The devil doesn’t need an advocate.

People who act like they are bringing value to a conversation by adding only the negative without an alternative are fooling themselves. For the most part, as I have listened to hundreds of these “contributions” over time, the commentary is just a restating of the obvious hurdle that everyone in the room already sees.

This does not mean that there should not be vigorous debate on new initiatives, strategy or even tactics, but it must be constructive and value-adding for it to be relevant.

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If you are in a situation where you are faced by someone behaving like a devil’s advocate or are tempted to be one yourself, here’s my recommendation:

  • State the facts and end with your recommended course of action – The simple ending of your statement would be “…and therefore, I think we should do …” If it is someone else, ask them to complete the statement, “…and therefore, what do you think we should do?” Don’t let commentary hang in the room as valuable without the person committing to an idea.
  • Summarize with alternatives rather than just opinions on others’ alternatives– If you cannot offer alternatives, shut up. If someone else is not offering alternatives, but only commentary, ask them to summarize and offer alternatives. This will usually shut them up if they do not have any, or get them to offer alternatives which will be very valuable.
  • Don’t allow looping – Often discussions of course of action devolve into looping back to previous arguments. Be the person in the room who insists on progress, new options, and decisions. Once you recognize looping, stop it and force a choice to be made. This may include assigning a group to getting additional data to bring to the conversation which is still progress.

All of us have been a part of this type of dialogue. Leadership means being the one that kills the behaviors that are killing the meeting or group.

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