Fun fact: the term “devil’s advocate” dates back to the early 1500’s, when the Catholic Church established a role for the “Promoter of the Faith” (also known as “Advocatus Diaboli”). Basically, whenever someone died and was being considered for sainthood, the Advocatus Diaboli was responsible for coming up with a list of all the reasons they shouldn’t. This allowed the church to make more informed decisions.
Though the Church rarely uses the practice nowadays, it will still occasionally ask people to play the role. For example: the Church tapped noted atheist and writer Christopher Hitchens to create arguments against the canonization of Mother Teresa (Hitchens claimed the church was just paying lip service to the process.)
These days, playing devil’s advocate (a.k.a., expressing an opposing/unpopular point of view, just for the sake of argument or discussion) tends to be used more frequently outside the Church walls.
Case in point: it’s a go-to practice for legal teams and debaters(shout out to our fellow debate-nerds!). When crafting their arguments, lawyers and debaters will often assign a team member (or ask someone) to play the role of the opposition. Practicing against a well-prepared “devil’s advocate” better prepares the team for the courtroom and/or competition.
Playing devil’s advocate is beneficial in the classroom too. By presenting different perspectives on a topic without revealing their own opinions, teachers can spark more honest/open debate and create a more balanced learning environment where students are encouraged to assess arguments based on their merit, not on their popularity.
At The Deep, we believe that playing devil’s advocate is an incredibly important skill that can hone people’s critical thinking abilities, create more constructive discussion, and help identify the best strategies to deal with complex problems.
But let’s be honest: playing devil’s advocate has gotten a bad rap lately – probably because so many internet trolls use it as an excuse to justify their unkind/deliberately offensive behavior.
So how can you play devil’s advocate without being a d*ck (or worse, a troll)? Here are our best tips and tricks for being a *constructive* devil’s advocate:
#1: Be clear about your intentions.
Make sure your motives are transparent by telling people you are playing devil’s advocate. Say it loud and say it clearly! If people know you’re presenting an argument with the goal of playing devil’s advocate, they’ll become more open to that perspective (and are less likely to criticize you, and more likely to criticize the argument). A good phrase: “Just to make sure we're not missing anything important, I want to play devil’s advocate for a second.”
#2: Examine people’s ideas; don’t attack their character. (a.k.a., no ad hominum attacks!)
Remember: the strength of a person’s argument isn’t dependent on their character. If you’re attacking someone’s character, it’s usually an indication that you have a weak (or under-developed, or poorly thought through) argument for your own position. Stay on topic and attack ideas, not people’s character.
#3: Stay open, neutral and non-judgmental in your tone.
How you say something is as important as what you say. If you speak in a manner that’s judgy or condescending, it can feel petty, less persuasive and like a personal attack – not a valid argument.
#4: Listen intently and open-mindedly to other perspectives.
Present your arguments with humility, and when the other person rebuts them, listen with the same level of attentiveness and care as you would if they were taking your side.
#5: Rest your case without beating it to death. (a.k.a., know when to say when).
Even though playing devil’s advocate is valuable, it’s counterproductive (and veers into bullying) if you keep beating people over the head with it. Once you’ve made a good point, move on.
And now you know more about how to be a modern day Advocatus Diaboli, without being a jerkface. So get out there and be (gently, and helpfully) contrarian!