Balancing Advocacy and Inquiry

Most executives and managers in today’s corporations have received years of training in being assertive problem solvers. They have learned how to present and argue strongly for their views. But as leaders take on more responsibility in organizations, they must contend with ever more complex and interdependent situations where there is not necessarily any one correct answer, and success requires getting a wide variety of stakeholders, often with competing desires, to a mutually agreeable outcome. In these situations, the best results are achieved when informed and committed individuals are able to think and work together to create new insights. And the people who are best able to do so are those who can effectively balance ADVOCACY and INQUIRY.

Advocacy relates to “telling,” and it usually means pressing for a particular position, course of action, or set of principles. When we advocate we are usually trying to persuade or argue for a point of view or conclusion. Inquiry, on the other hand, is the realm of "asking," and the point of inquiry is to understand the position of the other side, rather than seeking to change their minds or opinions. (Among others, Chris Argyris and Donald Schon have written well about these concepts in business literature.)

Most people have a natural preference for either the advocating or inquiring style: one or the other tends to be our “default.” Some of our stylistic choice may be based in education or profession: law and education often teach advocacy, whereas journalism and social work lean more on inquiry. Looking at the styles more in terms of social roles or mores, men may be rewarded more for advocacy, and women for inquiry.

However, in most management and leadership roles, a conscious and thoughtful balancing of advocacy and inquiry usually leads to the best outcomes and the most adaptive and successful leadership style.

Start by asking yourself, honestly, which is your natural or preferred style: asking or telling. If you have doubts, ask your direct reports or, better, your spouse or significant other. If the feedback from others is that you tend more toward one style than the other, make an attempt to adopt the other style on a more frequent basis. If you feel the urge to make a conclusion, ask an open-ended question instead. And if you usually find yourself asking questions, try taking a stand and pushing for a resolution.

One way to balance advocacy and inquiry is to pause, suspend your own assumptions, and ask questions to understand what the other person believes. “Before I share my point of view, I’d really like to understand how you see things.” (The strong advocates among us may in those situations have to work extra hard to bite our tongues and hear the other side out!) Once you have laid out your reasoning, encourage others to challenge it: "Here’s my thinking and here’s how I have arrived at this conclusion. How does that sound to you? What makes sense and what doesn't?” Of course, if you ask for a reaction, you must listen to it carefully and consider it prior to arguing against it.

As you work to balance optimally your advocacy and inquiry (recognizing that different situations will likely call for different proportions of each), remember that there are also dysfunctional forms of both advocacy and inquiry. For example, some people skew the inquiry process by relentless interrogating, without caring at all for the person being questioned. Along the same lines, advocacy can feel oppressive if the advocate simply dictates his point of view, while refusing to share his reasoning process.

Following are a few more ideas and suggestions for improving your skills in advocacy and inquiry:

Protocols for Improving ADVOCACY

Make your thinking process visible (slowly):
· State your assumptions, and describe the data that led to them. “Here’s what I think and here’s how I got there.”
· Make your reasoning explicit. “I came to this conclusion because…”
· Explain the context of your point of view: who will be affected by what you propose, how will they be affected, and why.
· Give examples of what you propose, even if they are hypothetical.

Publicly test your conclusions and assumptions:
· Encourage others to explore your model, your assumptions, and your data. “What do you think about what I just said?” or “Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?” or “What can you add?”
· Refrain from defensiveness when your ideas are questioned. If you’re advocating something worthwhile, then it will only get stronger by being tested.
· Reveal where you are least clear in your thinking. Rather than making you vulnerable, doing so diffuses the force of advocates who are opposed to you, and invites improvement. “Here’s one aspect which you might help me think through…”
· Even when advocating, listen, stay open, and encourage others to provide different views. “Do you see things differently?”

Protocols for Improving INQUIRY

Ask others to make their thinking process visible:
· Gently walk others down the ladder of inference and find out what data they are operating from. “What leads you to conclude that?” “What data do you have for that?” “What causes you to say that?”
· Use non-aggressive language, particularly with people who are unfamiliar with these skills. Ask in a way that does not provoke defensiveness or “lead the witness.” Instead of “What do you mean?” or “What is your proof?” ask, “Can you help me understand your thinking here?”
· Draw out their reasoning; find out as much as you can about why they are saying what they are saying. “What is the significance of that?” “How does this relate to your other concerns?" “Where does your reasoning go next?”
· Explain your reasons for inquiring, and how your inquiry relates to your own concerns, hopes, and needs. “I’m asking about your assumptions here because…”

Compare your assumptions to theirs:
· Test what they say by asking for broader contexts and for examples. “How would your proposal affect…?” “Is this similar to…?” “Can you describe a typical example?”
· Check your understanding of what they have said. “Am I correct that you are saying…?”
· Listen genuinely for the new understanding that may emerge. Don’t concentrate just how to knock down the other person’s argument or promote your own agenda.

How important do you feel it is to balance advocating and inquiring styles? Where have you seen leaders succeed or fail based on these skills? Do you have other insights or interesting experiences related to this topic? We’d love to hear from you at

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.” —from The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi