To Self Advocate or Not? That is the Question...

In our coaching sessions, I often hear people say,

“I don’t need an ally, I need an advocate.” 

I totally get it. They’re over, as many of us are, having people identify as quiet supporters. You know what I mean, people who genuinely care about us, or care about the same issues that we do, and offer to take us to coffee or reach out with a phone call when they think we could use a hand. In my experience, those kinds of gestures are often, as my daddy says, “a day late and a dollar short.”

Those expressions of care appear to be, at least, more about the person than about me, or you. If the interest was really in actively being a supporter of another person, the act wouldn’t be so hidden, so out of sight, or happen outside of the context in which we really could use it. 

Actively being an ally and advocate is something important to grasp intellectually, but like so many things related to inclusive management and equity, diversity and inclusion, knowing how to practice this concept is even more important. Let’s focus on laying a bit of a foundation here and include opportunities for you to think about ways that you can bring more intentional practice into your day-to-day interactions. 

Speaking of day-to-day interactions, I bet you have your fair share of meetings. In those meetings hopefully, there are some governing ideas about how people interact. These ideas are called group norms. One of my favorite group norms is asking in a meeting, or in a shared space, to “balance advocacy with inquiry.”

At first, hearing it, it sounds pretty straightforward. But there’s actually a lot that goes into advocacy and inquiry. Let’s unpack the words and consider how advocacy and inquiry appear from various positions of power within a group. 

 Advocacy is sharing your ideas with others in order to increase understanding, encourage support, or influence a decision. Advocacy shows up in one of two ways: there’s self-advocating and advocating for others. 

Self-Advocacy happens when you ask others to consider your point of view or act on your expressed needs. Note that I say “expressed needs.” Self-advocacy requires that you are able and willing to share with at least one person what you want or need in a way that clarifies for them the actions they can take to support you.

Ideally, you should be able to self-advocate with your boss or colleagues, across power dynamics. But understanding that we don’t live in an ideal world, and that power dynamics really do impact how people show up, self-advocacy is often more present when power dynamics are relatively evenly distributed. Reading and navigating power dynamics is the more nuanced piece of self-advocating; the actual words are more straightforward. For example, imagine you are a member of a project team and want group members to consider a suggestion that you think might be prematurely dismissed as not-feasible. You might say, “I realize that this is not our typical approach, but I’d like to ask everyone to be open-minded and consider my idea.”

On the flip side, advocating for others happens when you invite another person to share their ideas, you give credit to a person for their contributions, out loud, or you take the initiative to introduce someone to others who may not know them as a way of helping them broaden their network or because you know that by virtue of your reputation you can help them establish credibility.

Advocating for others is most helpful when you have more power or privilege than those in the group and can use that privilege to open a door, make sure credit is appropriately placed, or extend your privilege to someone who may not be otherwise given access to a particular group. A simple everyday example could be, in a group with prior established relationships, a new person joins the team. You might say, “Maria, your earlier comment makes me curious to hear more from you. Would you be willing to share more of your perspective about how we might approach this issue?” Again, it doesn’t have to be grand gestures all the time. Instead, advocating for others means that you are proactively looking for ways to point attention back to their contributions, create space for their ideas, and provide access to information and relationships that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. 

Now let’s talk about inquiry.

Inquiry is about asking questions and making an effort to invite, listen to, and understand perspectives beyond your own.

As with advocacy, there are two ways to approach inquiry: inquiring of others and inviting inquiry. Inquiring of others means that you are proactively asking for another’s point of view. You are authentically exploring what a person, or a group, has shared with you. Again, this sounds simple enough but in my experience, people are quick–even people who deem themselves incredible, inclusive leaders–to judge the viability of an idea. I’m not saying that all ideas that are shared with you are going to be: a) good or b) feasible.

However, creativity in a group setting is more apt to exist when there is the ability to share ideas freely and with the belief that they will be at least considered. So inquiring about others does not assume that you will like or act on every idea or opinion, but it facilitates greater understanding, space to unpack, and potentially to package together ideas from a variety of different people and perspectives. That, my friends, that’s where creativity lives! The practice of regularly inquiring about others also helps you build and maintain trust. People believe that you care about them, that you value their contributions, that you are willing to set your agenda or judgments aside to make room for theirs.

That’s worth its weight in gold as a manager and leader. 

Now, consider how you could inquire of another person in meeting with a colleague who makes a suggestion to which your immediate internal response is to dismiss it. Instead pause and say, I hadn’t considered that option. Please tell me more about how you think it would work in this situation.” A simple approach but something that could powerfully model, especially when used as part of an overall and consistent practice, your values and your inclusive leadership philosophy.

Inviting Inquiry happens when you solicit and accept questions, without getting defensive, from others that prompt additional sharing, encouraging deeper understanding, and allowing for collaboration. This one, particularly for people who are leaders or managers, is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate your inclusive values. Inviting inquiry models for others in your group, your desire to share and create an inclusive environment.

The key to inviting inquiry is that it needs to be genuine. If you get defensive when a question is asked, your response, even a nonverbal response, can convey a lack of genuine interest in hearing other points of view. So prepare yourself to sometimes be asked tough questions, to know that you may not always like the questions: the way they are worded, the fact that you don’t have immediate answers, or whatever. The most important aspect is to avoid getting defensive and be willing to be a bit vulnerable sometimes.

Using these techniques, the modeling that you’re doing can really help others see you as a person who is committed to living in your values. 

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