Don’t Be Afraid to Advocate for Exactly What You Want – Overcoming the Backlash Against Self Advocacy
Last week, I was scrolling through social media during a break in one of my training sessions. After 20 years as a trial attorney, I teach people to use the tools I used in the courtroom to advocate for what they want and get it. Teaching people to advocate is my passion and my expertise, so a post about advocating stopped me mid-scroll.
“63 studies: women who assert their ideas, make direct requests, and advocate for themselves are liked less. They’re also less likely to get hired-and it hasn’t improved over time. It’s 2021 (crossed off to read 2023). When will we stop punishing dominant women for violating outdated gender stereotypes?”
Adam Grant had posted this statement on LinkedIn and Instagram in 2021. Female Quotient had reposted it (changing the year to be clear), last week. . Combined, Adam Grant and Female Quotient have over 8 million followers. 8 million women had been told that advocating for themselves would make them less likely to be liked and get hired. I could feel myself getting angry, but years of advocating have made me adept at responding and not reacting. I decided to read the article Grant referenced in his original post later that night.
When I read the article, The Subtle Suspension of Backlash: A Meta-analysis of Penalties for Women’s Implicit and Explicit Dominance Behavior, I was even more frustrated. The study that Grant is referring to is a fifteen page meta-analysis of 63 studies. It’s an article about dominant behavior in women, not about advocating. Dominant behavior and advocating are not the same.
In the article, dominant behavior is broadly defined and includes demanding something, and arguing for a group to adopt a position as well as nonverbal behaviors like intrusive gestures, talk time, talk volume and interrupting others. One of the conclusions is that both men and women are found to be less likable when they are close-talking, pointing, interrupting, and raising their voices. This is great news for advocates, because this behavior isn’t advocating.
Advocating is persuading and influencing. It’s asking for what you want, in a way that makes you likely to get it. Advocating is changing minds, hearts and beliefs. And it’s a skill that can be learned, mastered and used to win.
The women I’ve coached have used advocating skills to double their income, get new jobs, obtain promotions and start their own successful businesses. They’ve also used these skills to strengthen their intimate partnerships and improve their likeability. When women learn to advocate effectively, they get better and their workplaces get better. They advocate for themselves and each other. They advocate for positive change in the workplace and for other marginalized communities. And their employers benefit because they also advocate for their ideas, which leads to more innovation. When women learn to advocate, everyone wins.
But women are afraid to advocate. Posts like Grant’s, while well intentioned, make them afraid. When he tells millions of women they will be less liked and less likely to be hired if they advocate, they’re right to be afraid. But advocating is very different from exhibiting dominant behavior, and both men and women can learn from the differences.
1. Dominant behavior is demanding something, advocating is asking for it.
In the article about dominant behavior, one of the examples of such behavior is demanding something. But an advocate doesn’t demand. She asks for what she wants in a way that helps her get it.
An advocate’s greatest tool is a question. When I tell people I’m a trial attorney, they often say “I should have been a trial attorney. I’m really good at arguing.” But trial attorneys do very little arguing when they advocate. An opening statement is meant to be an outline, and we can get in trouble if we argue. The closing is an argument, but it’s a small portion of the case. The rest of the trial all we do is ask questions. We ask questions to build our credibility and build connections with the jury. We ask questions to destroy the other side’s credibility and their connection to the jury. Questions are how we win.
And when the trial is over, we don’t demand that the jury find in our favor. We ask them. We use the credibility we’ve built, the evidence we’ve collected and the ability to see things from their perspective to craft our ask.
You have your jury. They’re the people you want to influence and persuade. You might want to change their minds, their hearts or their beliefs. And if you demand they change, you will lose. You’ll absolutely be less likable and less hireable. But if you use perspective, evidence and credibility, and you choose the right words, tone, facial expressions and body language to support your ask, you will win. Words, perspective, evidence, credibility, body language, tone of voice and questions are the tools you use to advocate. They’re not the tools you use to dominate.
2. Dominant behavior is arguing for a group to adopt a position, advocating is making the case for a group to adopt a position.
In my second book, Advocate to Win-10 Tools to Ask for What You Want and Get It – I share the tools of an advocate. Advocates use tools like words, perspective, evidence, credibility, questions, negotiation, presentation skills (body language, tone of voice, facial expressions) and reception skills (listening, reading tone/body language). Argument is also one of those tools. But it’s a last resort, and it’s used in a very specific way.
You argue when a third party is deciding the issue. In my cases, we sometimes have to argue. When a Judge has to decide a motion, or the jury has to decide a verdict, there is room for argument. An independent and objective body has to decide. That’s when arguments can work. When there’s no room for compromise and only one winner, the argument makes sense. But outside of the courtroom most of the time everyone can win. The definition of win that I use in my work is from the Cambridge dictionary–”to receive something positive because you’ve earned it ”. With this definition, everyone can win, and arguments are usually unnecessary and unproductive.
When you do have to argue, remember the enemy is confusion. It’s not whomever you’re arguing against. Seeing confusion as the enemy takes away some of the risk of being dominant, for both men and women. It’s hard to exhibit dominant behaviors against confusion. You can’t get in confusion’s face, point at it, raise your voice at it or interrupt it. You have to fight it with evidence, questions and perspective…..the tools of an advocate.
3. Dominant behavior is repellent, advocating is magnetic.
The piece Grant cites dives deeply into implicity and explicit dominant behavior. Implicit, or nonverbal dominant behavior includes interrupting, raising the volume of your speech, intrusive gestures and eye contact when speaking (but not when listening). And this meta-analysis showed that this type of behavior led to both men and women being less well liked. It’s repellent behavior. People back away from those who exhibit this type of behavior.
When you’re advocating, on the other hand, you draw people towards you. One of the most important tools of an advocate is the ability to listen. You listen to gain another’s perspective so that you know how to best speak to that perspective. After you’ve listened well, you know which evidence, stories, words and questions will be most persuasive and help change minds and beliefs. You listen for tone, and the emotion that tone of voice has been proven to convey.
When you listen, you’re magnetic. Advocate well and you draw people closer. In fact, you can advocate so well that you turn the people around you into your advocates. You draw people to you, and they want to go out and advocate for you. In my work I’ve seen many of my clients even turn people they considered their adversaries into their advocates. Become a strong advocate and you can create an army of advocates who are out in the world advocating for you when you aren’t even there.
It’s Time For You to Advocate for Yourself
I’ve asked Grant to fix the wording of his post, but so far I haven’t received a response. Words are important, and I hate to think that women will read and share a post that tells them advocating will hurt them. Too many women struggle to advocate as it is.
When I was trying cases in the courtroom, my clients would be anxious before they went to testify in front of the jury. When it was time for them to advocate for themselves, they all had the same response. “I wish you could do it for me.”
But the jury didn’t want to hear from me. The jury wanted to hear from them. Now, many of my coaching and training clients say the same thing. When they hire me, they say they wish I could do it for them. But their ‘jury’ of bosses, teams, clients, customers, families and friends don’t want to hear from me. They want to hear from them. And your jury wants to hear from you.
No one can advocate for you as well as you can. No one else has the experience, the passion, and the drive to get you want more than you. And no one knows exactly what you want and what you’re willing to accept better than you. You are your own best advocate. No one can do it better than you.
When you have the tools to advocate effectively you’re not dominant. You don’t yell, point or demand. Instead you persuade and influence. You change minds and beliefs. You’re able to ask for what you want and get it, and everyone can win.
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