On Effective Advocacy

On Effective Advocacy
Erika Wohl
Goldman Bridge Fellow, NYC


We live during a time of extreme partisanship and conflict. I have heard many people lament how hard it is to communicate with those holding different opinions and what a struggle it is to influence those with opposing viewpoints. Those doing pro-Israel advocacy have been wrestling with this problem for years.

All too often, members of like-minded communities only reinforce each other’s views with similar perspectives, framing, and language. There is rarely overlap in the terminology used. In some circles, words like equality, privilege, and justice are frequent, while in others, words like freedom and strength are common.

How do we fix our broken communication system? How do we lower our barriers to dialogue, conduct more productive conversations, and practice more effective advocacy?

AJC and ACCESS NY hosted two events this month that focused on communication skills essential when approaching advocacy. Both highlighted the insight that advocacy is not about oneself, or one’s own perspective and interests, but rather about the priorities of the person on the other side of the table. Internalizing this truth should enable us to restructure the way we communicate with those around us even if their politics seem at odds with our own.

ACCESS NY hosted a training session on Global Jewish Diplomacy with AJC CEO David Harris. Mr. Harris talked about developing situational empathy during advocacy. It is not just important to grasp the policy perspectives of our partners from an intellectual perspective, but it is also vital to understand and sympathize with the vested interests of our interlocutors. As Jewish and Israel advocates, the needs and priorities of the Jewish community drive our efforts, but it is our universalistic perspective and collaborative approach to advocacy that make us effective. This situational empathy gives us deeper insight when communicating with our partners and helps us build stronger, mutually-beneficial relationships.

At the AJC NY Annual Meeting, Dr. Frank Luntz, political consultant and communications expert, addressed AJC leaders about the “Words that Work” when communicating about Israel and anti-Semitism. He used college students as a case study, concluding that effective Israel advocates on campus frame Israel and the conflict according to the values and language commonly used by other college students. While this may seem like an obvious conclusion, it is often not practiced. Dr. Luntz reminded the crowd that there are differences in values, worldviews, and language in different generations and communities, and so the buzzwords and talking points effective for some people will not necessarily be as effective for others. This kind of strategic communication, using the language and values of those with whom we are dialoguing, can begin to open up a constructive line of communication between separate communities.

Ultimately, what both David Harris and Dr. Frank Luntz are teaching is that effective advocacy requires us to be sincere in our relationships, conscious of our audience, and skillful in our language. We must hone our skills to become effective and empathetic listeners, understanding the values, priorities, and goals of the other. Unless we do so, we will continue to talk at one another instead of to one another. Situational empathy and strategic language can turn divisive and ineffective dialogue into constructive communication.