Policy Matters Blog

Advocacy: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Everything old is new again. A quote commonly attributed to the writer Steven King, but found much earlier in Judeo-Christian writings we read, “…what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” To this writer who recently entered recovery—I mean, retirement—that is kind of comforting. But to a person who also values advocacy, it is also very frustrating. We seem to be revisiting and relitigating issues that were thought to have been addressed long ago. And we seem to be devolving from things like discrimination, racism, inclusion, and access to important things like reproductive health and even basic voting rights. With frustration comes strong emotion and also a possible threat to undo or forget some basic tenets of advocacy. Chief among them, in my humble opinion, is the principle of winning friends and influencing people. 

The late Dale Carnegie wrote a book quite a long time ago about how to become—to use today’s terminology—an influencer. Fully embracing his ‘countrified’ manner, he wrote, “If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” These words were written in the 1930s, and yet they are just as applicable today in our efforts to advance our mission and our profession as they were when written. The art of advocacy, aimed at helping children and families thrive while supporting and promoting our profession, requires winning friends and influencing people, especially those people who are the decision makers and keepers of the keys to funding. Sadly, those kinds of folks are not nearly often enough educators, nor even aware of school psychologists and other mental health service providers in our schools and in our communities.  

When we engage in advocacy activities, we are often coming from an emotional ‘comorbidity’ of passion. We speak for those without a voice or for those whose ability to speak for themselves has been stolen or stifled, often unfairly. We want to champion doing the work of righting an awful wrong. We know we have the right of way here, and we more often than not have the data to prove our point, given our training and background, but the messaging we are trying to promote has to be consistent and precise without eliciting defensiveness and pushback. When we advocate without the necessary preparation and tact, all that emotion and proof will fall on deaf ears. An opportunity to effect change may become lost with no realistic hope of being resurrected anytime soon. 

To ”win people to your way of thinking,” Carnegie suggested things like showing respect for the other person’s opinions, beginning in a friendly way, trying honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view, and appealing to nobler motives. Former First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged all by saying, “When they go low, we go high.” But all of the above is not necessarily easily accomplished, nor is it the first thing I think of when engaging in discussions with those with whom I may not agree. I gravitate to putting forth what I believe to be impeccable logic and well-crafted prose to completely obliterate any opposition. Alas, that is seldom successful in achieving my goal. 

In our previous blog post, Peter Faustino asked us to remember our first experience with advocacy to renew our heartfelt reasons why we are so committed to achieving this goal. My first formal experience was shortly after the Newtown, Connecticut Sandy Hook School tragedy, when I was asked to be part of a panel presentation providing testimony to a joint committee made up of selected Ohio state senators and representatives on how to go about improving mental health services in our schools. Leading up to our time before these legislators, we were schooled by our state association folks on using proper protocol when responding to any questions that may be directed to us individually. We were told to always first respond with the phrase, “Great question” before answering. And as you might imagine, a question that was finally raised was, “I think we all agree that improvements are warranted, but how do we accomplish this without incurring any increases in state funding?” I am eternally grateful that the question was not aimed at me as I might have audibly choked on that “Great question” rejoinder. 

But here again, Carnegie says that to be a leader, we have to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment. He recommends things like beginning with praise and honest appreciation, asking questions in place of giving orders, praising and encouraging every improvement, and making any fault easy to correct. While that can be a bridge too far for many, it has the better chance of being successful, even all these years later. 

We have to find a way to extend our skills in classrooms and school buildings in the service of including those who have been denied access or excluded due to some perceived difference, to those whom we may find it very difficult to welcome to our fold. We need to capture the narrative, not demean those who think differently. After all, to change hearts and minds, we need to engage them first. And if we start with a dismissive or demeaning attitude, we will have lost all future communication. We all want the same thing, a better life for ourselves and ensuring that our children thrive. We just have differing opinions on how to go about achieving that.  

Fortunately, NASP has many resources to keep us aware and involved in our commitment to change. Through our GPR Communities, joining other advocacy interest groups, participating in our annual Public Policy Institute, reading resources like the Policy Playbook and periodic blog posts like this one ensures that we will not miss an opportunity to speak up and add our voice to effecting much needed change. NASP makes it easy to send emails to our state and national politicians, making them aware of our position on timely legislation and budget considerations—yet another way NASP keep us all connected. 

Many years ago, the political satirist Walt Kelly, author of the comic strip Pogo, crafted a poster in honor of the first Earth Day. In it, the main character is viewing a great amount of litter in his home, the Okefenokee Swamp where he lives. He makes the statement, “I have met the enemy and he is us.” Kelly was making a riff on the old adage that we are often our own worst enemies. He was saying that there is no them, there is only us, and I most heartily agree. 

Fellow GPR Committee bloggers, we have previously looked at re-connecting with our heartfelt passion about advocacy and emphasized winning friends and influencing people to be more successful and inclusive with our efforts. What's next in our mission to make effective change in helping children thrive?