Monday, September 13, 2010

When A Devil's Advocate Becomes Just Plain Mule-Headed

I raised my children to always consider the source of any information they are given. Why? Because so many people will simply give an opinion whether they have knowledge about the subject, or not, and it's usually negative. When, "I'm playing the devil's advocate," is overused, this is where you have to draw the line with that person. It may be that they simply cannot accept a new idea.

What is a Devil's Advocate?

From Wikipedia:
In common parlance, a devil's advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, just for the sake of argument. In taking such position,the individual taking on the devil's advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process. The purpose of such process is typically to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure, and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original, opposing position.
You see? It's something used to help clear up any problems with the original idea or project. As an example, your friend has decided to build Fido a tree house next to Billie's tree house. It would be inconceivable to almost anyone that this would work -- but, not to your friend holding the hammer and saw! Someone (that's you) has to act as the devil's advocate. To protect the dog, if nothing else!

Playing the devil's advocate is similar to using counter-arguments in theses or debates. It's really quite neutral and meant to help complete or modify the idea to a workable conclusion. The first logical argument for the dog's tree house is that dogs can't climb. This is too obvious and practically impossible to say without either raising one's voice or smirking. So, the approach is more supportive and you may ask your friend in a soft, low tone --
  • Is that apple tree going to be low enough for Fido to see his house at the top of the crossbars?
  • Will that slide be highly-polished so Fido doesn't get splinters in his paws?
  • Is that window frame strong enough for the 5000 BTU a/c?
  • Where can you get Fido trained to raise and lower that food basket?
You get the point, questions that will make your friend think about possible problems in the hope that it will spark their idea-center into realizing this plan needs to be tabled for awhile.  But, questions that are always supportive and not personal attacks.

Now, if, when your friend is able to blow holes through your arguments with breathtaking clarification as regards his particular Fido's deep love for climbing trees and napping on broad limbs, you continue to press your case, you could be guilty of being just plain mule-headed. You could become a naysayer!

Naysayers Can Really Bring You Down

Naysayers deny or take a pessimistic view of anything, regardless of how much information is given to support the idea they are opposing. They could be either afraid or jealous of your new idea and, in either case, you cannot let them bring you down. It isn't that you just want people who support your idea and let you make a major mistake; but, when someone consistently puts down your ideas without any positive feedback that will help you work to correct a problem, it's time to reevaluate how often you seek the opinion of this person.

New ideas are fragile and must be nurtured or they die under too much negative feedback. Your best sources for honest feedback are those people familiar with your subject. Their arguments will be focused on what generally works in that area and they can be trusted to help you. The less they know, the higher the probability that their arguments will be less effective and far more personal.
  • What makes you think you can do that?
  • Are you out of your mind?
  • What a stupid idea!
  • Oh, no, not another one. 
How Do You Respond to New Ideas?

It's hard to monitor ourselves but we can watch other's reactions to our words. Are you one of those people above? If you keep attacking the ideas and projects of your friends or family, you may find that you are left out of the loop because it's the easiest thing to do to avoid being crushed by your naysaying.

It's not your job to tear someone else down simply because they asked you for an opinion. It doesn't mean you have to tear them apart so that you will sound as if you know what you're talking about. The old rule still holds true:
For every negative thing you say, you have to say three positive things. It's best to start with two positive things, slip in one negative, and end with a positive.
Especially, if you are not an expert in the field.
  • You have one smart dog.
  • This is a perfect location for Fido's tree house.
  • Can Fido climb crossbars?
  • I love the paint color -- it's so Frank Lloyd Wright.
Believe me, there will be enough critiquing at the time your friend's idea or project is ready for the expert's review. Life is too short to get beaten down by people who are not willing to take chances, themselves, but are very quick to judge others. As a friend or family member, it is your job to be supportive. The wolves are supposed to be outside your circle, not within. Play the devil's advocate, with love. Without new ideas, you'd be reading this on paper.

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