I recently read Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective (C. Argyris and D. Schon, 1978). The authors introduce the concept of advocacy versus inquiry. Advocacy is a communication type that most of us are familiar with. It’s all about stating your case or making your point. Inquiry is less common and more important than advocacy. It happens when people ask questions to seek clarity about another person’s position on a topic.

Reading this reminded me of a client I had early in my consulting career. It’s a story worth telling to show the difference between advocacy and inquiry and demonstrates the value of the latter.

I was asked to help a large community college through a large-scale transformation. It would impact 30,000 students, 2000 faculty, and nearly all the college’s administrative staff.

There had been long standing challenges between the college and the union. The faculty was unionized and resisted this transformation. College leaders and I discussed how to win them over. We decided to attend one of their meetings, present the benefits of the transformation, and begin to engage them in the transformation. We failed miserably and left with our tails between our legs.

We strategized and brought the chancellor into the discussion. We determined that I would go back, but this time I would not present. Instead, I would listen. For the first few minutes, it was rough. I was concerned I might lose an arm or a leg – seriously! These people had little trust in college administration, no faith in the transformation, and little tolerance for any change offered by either. But I persevered and conveyed the point that I was there to listen to their concerns. They had many.

The result, simply, was that they wanted to be heard. They wanted a meeting with the chancellor to discuss issues, and gain commitment these issues would be addressed. We scheduled and held the meeting.

The transformation soon followed, and we included the faculty union in the process. They played important roles to help drive success. Interestingly, the faculty implementation was one of the most successful elements of the transformation.

The turning point in winning over the faculty was the 2nd meeting I had with them. Instead of advocating for the transformation, I inquired about their concerns, I took notes, and I followed up.

Call to action:
– Watch yourself in meetings. Do you advocate or inquire?
– Ask for feedback. How do your peers react to your communication style?
– Try inquiring more and advocating less and pay attention to the impact. Are you more effective?

Dedicated to your profitable transformation
Steve

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