How to See Differences as a Contribution

By Marcia Reynolds
Marcia Reynolds

Whether you are working with a team or an entire organization, there is a tendency to look at differences as either deficiencies or a source of competition. Instead of defining people by their gender, age or culture, seek to know them as individuals with something great to give.

Curiosity is a great team builder.


Once way of discovering what each person has to contribute is to use a process called Appreciative Dialogue. When you have a common goal or future in place, use this technique to see people's differences as contributions before you create expectations or judgments that lead to disappointment and competition.

Appreciative Dialogue is based on the popular approach to organizational change called Appreciative Inquiry that directs people to build on what's working rather than trying to fix what's not. Taking an appreciative approach, you see your issue through a new lens, not the normal critical lens assigned to problem solving. You jump outside of the problem-solving box that your logical brain likes to play in.

I applied this inquiry process to developing interpersonal relationships when I designed the Appreciative Dialogue technique to help women identify and show up as their "best self" in my book Wander Woman.¹ Using Appreciative Dialogue goes beyond discovering and applying your strengths. Most people can easily identify what they are good at doing.

Appreciative Dialogue helps people discover together their greatest, most powerful, and joyful contributions.

When they hold appreciative dialogues, they can align their best energies to powerfully conquer roadblocks and create amazing results.

The process will help you be mindful of what you do when you create moments where you feel fully alive and excited. You explore everything that contributed to the creation of your peak experiences in the past and then consciously apply those contributions--your strengths, values, gifts, attitudes, emotions and perspective--to a relationship and the challenges you are currently facing.

Brain tip: How to hold an appreciative Dialogue

Step 1. Think of a time in your past when you felt energized, significant, and fulfilled. This moment could have happened yesterday or years ago. Can you recall a particular peak experience?

With this memory in mind, answer the following questions:

  1. Describe a peak experience where you felt fully alive and fulfilled (this could have been a moment in time in an on-going situation or after an event was complete).
  2. What five things did you contribute to creating this peak experience? (do not use broad characterizations such as being a good team player, leader or friend; define what specific strengths, personality attributes, powerful emotions, work or life values, and your unique perspective that you called on to create the moment)

NOTE. The listener or group should encourage the person speaking to find five distinct contributions. Listeners should not judge, analyze or suggest any ideas. They can ask questions to clarify what they person shares, such as, "When you accomplished the project, what emotions helped you to persevere? What did you value that helped you make the right choices and connections? What did you feel differently about this project or situation that led to great results?

Step 2. After everyone shares their personal contributions to a time when they felt fully alive and fulfilled, you can then look at the issue, project or goal you have to work on together.

  1. Looking at the list of contributions, what can each person carry forward to the challenge we are now facing?
  2. What is possible for us now as a partnership or team?

The intent of Appreciative Dialogue is to teach your brain how to make the shift from seeing how people are different when facing problems to seeing how people can best work together. New ideas will appear in the conversation as you connect your positive past with the present moment. The sudden, new, and amazing solution to a problem arises when you can look at your situation from a perspective of appreciative contribution.

Remember to have these conversations often so you can determine what activities, mindset, and energy patterns will best serve the problems that arise. The results will help you revitalize your daily activities.