How to play devil's advocate without making everyone hate you

How to play devil's advocate without making everyone hate you - the mobile spoon

We all like to play the "Devil's Advocate" from time to time, but are we doing it right? 

There's a fine line between presenting valuable alternatives and demoralizing the team with repeating objections and aggressive criticism. 

Here's how to play devil's advocate without making everyone hate you:

1. Start by setting expectations 

Start by saying “I’m going to play the devil’s advocate" to smooth things out. 

This semi-apologetic disclaimer will set the right context for what you’re about to say. It will soften the blow and eliminate instinctive rejections that often pop up. 

2. Focus on ideas, not people 

Criticizing people for their opinions will only damage your credibility and will make it look like you're running a personal campaign. 

Challenge the ideas, not the people. Stick with objective arguments and stay away from anything that might sound insulting or personal because this will instantly kill your legitimacy. 

3. Back your logic with data

To be convincing you need to provide real evidence. 

My recommendation is to back your arguments with 2 types of data: numbers and stories. 

  1. Numbers provide the bottom line. When the volume is big enough that's the absolute truth
  2. Stories explain the "why". They complete the picture, are persuasive, and are easy to relate to

Together, numbers and stories are the perfect evidence you need when presenting your arguments.

4. Offer new alternatives

Never come empty-handed to a devil's advocate party. 🙂

If you're going to criticize existing options, make sure to offer an alternative. 

Remember that your goal is not to make everyone support your proposal as is, it's to encourage an open discussion and promote alternative thinking. 

5. Avoid personal wars 

Don't turn productive discussions into political wars. Others will spot it immediately and you will lose your credibility. Keep it totally professional and don't let those discussions damage your prestige. 

6. Know when to quit

Don't exhaust the team. Conducting a heated discussion is a healthy thing, but not if it turns into a war.

Say what you think, share your evidence, and present your alternatives, but if it doesn't work, know when to take a step back. 

7. Don't take it personally 

You can't always be the winner of these debates. Understand that these are professional discussions and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. 

Keep your motivation high, and don't let defeats bring your down

Bonus tip: the Tenth Man Rule

It's no fun to be the only naysayer on the team. To encourage critical thinking and battle groupthink bias - leadership teams have invented the Tenth Man Rule where decision-makers assign someone to be the "dissenting voice" responsible for taking a contrarian view and challenging the prevailing consensus.

Instead of improvising, turn this policy into a part of your decision-making culture. 

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