Playing Devil’s Advocate. Question Everything
I get consistently told that I’m a grouch. A stick-in-the-mud and around the festive season a Scrooge. In fact, it got so bad at my last workplace that they called me “Scowls” on account of my alleged constant whining.
I’ll admit that some of this is valid. I don’t like certain things and I’m fine with letting people know, but with that aside I’d like to present an alternative view. Perhaps I’m not whining, but just campaigning for things to be what I’d consider fair and just. It’s possible that I’m looking to see things improve and being vocal about my thoughts in this way helps me collate my thoughts on the entire thing. Quite often, in fact, a good whine (if done correctly) can produce potential solutions. The other possibility is that I’m also playing Devil’s advocate. In fact, it’s very likely to be a combination of all of these things.
I think, to temporarily side with the opposition (or consider alternative, potentially opposing views) is a thoroughly healthy (and from my point of view, actively encouraged) part of the decisions making process. Especially when it comes to design and similar disciplines.
When you have a discussion with someone about anything, and there’s opposing viewpoints, or when you have a point to make, the one key (and likely beneficial) thing that you can do before you hammer home your point with sheer conviction is consider the opposing viewpoint. Take a second to really place yourself within the opposition’s way of thinking and look at the merits of their argument.
I often feel a huge amount of people can forget that they’re not always right. It can be a hard thing for people to swallow. Ultimately we’re all human, and can easily get things wrong (or what some might consider wrong, if “wrong” even exists!), and our brain has a way of convincing us that there’s really no possible way we could be wrong when presenting our opinion. As soon as someone challenges this notion, or presents an opposing view, we automatically assume that they are the ones that must be incorrect.
But why not look at it for a second under the notion that what you had originally thought was actually completely wrong, and that the opposite or alternative was correct. Now, obviously not everything is crystal clear in black and white, but you can apply this to your relevant situations accordingly. Assume you’re incorrect or off the mark. Assume that the other person’s point is as valid and deep rooted, as well as delivered with as much conviction as yours. What now?
Well you may find that it forces you to re-asses your situation. You might realise that part or all of your argument was in fact wrong or misguided. You may notice something fundamental that you hadn’t previously considered. There’s a huge range of things you could find out or notice. Yes, you may also realise that your point of view was indeed correct as first thought, but that’s not really what this exercise is about.
If someone else is involved, this is partially an exercise in empathy. It’s also partly diplomacy and often helps you formulate better justification (or at least relevant justification) for your decisions or viewpoint.
Also this doesn’t have to be an external practice. You don’t have to have an argument or discussion with someone to practice this. You can constantly question yourself. Why are you doing certain things? Why did you select one thing over another? You will no doubt make a huge number of decisions every day that you could momentarily consider.
I realise in writing this, how simple this sounds to do and “yeah but I’ve been doing this already” type discussions will no doubt prevail, as well as those who will assume that they do this by default when having an argument or making a decision – and of course, to an extent no doubt you do. But how seriously do you take it? How much do you really consider the merits of an opposing viewpoint or decision? I’ll bet not as much as you think.
The reason I’m imploring people to do this more often is because I hope it’ll force more people to think beyond their own boundaries. It’ll push people outside the box. I think it’s something that can be applied at any level of thinking from huge decisions down to tiny ones, and I think it can be applied to any discipline, whether you are a postman, or a designer. (That said, as a postman, you should probably not be challenging things like whether or not to deliver my mail.) Some of the most incredible design has been produced through breaking convention and through challenging preconceived notions. Some of the most thought provoking art has been reactionary or created through opposition. Often refreshing ideas are the ones that metaphorically turn a situation on it’s head.
Clearly certain things are going to be a dead cert. When asking whether or not to put your Speedos on when going for a swim in public, or asking whether or not to attach the harness when you go bungee jumping, then the answer should be perfectly clear. But let’s say you’re deciding on a background colour for a design. Have you considered the other colours, or did you jump to the first thing you thought of? What about when you decide on what PPC (Pay Per Click) keywords to bid on and how much to spend? What about if you’re managing someone and they have a contentious issue with another member of staff? I could go on.
What I’m getting at is a desire to challenge everything. Not in a deconstructive way, and you don’t have to be openly vocal about it all the time (that might not do you any favours) but at least re-consider your decisions. Question everything. Challenge your own instinct. Play Devil’s advocate.
This post was originally written for the QueryClick blog.
About The Author: Alex Cowles
A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.