Tips From a Lawyer: A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Advocacy
August 16, 2019
Self-advocacy is about speaking up for yourself, voicing your opinions and finding the support you need from those who can help. But these people are often busy with concerns of their own. How can you communicate that your needs deserve their time and attention?
Advocating for yourself involves persuading, communicating clearly and building a solid argument — skills that lawyers use in the courtroom and office every day.
To help you develop strategies to advocate for yourself and others, Law@Dayton asked Kevin Bowman, an attorney at The Brannon Law Firm in Dayton, Ohio, for guidance on making a case in any context, from the workplace to a health care provider’s office.
We’ve paired Bowman’s advice with everyday scenarios to create a beginner’s guide to self-advocacy.
Give a summary.
To start, sum up your “case” in a sentence or two. Say, in just a few words, why your concern matters to those listening. These words are your theme. Return to them frequently and tie all of your points back to the theme.
You want your manager’s approval to work from home one day each week to better manage your mental health care. Summarize why in a few words, such as: “I’m more productive when I’m taking care of myself.” Come up with variations of this phrase and repeat them as you present your request. Even after you get approval, you can bring up the connection between working from home and productivity when the topic arises: “My work from home day really gave me the chance to focus and do creative work.”
Find the common narrative.
Many stories, beneath the details, can be boiled down to the familiar narratives in literature, film and music. Is yours a story of good and evil, of a journey, of Cinderella at the ball? Our stories share common threads, even if they are not always clear-cut. Tying your case to a common human narrative can help create a personal connection with people listening. When they can relate to you, they will be more likely to support you.
You’re a nurse working with new mothers, and you’ve seen firsthand how devastating postpartum depression (PPD) can be. You know a follow-up screening can help diagnose the condition early. Your office doesn’t offer the procedure, so you meet with your supervisor to advocate for one. In making your case, tie your patients’ experiences to the common story of loneliness and fear. Even if your supervisor isn’t a parent, they can probably understand that feeling of isolation.
Stay on your audience’s level.
Avoid technical terms and jargon. They may impress your listeners, but they will not create the personal connection that makes people want to help you. An audience is less likely to support someone they feel is talking down to them. Speak knowledgeably and don’t embellish your ideas.
You have low vision and need to request a screen reader in your workplace. Be sure to explain your eye condition in terms an average person without a background in ophthalmology can understand. These accommodations are a legal requirement for employers; presenting your request in an authoritative and clear way can help ensure your request is prioritized and completed promptly.
Thinking too much about what you’re saying can take the spontaneity out of your presentation. Listeners will relate to you better when they get the sense you are speaking freely. Try not to sound rehearsed and make sure your statements are not offensive or derogatory.
Asking someone to be your mentor can be intimidating. To avoid rejection, you may be tempted to make an airtight case why they should invest in you. In lieu of talking points, talk genuinely about why you look up to the individual and want to learn more.
Speak with conviction. Avoid showing signs of nervousness, such as clasping your hands or fumbling with papers. Be natural. A lawyer, for example, may move around the courtroom, speaking to the defendant, the jury, the judge and the audience.
You are meeting with your editors to propose three ideas for your magazine. Even if you are not sure the stories will be approved, pretend they already are. This confidence and certainty could help make the ideas a reality.
Build your case block by block …
Sometimes people become so convinced of their argument they skip ahead to their central point without explaining the logic behind it. Listeners may hesitate to support you if they don’t understand your reasoning. While presenting, ask yourself: Have I explained how this idea came about? Have I defined all key terms? Does anyone look confused?
You are negotiating for a raise with your manager and human resources coordinator. To be most effective, take your audience through your performance over the relevant time period. Give your highlight reel. This should be your victory lap — point out all the scenery. Don’t assume your manager will remember the extra hours you put in to make a project succeed or the time you invested to help a new hire feel welcome.
… but withhold some details.
Provide the relevant details of your “case,” but remember that your listeners don’t need a play-by-play account. Overwhelming them with details could obscure your message and make it harder to get the support you need. Use your “summary” to decide which points are essential.
You visit the doctor for an annual checkup. You’ve been feeling mild chest pain but know from medical literature that providers are less likely to diagnose heart disease in women than men. When your physician comes in, give all the details you can about your health, lifestyle and environment. Skip the small talk. While conversation can strengthen the patient-provider relationship, your main objective is to get your physician to pay attention to your cardiac health. Stick to the essential details in this meeting.
Armed with strategies to advocate for yourself, you can be better prepared to make your case wherever your “courtroom” may be.