Sunday, September 7, 2008


In communication, the single largest difficulty for nearly everyone comes when a critical discussion transforms from the logical "give and take" that I described in my last newsletter into something less productive. Two familiar forms of this are Advocacy and Defensiveness. I will talk about Advocacy today.

Advocacy is the situation where, instead of coolly examining alternatives, one or more participants begin advocating a single position to the exclusion of any other and are not open to modifying that position. To others in the discussion, it feels as if that participant has made up their mind and that the discussion has shifted from "mutually finding a best solution" to "defending a given idea as the best solution". This begins a polarization that is needed in the final decision making process, but is counterproductive before then. This is why it often "feels" that the discussion is over and it is time to decide before any one position is mutually acceptable. People will in fact say at this point that "I guess there is no sense in discussing this further; your mind appears to be made up".

The mindset of the advocate is based on years of conditioning that "the rewards accrue to the person that owns the best idea", like the smartest kid in school. It is very tempting to re-live the joy of being the one to have the best idea, because we have seen the individual rewarded for a good idea many more times than seeing a group rewarded for a GREAT idea. The job of collaboration is just that; producing GREAT ideas that are better than a single individual would produce and in less time. in other words, we are trained to advocate and be competitive rather than collaborative. In business, it is FAR better for the organization to be collaborative because we need the BEST ideas. So, the root of solving the advocacy issue is overcoming the conditioning that we have been immersed in since childhood.

The earlier you can spot advocacy in a conversation, the better, because you can deal with it before the advocate becomes so invested in a position that they can't change course without feeling weak or losing face (in their own mind). Here are two themes to employ in doing this:
· Trust - Ask the group (not singling out the advocate) to trust all the members and the process. That is, explicitly request that, even though it seems that we have mentioned an idea that COULD work, we trust that the people in the group and the process of inquiry COULD result in a better idea than any we currently have with little effort. Ask the group to stay open to being influenced and to try to be productive in creating and questioning all the ideas. If an advocacy begins to develop, ask the advocate to mention the downside of the position. This will help to keep their thinking fluid.
· Purpose - Ask the group to recall the purpose of the discussion; that is, to to create a great idea that has been thoroughly vetted through inquiry. This means we need all members to participate in the inquiry until we have found the idea with the best ratio of positive to negative points. Remind them that the purpose is NOT to "single-handedly" develop the great idea, but to contribute to its creation.

If you arrive at a point where one or more members feel that "their mind is made up", it is a good time to ask all involved for any downside risks associated the position and discuss if their manageability. If the downside risk is not manageable, the group needs to do more work or get some new perspectives.

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Anonymous said...

I come across this a LOT. Particularly when picking a vendor for a service or equipment -- everyone wants to be "the one who came up with it".
I see this frequently, and since I'm aware of this problem, I try to create a discussion, typically by yielding to some of the advocate's arguments... I think that often this causes them to reinforce their thinking.
I'm not sure how to handle that specifically...

Also, I have tried to use techniques very close to what you mention in the Trust and Purpose section -- my problem that I've come across is that, it seems that I'm being arrogant or trying to "sound better than them"... I'm not trying to, but I can see that's how they're reacting, and that hurts the discussion and my own credibility...
Any suggestions on how to use these conversation techniques to help combat the advocacy trap while not sounding arrogant or unreasonable?

Fantastic blog, as always, thank you for continuing to provide excellent insight and advice.

Gregg Oliver said...

Congratulations! The areas about which you are asking are the areas that require the most practice and the most courage.... I applaud you for working through them. Here are my thoughts. 1) Yielding to an advocate's argument can sometimes help move past a point, but the advocate will usually count this as agreement. Sometimes moving past a point is not desirable if you don't genuinely believe the point is well-founded. How do you deal with it then? I ask a question, like "What makes you say that?" or a statement like "It is interesting that you would say that. I wouldn't think that it would always be true". This usually moves someone to offer more evidence. If I just want to get past something without explicitly accepting it, I might say "I'll need to do some more research before I can agree with you fully" or the VERY snarky "I will defer the privelege of agreeing with you until I have a chance to look into it it." Sometimes I'll write a note and tell them that I'll to look something up before I can agree fully. In order to maintain credibility and trust, we need to be genuine. If you are skeptical about what someone offers, tell them you are and that you look forward to researching it a bit and getting back with them on it. They will NOT feel like you conceded the point to them, but they will feel that they can move on. If they insist, then ask them for evidence and strong inferences (examples and cause).

Methods I described in the Trust and Purpose section are sometimes difficult to implement. I apologize for not starting with something less challenging. If the group you are addressing is comfortable with you coaching them, you can take the approach that I listed without much resistance as long as you don't FEEL like you are being condescending. If you feel you are, then you probably are and you're right - it's a huge turn off. Asking for trust can be done lots of ways.
Today, I facilitated a group of dissatisfied process clients in discussing their dissatisfaction with the process owners and operators. This required that the process owners be open to critique and that the process clients be candid without being inflammatory. Everyone felt vulnerable. I took every opportunity to thank people for being respectful and candid to each other;I took every opportunity to reflect on the "system of contribution" rather than single point blame;I took every opportunity to ask for respect for the problem as a difficult one; for respect for the client as being competent; respect for the process owner as being receptive. I took every opportunity to assure all involved that our objective was to discuss the issues and collaborate on an effective and efficient way to accomplish the process's purpose.
By being credible and respectful, all involved felt that they could trust what we were doing as having a high probability of success.
If that doesn't help, ask me again and i will answer.