Adam Grant

Charlan Nemeth at Berkeley […] finds is that people aren’t actually persuaded by devil’s advocates most of the time. One, they don’t argue forcefully enough because they don’t really believe the position: it’s “All right, I’m going to play a role here. I’ve checked the box, and now I can go right back to the majority view.”

And then, second, even if they do argue with passion and conviction, their audiences tend not to believe them because they know, “Yeah, that guy’s just playing a role.” So how do you get dissenting opinions? The answer from Nemeth is that we need to do a much better job not assigning devil’s advocates but unearthing them.

Find somebody who genuinely holds a different opinion and invite them into the conversation. Look for the person who’s in the silent minority and ask them, “What do you think?” Go out of your way to figure out who has a contrarian view on the topic that you’re debating, and ask that person to present the view, and give them a chance to prepare for it.

Many leaders will say to that, “Look, I get it. It’s important to hear dissenters, but what if they’re wrong?” Well, Nemeth has a wonderful answer to this. Dissent is useful even when it’s wrong. She shows that if you have a majority preference, which is incorrect, and then you have somebody argue for a minority opinion, which is also wrong, you increase the probability of getting to the right answer anyway.

Because when somebody brings in a divergent thought it forces the group to step back and say, “Let’s review our assumptions. Let’s look at all the criteria on the table for this decision.” Then they’re much more likely to get to a good answer or a novel possibility that they hadn’t seen before.

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