By Wendy Rock, Ph.D., and Edward Reed | August 2020
“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” - David Frost
The ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors call on school counselors to be advocates. As leaders, school counselors advocate for all students to have access to a free and appropriate education that supports optimal learning, promotes equity for all students from diverse populations, provides a safe learning environment and secures opportunities for students from all backgrounds. School counselors are responsible for safeguarding the confidentiality and security of student information to prevent students from harm. For example, when a student confides in the counselor as they navigate questions around their sexuality, they must be able to trust that their information remains private. School counselor advocacy in college and career awareness supports students’ access to information that helps them to choose from myriad postsecondary options. School counselors also advocate for students to receive appropriate accommodations for their learning and technological needs. According to the ASCA Ethical Standards, “School counselors advocate to close the information, opportunity, intervention and attainment gaps for all students.”
Our ethical standards also challenge us to advocate for the profession. School counselors are called on to advocate for a school counseling program free of non-counseling duties, and for qualified and trained professionals to serve in school counseling positions. Therefore, school counselors must understand that when advocating for their role, they are simultaneously advocating for students who benefit from the services of a comprehensive school counseling program. School counselor advocacy is not only emphasized in the ethical standards, but also identified in the ASCA School Counselor Professional Standards and Competencies and seamlessly woven into the ASCA National Model.
Advocacy work requires school counselors to take risks and can be uncomfortable. Concerns about putting one’s career in jeopardy or getting a reputation as an agitator, or a simple desire to avoid conflict may make school counselors hesitate to use their advocacy skills. Practicing diplomacy when you advocate can help you take the necessary risks while reducing negative consequences.
Draw on Your Skills
Diplomatic advocacy should always be student centered and altruistic. Our counseling skills serve us well in helping us to be diplomatic advocates. These critical skills include
communication (listening and empathy)
collaboration (open-mindedness, considering alternative perspectives, relationship-building)
problem assessment (choosing your battles)
organization (planning, information gathering, data collection and analysis, presentation, action, follow-up)
The combination of these skills learned in the counseling graduate program equips us to listen, learn, share our ideas and assert our concerns without damaging the relationship.
Furthermore, the skills of tact and diplomacy emanate from a sensitivity to the opinions, beliefs, ideas and feelings of those whom we are addressing. It is critical to listen to other perspectives, pay attention to non-verbal communication (including body language and tone of voice) and seek to understand another’s position. Hold off on expressing your views until you are sure you understand their perspective. Ultimately, a diplomatic approach can build relationships and develop trust and mutual respect, which in turn leads to more successful outcomes.
School counselors are encouraged to use data to identify opportunity gaps, inform interventions and evaluate their school counseling program. Although utilizing data in advocacy work is necessary, successful advocacy appeals to both the head and the heart. Data can help demonstrate the magnitude of a problem, but including a personal story gives it a human face. By skillfully using storytelling, we help our audience connect with the situation, increase empathy, identify opportunities and nudge them toward action.
When conflicts arise in advocacy work, school counselors use their conflict resolution and mediation skills to work toward a positive outcome. Remaining objective, focusing on the facts and staying professional are essential. When our advocacy efforts produce conflict – and we can’t shift the other person’s view – we seek to reach a compromise and may have to make a sacrifice that will lead to mutual gains. One strategy to try: rather than asserting your idea directly, turn it into a question for the other person to consider. This strategy can allow for more exploration of options and make room for a solution that may benefit both parties. For example, rather than asserting that being the test coordinator is time-consuming and taking you away from implementing a comprehensive school counseling program, you might explore with your administrator ideas on how you can help students improve test scores. As you brainstorm ideas around data disaggregation and analysis, student engagement, interventions for test-taking strategies, test anxiety reduction or other academic interventions, it may become evident that you are more valuable to the school’s mission and goals when students receive these services through the school counseling program.
Successful diplomatic advocacy must include self-care. Not every position we take will receive support, and not every fight will be won. At times, our advocacy work will land on deaf ears or will not be accepted, which can be challenging and frustrating but it should never prevent us from continuing to be strong advocates. We understand that focusing on self-care, forgiving ourselves and others, and using healthy coping strategies empowers us to be resilient for future advocacy opportunities.
Our profession requires us to be advocates to change conditions that lead to problems and inequities for our students, including access to a comprehensive school counseling program for all students. We are skilled and positioned to engage in advocacy when we identify compelling reasons and viable solutions. Successful advocates employ the skills of diplomacy, tact and professionalism.
Contact Wendy Rock, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Edward Reed, a resource counselor at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville, Md., at email@example.com.