You will have come across the idea, which probably originated with NLP, that ‘every communication should have a desired outcome’. You might want to change someone’s mind, to get them to do something for you, to sell them something, or to stop doing something that inconveniences you.
You might even want to help them, to give them advice, or to impart some great truth to them.
Whether your intention is to get the other person to do something, to convince them to come round to your point of view, or even to help them, you are ‘advocating’ for something you want to achieve. This is true whether you make your desired outcome explicit in your communication, or if you use some covert means (hypnotic suggestions, leading questions) to try to get what you want.
When someone communicates in this ‘advocating’ way, there is an implicit assumption that they know best; that to the extent that the other person disagrees with you, they are wrong or have a gap in their knowledge and need to be corrected. This tendency to believe that your worldview is the same as reality is known in psychology as ‘naive realism’.
There are at least three severe downsides to communicating from a place of advocacy.
The first one is the impact on your own personal evolution. While we all need to get things done, and often have to enlist the cooperation of other people (or at least convince them to get out of the way), what are you going to learn if all your communication is in ‘advocacy’? If you’re lucky, and you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice what worked and what didn’t in getting you closer to your goals, so you might become better at advocacy. What you won’t do is update your goals, and the values that motivate you to achieve them, in the light of what you have learned from others.
Secondly, the assumption that you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is either mistaken or acting from bad motives is going to reinforce your confirmation bias. If the world changes around you, you will be less likely to be able to update your knowledge and beliefs to bring them back into line with reality.
Thirdly, from a team or organisational point of view, what happens if everyone is advocating their own point of view? The best outcome you can hope for is that everyone falls in behind the strongest or most cunning advocate. The alternative is a lot of conflict, with perhaps some blame and backstabbing thrown in, and people pulling in different directions. The team can never be more than the sum of its parts, and nobody learns from each other.
Also, at least at an unconscious level, people know when they are being used, and resent it. This will lead to resistance, passive or active, when you are trying to get people to do something. If you are in a position of power, they will comply with your instructions, but they will do the bare minimum they can get away with.
There is a different way of approaching communication. It involves recognising that there are multiple truths and viewpoints in any situation, and opening yourself to the possibility of learning from someone else – even if this involves changing your beliefs or modifying the ‘operating variables’ or values that govern the goals you seek.
The benefits are many. On an individual level you are more open to learning, better able to take feedback or notice when you are going wrong, more able to identify what’s really important to you, and more flexible in the ways available to you to get there.
A team or organisation that is open to learning conversations will respect each other more, and be more able to create outcomes and solutions between them that they could not have found individually.
So what do you need for you default mode to be learning rather than advocacy?
First, a recognition that you don’t have a monopoly on the truth, and that other people may have some useful knowledge or way of looking at things that you can learn from.
Second, a willingness to brave the discomfort of ‘cognitive dissonance’ while you take on information that may not fit your existing worldview. Most people will go to some lengths to avoid this discomfort and so will ignore or actively resist ideas and information that doesn’t fit their belief system.
Thirdly, regular reflection on what’s important to you – the motivating values that shape your goals and drive your attempts to reach them. This reflection makes it more likely that you can update your values, and consequently your goals, when the situation or your own development demands it.
Finally, a willingness to see and accept people as valuable in their own right, rather than just as tools to help you achieve your desired outcomes.
Actually, there’s a third reason to communicate that is just as vital as the other two. It’s communication to maintain relationships, the greetings, body language and small talk that says nothing more than “I’m here and I’m paying attention to you.”
Without this rapport-building communication, we would not be able to keep and build the relationships that enable us to live and work together.
If you are interested in the differences between advocacy and learning in communication, it’s also worth taking a look at Chris Argyris and Donald Schon’s idea of ‘double-loop learning‘.