Devil’s Advocate Or Just Pessimistic?

I have a friend, we’ll call him Fred. Not his real name, nor anyone else that I know. We meet weekly on Saturdays for breakfast and conversation. There are anywhere between 4-6 of us that meet regularly. We call ourselves The Breakfast Club.

Our conversations range over myriad topics, none of them pre-planned, but typically everyone participates, no matter what the topic. We don’t necessarily agree with each other’s viewpoints — which isn’t our goal — nor do we attempt to sway others’ viewpoints when they differ with ours. It’s very lively most days, especially once the coffee flows.

Fred has this thing he does where he says he’s playing devil’s advocate. What he does is point out without fail, either how others’ viewpoints are wrong, or how they would never work. He is relentless in this practice. We’ve allowed it to continue since we formed our little group. He’s dating a woman who is the opposite: she’s idealistic to the point where her perception of reality is usually not well thought out, which means the flaws in her thinking are fairly obvious. But we understand that these are their personalities, and we’ve chosen to say nothing.

This morning, Fred kept playing his devil’s advocate role to the point where something occurred to me. So I explained to him what it really meant to play devil’s advocate.

The phrase “I’m just playing devil’s advocate” can be a way for a negative thinker to pretend they’re being a naysayer for the sake of the betterment of the idea being presented, or the betterment of a team or a project. However, sometimes the person playing devil’s advocate is nothing more than a pessimist who is more than happy to tell everyone why something won’t work. Fred has killed many a discussion in this way. Today I called him out on it. He immediately went into victim mode — despite the fact that I presented the difference between the two in a very respectful and matter of fact way.

It was obvious that he was not happy being called out. However, the morning discussions have really suffered due to his pessimism. My theory is: if someone is behaving in a way that’s detrimental to your relationship with them, it’s okay to speak up. Know the difference between someone truly playing devil’s advocate, or just putting on their “Eeyore” mask, happy to tell everyone that their tail fell off, not that anyone will notice. Call people out on their behavior and save the “Devil’s Advocate” thinking for people who are able to push the right buttons and spur on the debate to find a better solution, not just kill an idea in the room. If there’s a deeper reason for this behavior — depression, Asberger’s Syndrome, what-have-you — encourage them to seek help. The longer you let it go on, the more you enable that type of negativity, which impacts your life, your thoughts, and your emotions in a negative way.

When a skilled person plays devil’s advocate, you know immediately, because it creates a livelier debate and healthy conversation.

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