Consultations 101

A good chunk of my advocacy work occurs through consultations – a considerably more closed-door affair than blogging and social media posts. Despite the lack of visibility, I believe it’s one of the most important and consequential aspects of my work. While blogging and social media is particularly excellent at raising awareness and challenging stigma, consultations provide a more focused way of addressing specific problems and coming up with actionable solutions.

Consultations allow me to learn more about relevant topics, learn from my peers, and challenge my own beliefs and positions. I believe that when we are granted exclusive opportunities like consultations, we owe it to our peers and those not invited to make the absolute most of it. So, I’m really excited to share some of my personal tips on how to be a strong disability advocate at these consultations.

Before the Consultation

Learn more about the topic or issue beforehand.

While this seems like common sense or not the most pressing prep element, I believe it’s always worth doing some extra research to look into new topics and emerging ideas, and to organize your thoughts on the themes discussed.

Learn more about the host and their organization.

A little research into your host’s background or the organization’s beliefs and mandate goes a long way! This allows you to tailor your responses to keep them relevant, and to ensure you aren’t explaining something a host already knows – it wastes time, and doesn’t look great.

If you can, find out who else will be participating.

This is a great chance to practice allyship and ensure diverse perspectives are being recruited – and if they aren’t, suggest some peers who would be a good fit. If a host has gone through the trouble of organizing a roundtable, they’ll want it to be as rewarding and comprehensive as possible. This can also become a lot of fun when you have a recurring cast of characters, and knowing a reliable friend will be in attendance can relieve some pre-meeting nerves! (More about making consultation connections later.) 

Additionally, you might be speaking on a broad topic alongside some renowned experts in niche fields – in this case, you can focus on your area of expertise while being confident other topics will be appropriately handled. 

Prepare speaking notes!

If you take away any tip from this blog, take this one. Speaking notes are an absolute essential for me now, and I never go into a consultation without them!

While everyone’s process is different, I start by creating a backgrounder on the host, organization, and field to reference in-meetings. This is a great safety net, as I know I’ll still be educated and informed even if the topic veers away from what was expected. Then, I brainstorm the different aspects I want to touch in (ideally in response to a prompt) and get to work creating the actual notes.

I use a skeleton-script: main bullet points have my main ideas, while indented bullets have the more expanded ideas and speaking points. This helps me stay on track, hit all the points I want to make, and keeps me feeling confident and prepared. Partly because of my background in theatre, and partly because I am so, so anxious all of the time, I go so far as rehearsing my points in the mirror and revising the speaking notes until I’m 100% confident in what I want to say. And let’s be real, coming up with an absolute mic-drop of a line and delivering it live in a consultation is an unparalleled experience. Like this one, “we’re already having this issue in Canada, let’s not export it elsewhere.” 

Prepare for challenges.

Advocacy work is hard! It often involves dealing with very difficult, personal, and vulnerable topics – and in roundtable consultations, you have to be prepared to listen to others’ trauma. Two tips here: maintain boundaries – if it’s too much, excuse yourself, and make sure you’re in a good headspace to engage in difficult conversations. It’s important to prepare for these challenges because more often than not, we want to actively and empathetically listen to our peers courageously sharing difficult stories that often relate to our own lived experience.

During the Consultation

Keep in mind who you’re representing.

Depending on your roles and affiliations, you might be representing a larger group or an entire demographic! It’s important to always remember that advocacy isn’t about yourself, it’s about everyone. Reaching out to your circles, getting peers’ thoughts on the topics, and reminding those at consultations that you can’t fully speak to all lived experiences under your purview is essential when representing others. It’s also important not to monolith yourself! Your experience isn’t the experience – acknowledge that there’s a diversity of lived, real, valid experiences, and when you can’t adequately speak to that, opt to speak to your lived experience.

Keep in mind who you are addressing.

More often than not, the consultation host is trying to help solve a problem – and while it’s way easier to act like that one person is the root cause of all your problems and get some negative feelings out, it is definitely not effective, and definitely not responsible advocacy work. When you treat consultations like a learning process or a two-way street, your host is often much more receptive to your suggestions and will leave with committed to further learning and growth. If you want to get feelings out, scream in a pillow.

Listen to others in attendance.

Roundtable consultations are by far my favourite, because they provide a chance to learn from other advocates and get a better understanding of the issues they’re facing. Often enough, our best resource is our peers. And when we are surrounded by our peers speaking their truths, it’s important to listen and learn. 

Turn on your camera!

With widespread burnout and zoom fatigue, there’s nothing like a friendly face cheering you on. One of my favourite consultation moments was when another advocate messaged me to say that my facial expressions really comforted them and encouraged them to speak up! Additionally, having your camera on allows you to react to what others are saying, and helps those reading lips understand what you’re saying.

Keep in mind time constraints.

It’s so important to be respectful of others and their time – and it’s just rude to take up all the space for yourself! In advocacy and all other aspects of my life, I love to time budget. For roundtables especially, I look through the agenda and allotted time slots for topics, take away a few minutes as a buffer, and divide by the number of participants invited to figure out how much time is appropriate to take up. If you have super detailed, complex ideas – water them down! Your complex ideas will do better off as notes sent to the host afterwards.

When someone hits a nerve.

This has happened to me quite a few times, and my over-expressive face reliably gives me away. It’s important to remember that there is no one truth – we all have different lived experience and approach advocacy work from different angles (except when a non-disabled person tries to speak over you on disability issues, then you do what you gotta do.) Instead of invalidating your peers or calling them out in an inappropriate way, try approaching the issue with phrases like “in my personal opinion”, “speaking from my lived experience”, or “I feel” statements. “I hope we can hold space for both person and identity first language, in line with how people choose to identify themselves” has come into play for me a lot! Of course, if anyone is making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe – speak up if you can, or speak to a moderator 1 on 1 ASAP.

Contextualize, critique, correct.

I opt for this three-pronged approach in all my responses. Whether you’re given a prompt, question, or topic, it’s helpful when everyone understands where you’re coming from and why this issue is important to you and the people you represent! After contextualizing, critique away – address barriers, ableism, exclusion. You’re being hosted for a consultation because there’s an identifiable issue or opportunity, so don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Then, you gotta correct by offering some actionable suggestions – how would you like to see the issue addressed, and what is important for a solution to include? Offering clear examples will prompt your host to begin considering next steps, and will help you hold hosts accountable in follow-up consultations or discussions.

After the Consultation

Connect with your peers!

By far (or by-and-for, if you get what I mean) the best thing I get out of consultations is connections. Roundtables and forums often gather leading experts and groundbreaking advocates – take advantage of it and reach out after the consultation! Even a simple message like “great points today! hoping to see you again in future consultations” can keep you on someone’s radar, and more often that not it leads to some great discussions. And there’s nothing like being recognized and warmly welcomed when you enter a consultation.

Follow up with the host.

Often in consultations, loose ideas are thrown around and actual follow-up actions are taken later. By following up with the host and signalling interest in mentioned initiatives, you’re more likely to be remembered, well received, and invited back. 

Share your notes.

If you use speaking notes, sharing them with the host organization’s notetaker or moderator is a great way to clarify or correct your points made in consultation. It also gives the host organization a chance to reply and further discuss key issues.

Respect privacy and consent!

While most roundtables don’t swear you to secrecy or make you sign any waivers (at least in my experience so far!), it’s polite and respectful to keep others’ identities and opinions private, unless you’re received their explicit permission. This loops back to the intro, where I discussed the lack of visibility around consultations. One way I’ve boosted transparency and visibility is by providing recaps of my personal opinions on the topics to my audience. It’s also a great way to keep the conversation going, and bring your new thoughts and ideas to a wider audience.

So, there you have it – my tips for a great consultation. I hope you found some relevant, and I hope you have your own tips to share within our community! Together, we can work together to address pressing issues, confront exclusion and inaccessibility, and challenge ableism. And when one of us gets to the table, let’s make sure we keep the door open for our well-deserving peers.

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