I don’t particularly like the Devil or his Advocate. I am not sure when this phrase first started to bug me, but when I hear someone use it now I go on alert.
I took a look at the genesis of the phrase and it actually has an interesting history. In the Catholic Church there used to be an official position of Advocatus Diaboli, whose job it was to argue against the canonization of someone being considered for sainthood in order to uncover any misrepresentations or character flaws. Now it is popularly looked at as arguing against something without actually being committed to the contrary view. That’s not how I see it typically playing out though.
When I hear, “let me play the devil’s advocate”, what I believe is actually happening is a kind of ‘temperature taking’. It feels like a polite or maybe even a sly way of inserting one’s actual belief or perspective into the discussion to see how it lands. Perhaps they are gauging the ability of the conversation partner to effectively defend their position. Maybe they are testing whether their line of thinking is safe to fully disclose. Whatever the reason or motivation, I get suspicious and a bit defensive when I hear it.
What would happen if we opened up conversations in ways that encouraged and valued the exploration of varied points of view? Is it possible to intentionally suspend judgment, and our commitment to our beliefs and perspectives, for the sake of learning something new?
Of course it’s possible. It’s just hard and fear provoking. It’s scary because we prefer the certainty we feel about ‘the way things are’. In my coaching, when a client has a realization that shakes up their view of a piece of their world, the question “If I’m wrong about that, what else might I be wrong about?” can be particularly unsettling. But this is the thought disruption that is required for us to grow as humans and citizens of the world. From where I sit, it feels like we could use more of that right now.