Two Top Skills for Collaboration

By Genevieve Taylor

The issues of today are complex, interconnected, and most importantly, can’t be solved alone — particularly ones at the intersection of agriculture, community, and natural resources and the environment, where Ag Innovations lives. 

However, collaboration is tricky business. There are so many ways it can fail, many try to skip it altogether. In my career, one important way I have seen collaboration fail is that people arrive ready to defend their position: unwilling to have it challenged or changed, and unwilling to examine their own assumptions. 

One way I have found to counteract this is the concept of “Balancing Advocacy and Inquiry.” This skillset was well articulated by Peter Senge in the “The Fifth Discipline: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization,” a practical manual on supporting systems thinking. For collaborative leaders, using these two concepts — advocacy and inquiry — is essential to be effective in collaboration. These skills are at the heart of thinking and working together on 

difficult issues; I have seen golden opportunities fail and succeed based on skills like these in the collaborative efforts I have facilitated and observed.

The first thing to know is that we define these terms a little differently than how they are casually used.

About advocacy

When I speak of advocacy, I am not talking about taking a cause to the Capitol. I am actually speaking about the ability to clearly state your view or opinion while making transparent the reasoning behind it. So many times we say, “Here’s what I think,” without saying why we think that. We may do that for a number of reasons: lack of time, concern about confidentiality — maybe even because we haven’t thought too hard about it. But without sharing that reasoning, there’s no place for others to understand or challenge your thinking. It’s one of the number one ways I have observed that group thinking stays stuck. 

About inquiry

Inquiry is defined as inquiring into other opinions and perceptions using genuine questions that seek to understand rather than supporting your own opinion. Most of us are good at asking questions. However, the intent behind those questions is what makes a question genuine. Are you asking questions that allow you to genuinely understand the other person or the issue at hand — or, are they questions that allow you to defend your own point of view? Many of us are skilled at persuasion. However in genuine inquiry, we are not seeking to persuade, as we might do while advocating. Instead, we are seeking to understand.

How do you balance advocacy and inquiry? 

Balancing advocacy and inquiry is a simple dance, but it takes discipline. 

To balance advocacy, you start with laying out your interest and the logic behind it. Then — and this is the key — you balance advocacy by ending with a sincere question intended to invite challenge. My favorite question is, “What am I missing here?” That simple question does a number of things. It helps neutralize factors, like power, which may be preventing others from challenging me. It allows me to state my reasoning clearly while also letting others know I may not have all the answers, enforcing humility on my part. And best of all, it usually improves my thinking.

To balance inquiry, you actually add a statement. Specifically, you let people know why you are asking the question. This is because a question can be a shovel, digging below the surface — but it can also be a weapon if wielded in a way that is simply meant to defend your thinking, or assumes the worst of those who you are asking. 

I have employed these skills hundreds of times in working with the groups that we serve here at Ag Innovations. They are helpful when I am in front of the room facilitating; they are also helpful when I am an observer or participant. 

For example, recently I worked with a group where I was convinced that the next step they needed to take was to create a vision statement. I thought it would help align them for the next few years, help with recruiting, and make it easier to move forward. 

So, I proposed it to the group, advocating hard for my idea — after all, I was the expert, right? Fortunately, after my proposal, I asked the question, “What am I missing here?” As a result, the group shared some important additional thinking: that they felt we should be focused on exploring the group’s common areas of interest in order to recruit other members and to keep them involved. A vision statement felt hard to achieve, with not a huge value add at this moment. By the end of the conversation, I had shifted my initial thought, and came out with a plan that was easier to implement, fit more specifically the intent and history of the group, and would still make it easier to recruit new members.

That is indeed the power of balancing advocacy and inquiry: when used consistently, it brings out the best in groups and in oneself, and is one of the keys to unlocking new solutions collaboratively. I celebrate when I see these skills being used in the collaboratives that we serve.