4 Tips to Being a Well-Received Devil’s Advocate

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to embrace critical thinking in meetings. The RED Model gives us a structured way to bring critical thinking into strategizing, brainstorming, planning, etc. but how do we take the extra step to ensure we’re critically thinking? One technique some companies do, is to assign the role of Devil’s Advocate to a colleague each meeting. Sounds great until you’re assigned the role, right?
Have no fear! Being the devil’s advocate doesn’t have to be scary. Here are 4 tips to being a well-received Devil’s Advocate.
  1. Acknowledge everyone for their ideas, thought processes and contributions. I find the 2:1 ratio (or “dump truck” theory) can apply well here. If you’re going to give someone bad news, or criticism, it helps to first give positive reinforcement. A devil’s advocate should never criticize the person giving the ideas but it never hurts to acknowledge what the person did well.
  2. Stay objective. Don’t be skeptical of the people involved but their ideas. Bring up the idea as it affects the greater goal or purpose of the meeting, not as a stand alone issue.
  3. Clarify. Sometimes asking the right questions will bring clarity as folks have to answer them. You can also paraphrase what’s being, highlighting a potential pitfall. Ask if you understand the proposed idea and ask about potential future implications.
  4. Unless insightful, don’t feel obligated to speak. Historically, the role of devil’s advocate takes an opposing position on everything. Instead, I’d like to argue that in order to be more well received, wait until you have something insightful to draw attention to. Sure, the role becomes futile unless actively done but you run the risk of either upsetting your colleagues or making a joke of yourself if you refute everything. Actively listen with a skeptic’s view of what’s being proposed & discussed. Look for wholes in the evidence, potential pitfalls, etc. and bring them up as you can.

Don’t forget that it’s hard for the devil’s advocate too. To help embrace the role of devil’s advocate, the meeting leader should acknowledge when they’re doing a good job as well.

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Elizabeth Pauker-Silva

3 responses to “4 Tips to Being a Well-Received Devil’s Advocate”

  1. Ed Caldwell

    I do not think the role of “devil’s advocate” is necessary in every meeting. It is useful for meetings that require collaborative problem solving and decision making. Also, I have learned that the role in these situations is more constructive after brainstorming, rather than during the “storm.” Allowing the ideas to be attacked during brainstorming violates what research and experience have proven to be a more productive approach.

    1. lizziepauker

      You make great points, Ed! It’s important for every company to find a process that works best for them. I agree that this role is very useful for problem solving & decision making. It’s also important for the Devil’s Advocate to never attack ideas but rather objectively critique them. Asking questions is a great way to do this.

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