Advocacy Begins With Connection, Listening, Understanding
Check yourself before assuming you're in a position to advocate for others.
Posted June 4, 2020
Caring about others and their experiences and wanting to help them grow and find their paths forward is what draws many of us to the counseling profession. We are taught early about the “core conditions” of counseling — the things that must be in place in order to make manifest the client-counselor relationship in such a way that it allows for authentic, intimate communication with the purpose of supporting the client in their efforts to live their best life.
These conditions include the ability to provide accurate empathy, offer the client unconditional positive regard, and be congruent and authentic with our clients. And each of these conditions must be in place in order for us to advocate effectively for others.
Empathy: “I Hear You and I Feel You.”
Some of us equate empathy with sympathy before we learn the significant differences between these two acts. Empathy is not feeling “sympathy” for another’s experiences, it is about stretching your own limited understanding to allow yourself a glimpse of the world through another’s eyes.
Sympathy creates a power differential in which you are feeling something “for” another person; empathy encourages the dissolution of power between and puts the focus on joining with another in such a way that you are able to understand their feelings and the experiences that have shaped them.
Counselors learn early in their education to offer each person we meet empathy for their unique experiences, to seek to experience the world that another walks through as if we, too, were walking through the world in their shoes — meaning that we are not using our own life experiences as our lens, but to fully grasp the other person’s lived experience and imagine the world through their perspective that is based on their truth.
It is also about recognizing that all of us are more similar than we are different ... the human experience is a shared experience and we all come into this world with the same basic needs and desires. It is the circumstances of our individual lives, however, that create such vast gulfs between people ... it’s not about who we are at the core of our humanness; it is about the injustices experiences, hazards faced, fears learned, and hurtful perspectives shaped that we experience along the way that create the differences between me and you.
Empathy is the key to dismantling the gulf that allows people to feel “different from” or “better than” or “less than” others. Once you let yourself drop into a state of being in which your empathy is activated and you can “get” what others are “laying down,” advocacy is a natural next step in helping break the barriers that others face.
Unconditional Positive Regard: “It’s OK and I’m OK With Who You Are.”
Unconditional positive regard requires us to be willing to put aside judgment and accept a person just as they are. We have to be able to believe in the value of all people and to recognize their inherent worth and believe in their potential.
It’s about being accepting of another regardless of how “different” we may feel ourselves to be. It is about recognizing that we are all on this planet trying to do the best we can with whatever limited resources available and recognizing that the choices we make at any given moment are the ones that we feel are “best” at that point in time. Own the qualities that are currently limiting your growth, such as guilt or shame or fear, and love yourself for being honest enough to admit them, while still acknowledging that you want to work on them.
When we are evaluating another’s choices as poor, ill-informed, or hewing to other value-laden measures, we should remind ourselves that we are all trying to do the best that we can. And that many of us wake up each day knowing that the choices that are ours to make are often heavily influenced and made much too narrow by circumstances beyond our control and that reflect a history of ugliness and hurtfulness and ignorance.
Accept the fact that others’ lives are harder than yours in ways that you cannot even imagine. Accept that the person with whom you are engaging, whether in conflict or collaboration, is doing the best they can at this moment and time and accept them where they are at. When we are accepted by another, we feel a sense of safety and security which can be the starting point for personal growth.
Advocacy begins in the belief of the worth of another and the value that their lives hold now and the ways in which advocacy can further give agency and voice to another.
Congruence: “What You See Is What You Get — It’s Real.”
Congruence is key to developing strong relationships with others. It’s about being who you say you are — no matter who your audience might be. It’s about being authentic in your words and authentic in your actions. It’s the opposite of “saying one thing and doing another.”
Being genuine with others requires that you first be genuine with yourself. This is perhaps the challenge for many of us who brag about our commitment to a cause, but show no tangible indication of how we have actually enacted that commitment. It’s okay to be learning, to be considering, to be striving to act on your beliefs, but congruence is reflected when you’re willing to acknowledge that you’re “not quite there, yet,” or “working towards change.”
It’s about not putting on a face of concern that is masking feelings of disinterest. When we are genuine with others, we don’t pretend to be someone or something that we are not; we own our thoughts, feelings, and even our flaws.
Taking congruence and genuineness into your work with and for others means that you are able to join with another, in your own humanity, and accept that person as they are. It’s about recognizing that we all struggle with similar needs, face challenges, and share goals for the future. We don’t come to our work in the office or community pretending to have all the answers for a better life or a better world, but we do bring a sense of shared hope that together, in all of our shortcomings and humanity, can work from our hearts and shared connection to do what is right to bring about change that would allow each of us to express our authentic selves without fear of silencing or shaming or danger to well-being.
For those of us ready to find a path to active advocacy and change-making, please put these core conditions into action as you do these things:
- Don’t assume you “know” what another person’s life is like or can be; any expectations or preconceived ideas you bring to any relationship have already altered the authenticity and honesty of the bond that you might build.
- Learn about the experiences of those for whom you would like to be an advocate.
- Let your guard down and really listen to those who have experienced the barriers you want to help break down.
- Meet others where they are and be okay with who they are, where they’ve been, and how they’ve gotten there. Learning to accept your own limitations is great practice for becoming able to accept the humanity of others. If you can embrace yourself with all the flaws you possess, you can do the same for others who are doing the best they can just as you are. Collaborate to work towards change — institutional change is laborious work and joining together in solidarity builds strength and increases endurance.
- Challenge the limited perspectives of others or the preconceived notions and biased views others may be expressing. Challenge biased language, condescending or patronizing behaviors, and "othering." Saying nothing when you see wrongdoing gives the indication that you are complicit in the harm that is being done.
- Don’t let shame or guilt for your own unearned privilege keep you from moving forward and don’t ask for or expect anyone to absolve you or forgive you for your identity. As Audre Lourde advised, use your guilt as the impetus to make positive change and let your guilt become “the beginning of knowledge.”
- Speak out. Act out. Fight the good fight. Take care of yourself. Take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Savor each step forward and use each step backward as an educational opportunity and that “minute” to catch your breath.
Advocacy is about using the power you have to help others gain power and agency in ways that they have been barred from doing prior to the moment the barriers begin to crumble. When building an alliance with those for whom you would like to advocate, get their story before trying to fight their fight. Bring your most authentic self to the relationship. Accept and embrace each person as they are now and don’t make assumptions or cast judgment about their experiences or choices. Love them as they stand before you in just the way that you accept your own limitations and foibles. And care. Care deeply. Listen to their story. Learn about their lives. See the world they face when they open their eyes each day.
Only by bringing these core conditions to the advocacy work you do will you be able to affirm that you have done your homework, brought your best self, and are taking actions that align with the goals of those for whom you want to be an advocate.
Lorde, A. (1984). “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (Crossing Press, 1984) p. 130
Morrison, M. S. (2013). Becoming trustworthy white allies. Reflections: The Future of Race. Yale Divinity School.