May 11 2023

Inquiry vs. Advocacy

My Grandpa Bill used to not want to talk about himself at dinner parties. When one of us asked him why one day, he said, “I already know what I have to say. What I don’t know, is what the other person has to say.”

There are a few principles I learned years ago in a workshop that my coach Marc led for us called Action/Design. I’m going to try writing a few posts about them, and you can find some articles on them here.

Inquiry vs. Advocacy is simple. Understand the balance of when you ask and listen vs. when you speak in a given conversation. Both are important tools in the CEO tool belt.

My rule of thumb is to ask and listen more than you speak. It’s the only way you will learn, collect data on your organization and on your customers and products. Early in your career, you should primarily be Inquiring. Even mid- and later career people who sometimes must be in a position to speak or advocate their point of view benefit most when they ask and listen and learn.

More important, though, Inquiry vs. Advocacy is the best way to guide your communications in a difficult conversation, complex negotiation, or tricky situation. And it’s in those kinds of situations that you actually need to be cognizant that both approaches are important, and you need to know which one to pull out when and pay attention to how others in the conversation are using the two as well. From an article in the resource center I linked to above:

In conversations on complex and controversial issues, when there is a high degree of advocacy and little inquiry, people are unable to learn about the nature of their differences. People may feel the speaker is imposing a view on them without taking into account their perspective, which can lead to either escalating conflict or withdrawal. When there is a high degree of inquiry, but no one is willing to advocate a position, it is difficult for participants to know where the other stands, and the lack of progress can lead people to feel frustrated and impatient. As a participant in a conversation, being aware of the balance of advocacy and inquiry can help you determine how best to contribute at a given time. If you hear that people are advocating but not asking questions, inquire into their views before adding your own. If you hear people asking questions for information but not stating an opinion, advocating your view may help the group move forward.

Inquiry vs. Advocacy has become a cornerstone of how I think about communicating and learning. I like to think I learned it from Grandpa Bill first, but the Action/Design work with my coach, and then years of practice, drove it home.