The Danger of Devil’s Advocate

I am the type of person who likes to challenge people’s knowledge, pushing them to answer questions and defend their stances. It’s part Socratic method and part Devil’s Advocate, with the goal of learning more about the person and asking them to learn more about themselves. I suppose on principle this is OK, but in the last few years I have been withdrawing from these methods. The more I practiced or experienced them, the less effective they seemed to be to me.

The problem with playing Devil’s Advocate, where you take the opposite stance of someone even though you may not personally agree with that stance, is rooted in cognitive dissonance. There are two ways in which this comes out, both usually at the same time, that I believe make the model ultimately unfeasible. I will relate these methods by way of example, because that’s easiest.

My first example is in conveying theological precepts, perhaps from pastor to congregation. I have seen several church leaders play Devil’s Advocate to try and stir up their congregation, to push them to deeper thought and committment to study. On the surface, it makes sense: your congregation believes X, but they can’t exactly say why. So, you question their belief and challenge them to dig deeper, to study more, and to find the answers. You don’t necessarily want them to just believe everything you say, so the ideal is that they’ll go out and learn on their own.

The problem with employing the Devil’s Advocate style in this situation is that it is deeply confusing. A person in a position of authority and trust is challenging without providing answers, and what’s more, they are taking a stance opposite what one might expect. When a pastor brings a can of beer to the service and says, “What’s wrong with drinking this?” then gives lots of examples of how it’s not wrong without any example of how it is… not only is it unBiblical, it’s also emotionally confusing. The hope is there, on the part of the pastor, that the congregation will think for themselves and challenge him/her, but they are listening out of a relationship built on trust, and Devil’s Advocate undermines that trust.

Second, and similar, is the relationship between a manager and his/her employees. I used to see this a lot more, where the manager would oppose the employees to make them think more about their stances or requests. The manager’s goal was to represent all the questions and challenges the employees might encounter from upper management, but the method had an unintended consequence. It communicated to the employees that the manager was their enemy, and since the manager was already in a position of power/authority, it upset the balance between them. The manager can more easily exert their authority, so the employees feel like they have been placed in an even greater position of weakness. They have no allies left but one another.

The more I see the Devil’s Advocate method used, the more I am convinced there are simply better ways to teach or get a point across. In a very limited form, I think the same questions can be asked to challenge people, but the next step should be to answer and solve them collaboratively, to engage people in discussion, and to make sure they know they are not alone. It is not Me vs. You when I ask you a challenging question. Rather, my desire would be that I ask You the question, and We solve it together. Between us, we can perhaps come up with a more complete answer than either of us could have on our own.

Its basic undesirableness is built into its name. Don’t play Devil’s Advocate to the full, for it will completely undermine trust and relationships and leave your students/employees/etc. uncertain of you. Rather, pose the questions, but do it in a collaborative sense. By solving these problems together, you will build an even greater level of trust and likely learn something yourself, rather than just trying to pass knowledge one way.