Maybe this has happened to you. You have an idea. You’re excited about it. There’s some bugs to work out, but still, it’s a basically a good idea. So, you bring it to a group of colleagues or a few friends.
After listening to your idea, one of them says, “let me play devil’s advocate...”
I’ve seen this happen to others, and had it happen to me. At this point, you’re kicking yourself. “If only I’d have kept my mouth shut.”
Not that it isn’t good to entertain opposing points of view. It is. That’s how we learn and grow beyond our own prejudices. That’s how a good idea becomes a great idea. An honest exchange of views — openness to different perspectives — these are all crucial elements of healthy dialogue and growth.
The idea that playing “devil’s advocate” is an element of healthy dialogue is where things go wrong. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Look around, if there’s anyone who doesn’t need an advocate these days! Let me say this as gently as I can. The devil is doing just fine without you.
Playing “devil’s advocate” is often a ruse. It’s a way of expressing reservations and resistance to something without ever taking responsibility. It leaves people guessing. Insecure people don’t generally make great strides. If they move at all, they take baby steps. Powerful new ideas require big things from us. A new idea brings more than enough uncertainty, all by itself.
So, how can you discuss a new idea and give that idea a fair chance?
First, speak from your convictions. No pretense, no games. Be who you are and say what you believe. If you’re not sure, fine. Say that. Then, ask questions. Real questions. Nothing helps move an idea toward clarity and refinement, or to the dust bin of history, better than a few honest questions.
Second, do your best to keep pride out of it. I like Luther’s response, when asked to recant his teachings. With his life on the line, he famously replied, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
This is a simple statement of conviction. It’s neither prideful nor is it arrogant. In fact, it sounds more like a statement of resignation.
Pride and arrogance don’t hold convictions. They have opinions. There’s a difference. Convictions come from a cleaner, purer place. Convictions are born of hard work and hard knocks.
Third, and most importantly, convictions engage the world. They don’t shut down discussion, they start it. We speak from our convictions, yes. And the isn’t most basic conviction, the realization that none of us, no matter who we are, has a lock on the truth? If that isn’t one of your convictions, you have more work to do. You should probably go home and get started on it, now.
Speaking from our convictions is really an act of faith. It is properly done, not in pride or arrogance or boasting; but with utmost humility, and just bit of fear and trembling.
This is who I am. This is what I believe. From here, the clouds part, the curtain is drawn back and the world opens before you.
When someone risks sharing a new idea with you, try it. Don’t waste time advocating for what the devil believes. Advocate for what you believe. We’ll all wind up in a better place.