Thinking Out Loud

The Devil’s Advocate

“Look at it this way…,” or “There are other possibilities…,” or “Look at it from the other side…” Those with a strong logical component to their communication style often play the devil’s advocate. This technique helps them analyze a situation, discover the truth, and solve problems. Their intentions are good and their willingness to help is clear, which demonstrates empathy. However, these are not always apparent to the other party in an intimate relationship and the devil’s advocate technique usually backfires, resulting in an emotional disconnect. Here’s an example:

Jesse: I can’t believe what Joanne said to me at work about our client. She might as well have called me incompetent.

Luke: What exactly did she say?

Jesse: She said the client wondered what I had been working on since our meeting last week.

Luke: Well, maybe she wanted to give you a heads up about the client before your meeting tomorrow.

Jesse: Why are you taking her side?

Luke: I’m not taking her side. I’m just suggesting another possibility.

Jesse: Because you think I’ve been goofing off, too?

Luke: No, I don’t, I just . . .

Jesse is upset about what Joanne said to her at work. When Luke heard what was said, he tried to show Jesse that there are other interpretations for Joanne’s comment: She might have been trying to be helpful—the opposite of what Jesse believed. Luke is a very logical person and needs to analyze situations and enumerate options. He often plays devil’s advocate as a way to more fully explore problems and likes to make an argument in favor of something he doesn’t necessarily believe, as a way to discover new meaning.

The word argument is interesting. An argument between two people implies a heated conflict. To make an argument in favor of something, however, is to fully express the reasons supporting a side of an issue—not in a contentiously, adversarial manner. In the exchange, Luke’s attempt at making an argument gave rise to conflict because Jesse didn’t perceive his intent and believed him to be arguing, not supporting or understanding her distress. Luke didn’t adequately communicate his concern for Jesse’s distress, so being devil’s advocate wasn’t especially effective.

When a loved one is in distress, offering emotional validation and showing direct concern for his or her distress is the first order of business. Without that being clear, any ideas offered run the risk of sounding like criticism. Again, those with a strong logical component enjoy making the argument, playing devil’s advocate, and offering alternative ideas. The intentions are usually good but not easily seen by someone in distress, unless a supportive, emotional connection occurs first.

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