Decision Making: Advocacy vs Inquiry

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Advocacy and Inquiry are two key communication behaviors with critical implications for interpersonal, group, and organizational effectiveness. Advocacy refers to stating one’s views; inquiry refers to asking questions.

This article discusses the features of both productive and unproductive advocacy and inquiry, how the quality and balance of these two behaviors impacts learning, and the relevance of these two behaviors for facilitating conversation, managing emotions, and providing feedback, all of which are critical skills for organization members,

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 manager 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.

While the balance of advocacy and inquiry is important for a productive conversation, so is the quality. High-quality advocacy involves stating your view while being open to influence. Others can only influence your reasoning if you make your reasoning steps explicit. To advocate effectively, you need to provide the data you see as salient, and state how you go from the data to your conclusions. It is also useful to make your points one at a time. Asking others for their reactions after you have layered several points can leave them unsure where to start.

Even when the quality of advocacy is high, it needs to be balanced with an inquiry or people are likely to feel they are being pushed. However, not all inquiry is equal. Closed questions that evoke a yes or no answer are useful for establishing facts but do not elicit rich information. A rhetorical or leading question, designed to get the other person to comply, is a form of disguised advocacy and tends to elicit defensiveness. Other types of low-quality inquiry include forced-choice questions that limit the response to predetermined options and questions that imply that others are at fault.

High-quality inquiry, in contrast, includes questions that are open-ended, that test your understanding of others’ meanings, that probe how they arrive at their views, that solicit the views of everyone at the table, and that encourages the challenge of your own view. High-quality inquiry expands rather than limits the range of responses, and promotes action rather than eliciting excuses.  It requires a willingness to reflect on how your own actions contributed a problem rather than focusing blame on others.