cooperrider’s article “Positive Image; Positive Action” and give you sources for further information.

Placebo: People get better both physically and emotionally when they believe in the treatment. Studies show one-third to two-thirds of patients respond positively to placebos. This is even stronger in experiments where the physician believes as strongly as the patient. (1955 Beecher; 1983 Cousins; 1985 White, Tursky, Schwartz)

Positive Affect: Positive emotions increase the capacity for learning, creative problem solving, social helpfulness, and effective decision making. (1975 Seligman; 1981 Isen; 1984 Bower)

Internal Dialogue: Successful people have internal dialogues that explain success as internal, global, and permanent while failure is external, temporary, and transient. Unsuccessful people have the opposite dialogue. (1890 James; 1949 Ryle; 1975 Seligman)

Interpersonal Dialogue: Successful interpersonal relationships are based on a ratio of at least two positive statements to one negative statement. The words and images we choose intentionally actually create the interpersonal situation; positive words and images lead to positive interactions. (1987 Sloterdijk; 1997 Royal)

Pygmalion: The teacher’s image of the student affects the student’s results. When teachers are told that certain children (randomly selected) are gifted, those children perform better—because the teachers behave differently with students they expect more from. This is a better predictor than IQ, home environment, or past performance. Studies have also found that successful managers often had a strong mentor as their first boss. (1974 Brophy and Good; 1978 Rosenthal & Rubin; 1986 Jussim)

Culture Image: The rise of positive images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise of cultures. Almost all social advances are first described in utopian writings. (1973 Polak; 1976 Markley; 1987 Morgan)

Affirmative Competence: Using positive imagery and then monitoring success rather than failure increases competence in golf, Olympic athletics, and life. (1974 Nicklaus; 1979 Ostrander; 1983 Sheikh)

When we share this research information with people, we often hear the response: “Oh yes, that has worked for me in sports!” or “Oh yes, that has worked for me at the office!” Each of us has powerful positive experiences in sports, or medicine, or learning. What we are suggesting is that this process works everywhere—including small groups! When people in a T Group think and feel and talk positively together—then positive things happen. It can happen in your T Group too. Imagine the possibilities!



H. Beecher. “The Powerful Placebo.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 159, 1602-1606, 1955.

G. Bower. “Mood and Memory.” American Psychologist. 36, 129-148, 1981.

D. Brophy and T. Good. Teacher-Student Relationships: Causes and Consequences. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974.

D. Cooperrider. “Appreciative Inquiry: A Constructive Approach to Organization Development and Change.” Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University, 1977.

N. Cousins. The Healing Heart. NewYork, NY: Avon Books, 1983.

  1. Isen, T. Shalker, M. Clark, and L. Karp. “Affect, Accessibility of Materials in Memory, and Behavior: A Cognitive Coop?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36, 1-12, 1978.

W. James. The Principles of Psychology. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1890.

C. Jussim. “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: A Theoretical and Integrative Review.” Psychological Review. 93 (4), 429-445, 1986.

D. Markley. “Human Consciousness in Transformation.” Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in Transition. Eds. E. Jantsch and C. Waddington. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1976.

G. Morgan. Images of Organization. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1987.

J. Nicklaus. Golf My Way. NewYork, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1971.

S. Ostrander. Superlearning. New York, NY: Delacorte, 1979.

F. Polak. The Images of the Future. New York, NY: Elseviere, 1973.

R. Rosenthal and D. Rubin. “Interpersonal Expectancy Effects: The First 345 Studies.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 3, 377-415, 1978.

G. Ryle. The Concept of Mind. NewYork, NY: Harper & Row, 1949.

M. Seligman. Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco, CA: Freeman, 1975.

  1. Sheikh. Imagery: Current Theory, Research, and Application. New York, NY: Wiley, 1983.

P. Sloterdijk. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1987.

L. White, B. Tursky, and G. Schwartz, Eds. Placebos: Theory, Research, and Mechanisms. New York, NY: Guilford Books, 1985.

© 1997, 1998. This is a chapter from the Reading Book for Human Relations 8th Edition, to be published in

the autumn of 1999 by NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. ISBN 0-9610392-7-2.