Advocacy vs. Inquiry: How to Use Them Effectively at Work

When to Advocate, and When to Inquire?

Chances are, at some point in your career (maybe even in school), you were probably either told to speak up and voice your opinion more OR to make room for others to speak. Maybe since then you’ve discovered the perfect line between the two, but the truth is that most of us are still more comfortable with one communication style over another. Those who are comfortable with inquiry are likely those who have been told to speak up in the past, but the superpower of these individuals is their ability to listen and ask the right questions. Inquiry-based communication is all about inquiring to understand the position of the other side before attempting to change minds or do any influencing yourself. On the flip slide, those who are more comfortable voicing their opinions are said to excel in an advocacy-based communication style. These individuals tend to enter a conversation with a set opinion or goal and base their communications around convincing others to see things from their point of view.

So the question is: which of these communication styles are found in successful leaders? The answer, of course, is both, though there are outliers. For example, men tend to be rewarded more for advocacy, whereas women tend to be rewarded for inquiry. Moreover, statistics vary across industries: while professionals in fields like law may see higher incomes by excelling in advocacy, those in creative or collaborative sectors, such as entrepreneurship, often thrive by fostering inquiry. For instance, in family-owned and entrepreneurial businesses, leaders who prioritize inquiry-driven communication tend to cultivate stronger team dynamics, innovation, and adaptability, resulting in sustainable growth and success. However, in most management and leadership roles (especially as they relate to running small businesses), a balance of advocacy and inquiry tends to lead to the best business outcomes and the highest happiness quotients for employees.

Achieving the correct balance of inquiry and advocacy is possible, but it does take some self-reflection. Start by asking yourself which of the two communication styles is your go-to. If you don’t know, you can ask a colleague or even a family member. Once you’ve identified your preferred communication style, work on building competencies in the other one. Not sure how to go about doing that? Here are some tips:

To Improve Inquiry

  • Avoid “leading the witness” and asking questions that guide your team members to your line of thinking. Instead, ask open ended questions: “What leads you to that conclusion?”
  • Find out as much as you can about why someone is saying what they’re saying by asking them for data and examples.
  • Explain why you are inquiring: “I’m asking about the potential outcomes of this choice because I want to ensure it aligns with our long-term vision for the company and our family legacy.”
  • Check that your understanding is correct: “What I’m hearing you say is…”
  • Remember to genuinely listen for any new ideas that may emerge and not just wait your turn to advocate for the idea you walked into the room with.

To Improve Advocacy

  • Practice stating the explicit reasoning behind a conclusion or opinion: “I believe we should market this product exclusively to seniors because…”
  • Include data and examples (even hypothetical ones): “Studies has shown that 72% of family-owned businesses struggle with succession planning. As an example, a fellow EFBC member faced challenges during the transition of ownership.”
  • Encourage others to ask you questions and be prepared with thoughtful answers.
  • Refrain from defensiveness and be transparent about any drawbacks to your position or idea.
  • Even when advocating, encourage others to speak up and voice their opinion: “Can anyone think of an angle I’m not considering?”

Once you’re competent in both communication styles, you can read a situation and decide which one to use. If something needs to get done quickly and without discussion, advocacy might be called for. However, if you need to generate a lot of different ideas, inquiry is probably your better bet. And when in doubt, there is a bit of an order of operations to ideal and effective workplace communications: first inquire, then advocate. Remember: the purpose of inquiry is not just to make others feel heard, but to truly hear ideas and synthesize them into your plan, or perhaps decide to go a different direction entirely. Then again, maybe you team will have some of the same ideas as you do. Once you’ve fully inquired and heard everyone’s ideas, then you can advocate for the best ones (even if those end up being the ones you walked in with in the first place).