May 11, 2010

The problem with devil's advocates

Early in life I learned that devil's advocates are a dime a dozen. 

And it's a job you shouldn't volunteer for either.  Sure, without anyone to poke holes in ideas, we could all come down with group think or be bowled over by a persuasive presenter.  That's why we step up at the first opportunity with the passive-aggressive disclaimer, "OK, let me play Devil's Advocate for the sake of argument..." 

The character emerged during the sixteen century in the Catholic Church to regulate the canonization process.  A lawyer was assigned to take the role of skeptic when someone was considered for canon.  He would poke holes in the candidate's character, history and worthiness in a attempt to discredit him for the sake of the church.  It was an assignment, not a job you cheerfully volunteer for. 

Today, we've taken this to the extreme.  When someone at work has a new idea about a product or a process, we take on the role of devil's advocate before they've even expressed half the idea.  We treat them like idiots, posing objections to them in a tone of voice that suggests, "have you even considered the obvious?"  We do the same thing at home.  Our kid has an idea for a business and we go into skeptic mode, shooting down her enthusiasm before the food hits the table.  In every situation, we don't improve the way the ideator thinks.  Research suggests that only authentic dissent (You truly think it's a bad idea) can provoke a better idea.  When you argue for the sake of argument, you merely bolster the ideator's conviction as well as her feelings that she's all alone on this one. 

Think about a serial devil's advocate's point of view: No ideas, land-of-no, probably a poor self-image that's being bolstered by pessimism.  I've never met a person of this type that was creative, innovative, enthusiastic or even inspirational.  As Chris Brogran would say, "you don't want to be that guy."  <But often, many of your are - at this point it's a knee jerk reaction on your part.  If you saw yourself on tape, you'd be shocked!>

So, here's my advice to you: Don't be a Devil's Advocate unless it is absolutely necessary to prevent a mistake.  Let the bankers, the CFO, the lawyers and everyone else further down the development process be the hole-punchers - when you hear a fresh idea in conversation, try being a collaborator instead.  Help build on the idea, get the premise at the center of the table and imagine how it might all unfold.  Authors of The Experience Economy, Joseph Pine & Jim Gilmore call this the "Yes, And" approach to talking about ideas. (Video: Yes, And VS Yes, But). 

I hope more of you join this in this approach - the world is full of too many Devil's Advocates and not enough conversational partners and collaborators.  

This idea will be part of my next book, Today We Are Rich.  Normally, works in progress aren't posted on Sanders Says, but today I think the message is tied to the blog's narrative regarding relationship building and leadership development.  Get sneak peeks of the new book at my Facebook public page





What a wonderful article! Thank you!
I was beginning to feel like I was being pulled down in a cyclone-type funnel with every comment being swamped with negative attack, and every gasp of air to explain myself being sucked away before I could utter a word. There is no give-and-take in the conversation, it's mostly 'listen to my extreme wisdom about how stupid your thoughts are'. And if I change the subject, the response is the same. It drains energy just listening.


I look at this concept as being more of a confidence thing. People state this phrase when they are afraid to own a point. It's such a seemingly risk free position to take. Have some confidence, don't be a devils advocate!


I agree Tim, they are needed to ensure I've (we've) not missed anything in my business planning and strategy.

The problem with most DA's is they are completely negative, offering no real world solutions. They merely want to show the world they are smarter than everyone else. Hell, I know I'm not the smartest guy in the room, it's why I hire people smarter than myself.

Seemingly, they offer great advice as how NOT to do something, I've yet to run across a DA that has a solution to plug the hole.

While I'm out doing it, from my 3rd draft, the DA's are still busy shooting holes in my first draft.

For us entrepreneur's, I do appreciate blunt talk. I'm thick skinned so bring it on. But don't poke holes for poking holes sake. That's merely complaining. If you are trying to impress me...forget it...I've failed more times that most people have had success; and I've had gargantuan success.

If you want to poke holes coupled with some real world solutions, I'm all ears. If you don't have a solution to your complaint; then shut the hell up and let me build my business.

My 2 dollars (used to be 2 cents but inflation and taxes ya know.)


Great article, sure you will be worried about knocking a few noses out of joint, so congratulations on your bravery.

Agree completely! In business and life It is easier to destroy then build. Simple experiment is have a discussion where "but" is replaced with "yes and" and " but I think" is replaced with "I agree and have you also considered"

Build not destroy !


It's so obvious after reading your post. Most of the time I feel attacked by a Devils advocate. They call out a dozen reasons why my idea would fail despite my grounded point of view. Thanks for the post!


..."We treat them like idiots, posing objections to them in a tone of voice that suggests, "have you even considered the obvious?" "...

This is the entire point. The likelihood is that they have considered the obvious. The presenter has spent much more time developing and considering his/her idea from every angle than your off the hand remarks. There is a level of arrogance in suggesting that your 10 seconds of though with negative feedback will somehow better the hours, days or weeks they have spent developing the idea.

I think the gist is to take a more positive and constructive approach to listening to someones ideas instead of a deconstructive "you can't do that" attitude.

This was a nice point Tim. I am sure that many of us, including myself, have found ourselves doing this while not considering that there is no real upside for ourselves or the presenter.


I consider myself a Devil's Advocate in the best possible way: I look at one side of an argument and, if I see a possible loophole, exploit, or weakness, I bring it up. Some people call me contrary, some people refer to me as an antagonist, but I simply do this so that deeper understanding can be achieved and broader, yet more in-depth perspective and be acquired.

"What about..." "What if..." "Perhaps..." and "On the other hand..." All of these accurately describe my way of thinking, and I believe that any time I poke a hole in something (not being nasty or harsh about it at all), either A) a new approach is dreamed up to cover the previously unforseen flaw, B) the presenter explains that aspect, as he has already thought to prepare for it, or C) the flaw is seen ultimately as an unrecoverable aspect of the presentation. It's better to have someone poke holes in your balloon before flight, so that they might be patched or that the design ultimately be shelved, rather than to have the balloon burst in midair and cause tremendous heartache...


I think what's particularly interesting about this is the context in which this usually happens-- at those moments when people are presenting new ideas to their team (at the office), their group of trusted advisers (if they're entrepreneurs), or their spouse (at home). Nascent ideas are usually pitched at a peer group, not at the boss.
I've found that, even within the worst ideas, there's a kernel of personality or objective that is different or creative just by virtue of its being presented by a different brain. On so many occasions I've heard pitches that elicit an internal monologue nothing short of "oh g-d, this is So awful." By taking the time to conscientiously force myself to find the aspect of the idea that I can encourage, that's truly unique, it's possible to actually help new ideas evolve and transform right then and there.
Pointing out what's excellent about an idea primes the idea-maker to be receptive to letting it evolve and shedding those elements that are unnecessary. The big secret, though, is that not playing devil's advocate, not Picking On The Idea, shows a great deal of humility and personal confidence. If you're going to coach and help an idea evolve really well, you need to avoid the trap of personal puffery that happens when we say "well, I see all the problems inherent in this. I don't know why you don't."
That's why so few people are great at picking apart ideas--because at the end of the day, it isn't about how brilliant we are; it's about the idea.


"When you argue for the sake of argument, you merely bolster the ideator's conviction as well as her feelings that she's all alone on this one. ( Yes, very alone.)

Often when someone plays "Devil's Advocate" I immediately see that they are not willing to "listen to my ideas." The questions they are asking often doesn't make sense or are out of left field.

The Devil's Advocate doesn't think outside the box. Doesn't like ideas that go beyond routine. And they would like for you to "stay inside their box."


Thanks for this article. Must. Share.


There's loads of things we all do every day that only exist to lubricate the wheels of social interaction. Pleasantries, small talk, saying "See ya later" to someone you'll never see again -- we don't always mean half what we say, and it has nothing to do with "political correctness". It's just normal, polite, interaction, designed to put conversants at ease and make meaningful discourse possible.

Anyone who thinks they are *always* completely honest, albeit tactfully, is either an incredibly rude, unbearable person, or seriously deluded.

There is an excellent section in Stephen Pinker's latest book, "The Stuff of Thought" that analyses the phenomenon of social niceties and "implied speech" in great, scholarly detail.


That's the problem with society today...people choose the "socially acceptable" way of doing things instead of being forthright and honest. You can be polite and honest with tact.

CarlosNZ, what purpose does it serve for you to put up a "perceived 'objective'" when it really is an objection. That's not the "voice of reason." That is dishonest and half-hearted. That is what loses you trust from other individuals.

My words may seem abrasive, but I'm so sick of people being politically correct so as not to offend any one.

Sanders is correct when he says, "When you argue for the sake of argument, you merely bolster the ideator's conviction as well as her feelings that she's all alone on this one."


Boy, that really hits home...I've been this way all of my life...thank you for bringing it to my attn...


Carlos, Carlos, no one is fooled by a politically correct Devil's Advocate constructing a perceived "objective" voice of reason. HAHAHA


I always considered that playing Devil's Advocate was a polite way of airing authentic dissent. That's how I often do it, anyway. Rather than flat out bag someone's idea, it seems a little more socially acceptable to do it through the construction of a perceived "objective" voice of reason.

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