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YOUR WELL-BEING: Grow Self-Advocacy Skills

By Zachary Hearn

When Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released the song, “The Sound of Silence,” over half a century ago, it emphasized people’s inability to communicate with each other, maybe not intentionally but in a way that nevertheless perpetuates silence, and particularly, on important issues. At its core, self-advocacy should focus on identifying a concern, communicating the concern, and ultimately resolving the concern. In short, effective self-advocacy is designed to end the “sound of silence.”

We are often faced with situations when self-advocacy is required in our lives. Whether it is negotiating a vehicle purchase, working with an insurance company, or seeking a public benefit, effective self-advocacy is needed to successfully navigate the process.

Identify the Issue

Prior to engaging in self-advocacy, it is critical to identify what issue(s) exist. If possible, it is also important to identify the root cause of the issue(s). Questions you can ponder are:

  • What exactly is the issue?
  • Where did the issue occur?
  • When did the issue occur?

These elements are necessary to identify to build your discussion. When presenting the issue(s), it clearly defines the topic of the discussion. It also serves as the foundation for your discussion.

Guide the Discussion

When conducting self-advocacy, it is important to bear in mind the manner and method the delivery is offered. Prior to your discussion, think about what will be said and how it will be said. Furthermore, put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving the message and ask how you would react to the way a message is delivered.

Generally, there are two methods people take when self-advocating. The first method is more akin to a “bull in a china shop.” This is perhaps the easiest but overwhelmingly the least effective method of self-advocacy. Many people can reflect upon interactions where they had a noticeably high level of agitation. It may even make the person feel better “to get it off his/her chest,” but often it does not achieve the desired results.

The second method is a calm, methodical approach. It is logic-based and with a persuasive approach to resolving the issue. While effective, it does require patience and the opportunity for the representative to respond.

Decades ago, George Thompson authored the book Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. His philosophy of listening with empathy, engaging with individuals, and asking questions that require critical thinking has been frequently cited in law enforcement training for law enforcement personnel to employ in their daily work.

Effective self-advocacy employs similar tactics. It requires the self-advocate spend time asking questions, listening to the responses, and with the response provided, arrive at a solution. Questions must be thoughtful and thought provoking, and the questions should avoid a binary choice but offer the opportunity for the respondent to provide a complete answer. Here are a few recommended questions to ask after stating your concern or issue:

  • “I have never encountered this before, why has this issue arisen?”
  • “How has the policy changed and what alternatives exist to correct this issue?”
  • “Moving forward, how do we ensure we do not encounter this issue again?”

The point to each question is to obtain information. With this information, there is an increased opportunity to identify flaws in policy, procedural errors, or a general misunderstanding of what benefit was being sought.


At this point, you have identified any issues or concerns. You have presented a discussion involving a significant amount of critical thought that allows for the collection of information. The conversation then moves toward the resolution phase.

Consider the information that has been gathered during the discussion and take steps to understand the representative’s or organization’s point of view. Try helping the representative understand the impact of the decision. It is possible the issue was not fully understood. If the issue cannot be resolved, calmly request to speak to someone within the organization that would have the authority to reconsider the decision; admittedly this will re-start the entire process. However, it will also allow you to have “another bite at the apple.”

These steps do not guarantee that a positive outcome will occur. What it will do, however, is allow you a greater opportunity to succeed in your self-advocacy efforts. A calm, deliberate approach in eliciting information with a positive outcome in mind is an effective process that helps reduce the “sound of silence.”