Imagine you’re walking down the street with friends. It’s a gorgeous day, and you’re feeling good. At this moment it feels like you don’t have a care in the world. Suddenly someone calls out “Help!”
You look over to see that someone is on the ground, in cardiac arrest. Everyone is looking around in panic, and no one is doing anything to help.
You know how to give CPR. Would you step in, and use your education, training, and experience to help that person in need? Or would you keep walking?
I bet you’d step in. I bet you’d speak up to say “I can help.” You wouldn’t assume the ailing person could or should take care of themself. You wouldn’t think that people may criticize you for helping, and say that you were only able to help because you had the privilege of your education and your experience. You’d see someone you could help, and you’d get to work. You’d know what to do.
You’d go from witness to actor. And you’d make a difference.
And if you were the person on the ground, in cardiac arrest, you’d want anyone who knew how to help to step in. You’d want them to use the privilege of their education, training, and experience to help you. There’s no way you’d hesitate to ask for help if you could.
There are times when we all need help, and times when we can help. There are also times when we all need someone else to advocate for us and times when we can be the advocate. Often women and other members of marginalized groups come to me because they want to learn to advocate for themselves. While I train these people to advocate for themselves, we need to recognize that often the best advocates are those with more resources, more access, more support, and more privilege. And sometimes the best thing for you to do is to ask someone else to do it for you.
We don’t expect the person having cardiac arrest to treat themself. We look for those who have advantages to help. And we can’t always expect the people who most need advocacy to do it themselves. Here, too, we need those who have advantages to help.
You have some advantages. You might have more education than someone else or a better network. You might have more experience or a more invested mentor. These are all advantages that mean in some circumstances you could and should advocate for someone else.
Some of you are also in a marginalized group. If you are, you will absolutely have to learn to advocate for yourself and others in your group. But you can also ask those with more power and access to advocate for you. And if someone who has more privilege or access offers to advocate for you, take them up on that offer. And tell them what you want and how they can help.
I want women and those in marginalized groups to learn to toot their own horns. Too often we don’t. I also want them to ask others to toot their horn for them. Because most of the time they won’t. And they must. We want there to be a cacophony of deafening horns speaking up for them and their wants, needs, and ideas.
That means everyone needs to know how to advocate for themselves and each other. If leaders and those in positions of authority and power don’t learn to advocate for those less powerful, and if those who need advocacy don’t allow them to do so, real change will be slow and perhaps unlikely.
One of the best places to see the impact of advocating for others is in bystander intervention research. Studies show that bystander training is one of the few things that works to combat sexual harassment. Research examining sexual assault on college campuses and the military shows that training bystanders how to recognize, intervene and show empathy to targets of assault not only increases awareness and improves attitudes, but also encourages bystanders to disrupt assaults before they happen and help survivors report and seek support after the fact.
Recognizing a problem, intervening, and showing empathy are all part of advocating, and part of leading. When people in power join those who are marginalized in learning the skills to become stronger advocates, they can combine forces to use those skills. They can start advocating for each other, for the changes they want to make, and for the systems that support change.
No matter who you are, there are times you will be the one with an advantage, and times you’ll be the one at a disadvantage. Either way, there are things you can do to make advocacy work for you.
1-Remember that questions beat assumptions.
As a person in a position of power, you may think you know what someone else needs. You may have the perfect solution for what you perceive to be the problem, and you’re ready to start advocating for that solution.
Stop. Take a deep breath. Rather than script what you’re going to say to advocate for what you think is best, script the questions you need to ask to find out what is truly best.
Here are some questions to consider.
-Tell me what you want me to know about this situation. What might I be missing?
-What do you want? How can I help you get it?
-What do you need from me in this situation? Help me understand how I can help you.
-Could I advocate for you here? How could I do it best?
Asking these questions will give you so much information to become a better leader, a better advocate, and a better citizen. Too often we assume we know what’s best. But when those in power assume what’s best and then start advocating for it, it can be condescending, patronizing, and counterproductive.
Put down your assumptions and pick up your questions. They’re one of the most effective tools of an advocate. Use them.
And if you’re the person who needs the advocacy, tell the person in power what you want. Tell them how to give it to you. Answer these questions for them, even if they’ve forgotten to ask.
It’s not enough to ask the right questions. You have to listen to the answers. Listening with an open mind and an open heart is one of the most important skills of an advocate. Twenty years of advocating in the courtroom taught me that, when it comes to advocating, the best listener wins. But they don’t just win in the courtroom. They win in the classroom, the boardroom, the bedroom and the office.
Listen for what you’re missing. Keep an ear out for anything that surprises you. One of the best tips for listening well as an advocate/leader is to ask yourself “What will I learn?” or “What will surprise me?” before every conversation. Aim to use the answers as three pieces of evidence that you can use to advocate.
Another great tip to become a better listener is to listen not for what they say but how they say it. When it comes to advocating for others, the circumstances are often emotional. And research out of Yale tells us that you can learn more about a person’s emotions from their tone of voice than their body language and facial expressions combined. You might assume someone is feeling scared when really they’re angry. Listening will help you get a better idea of how they truly feel and what questions to ask next.
Calvin Coolidge said, “No one ever listened their way out of a job.” And no one ever listened their way out of a leadership position or an advocacy position. Listening is magic. It makes you a better negotiator, a better leader, and a better advocate. Listen well and you will advocate well.
And if you’re the person who needs advocacy, don’t let your pride get in the way of listening. The person advocating for you might have ideas or insights you don’t. Listening always goes both ways.
3-Be a voice.
When I teach people how to advocate, our goal is to advocate so well that we turn the people around us into our advocates. That means it isn’t enough to just publicly support something or to ask for what we want. We need to share Stories, Evidence, and Energy ( My SEE Technique™ ) so that the person listening has the assets they need to go advocate for us.
Your job as an advocate is to use stories, evidence, and energy to turn others into advocates. But you’re not sharing your stories, evidence, and energy. You’re sharing others’.
At this point, if you’re following along, you’ve asked questions. You know whether the person you’re advocating for wants you to advocate for them or wants your support while they do it themselves. They may want to share their own story, but have you share the evidence that goes with that story. Or they may want you to share the stories and the evidence, but they want to be there to contribute their energy of belief. Some may want to share their stories and evidence themselves and all they need from you is your energy of belief. Once you know what they want, then you can speak.
When you’re a leader/advocate you are the voice for those whose voices aren’t heard. But being their voice doesn’t mean they don’t have one. It means now they have two.
Remember that. Your job is not to take over or speak louder. It is to speak in support of, after exploring what type of support a person needs and wants. And it’s focusing on advocating for systems and processes that will help make the change you’re seeking.
If you’re the person in need of advocacy, collect and create your stories and your evidence. Share them with your advocate. Stay firm in your energy of belief. Share it with your advocate so that it becomes contagious.
Remember that ideas, systems, and processes need advocates too. They can’t speak for themselves and too often the brilliant brains that develop them don’t have the tools or access to then advocate for them. When you hone the tools of an advocate that I teach, you do. Using them is how you become a stronger, better leader.
I recently had a conversation with a middle-aged white orthopedic surgeon who is the head of the DEI committee at his hospital. People sometimes question whether that is appropriate, or say that it feels wrong. He tells them “I have resources, access, networks and opportunities that marginalized physicians don’t have. This work is exhausting. Why should they take it on their shoulders? They’re struggling. I know how to help. So I do.”
There are times you will be struggling and you will need an advocate. Ask for one. There are times when you have resources, access, and opportunities and you could be an advocate. Be one.
You’d never walk away from the scene of a medical emergency if you had the training, experience, and education to help. If you don’t know CPR, this may be your sign to learn it so that you can help when someone needs you. And if you don’t know how to advocate effectively, this may be your sign to learn the tools of an advocate so that you can help when someone needs you.
I have those tools. I share them in my podcast, my books, and in my training. If you want to learn more, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org There will be a time when you need to advocate. My hope is that you know how to do it well.