How to be a devil’s advocate

To be honest I’d rather that people wouldn’t. The Devil seems to be perfectly capable of being his own advocate and has a whole following of supporters genuinely willing to advocate for him. Furthermore, too often, it seems to me that “I’m just playing devil’s advocate” is what someone says when their argument has been systematically pulled apart. What they really mean is “Okay you’ve beat me.” But that would mean admitting weakness.

However, there can be a place for properly road-testing ideas where we identify the types of objections that they might have to face. This will enable those proposing the idea to be prepared for opposition when it comes.  So, here are my general rules on playing devil’s advocate.

  1. Identify that this is what you intend to do upfront and seek permission. Sometimes this is not the right stage in the process for those types of challenges to be raised. Even better still, agree up front that there will be a stage in the process when people will focus on critique and challenge. Nominate people to lead on this.
  2. Don’t confuse the objections you are raising with your own objections.
  3. Argue the best case possible for the viewpoint you are representing. Don’t set up strawmen.
  4. Give others opportunity to respond effectively to your “devil’s advocate position!” -let them know how they are doing.
  5. The approach is time limited.  At the end of the agreed phase you stop being devil’s advocate and help the team respond to the argument effectively.

In summary, my experience is that people claim to be “devil’s advocate” when they oppose something but haven’t thought through their objections properly, so they just throw lots of dirt at the idea until something sticks.  It is important that people own their true position.

The role I have described above is played by a friend/supporter of an idea or at least someone who is genuinely neutral and seeking to reach a decision themselves. 

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