As befits the eve of an eating holiday: A long spoon*

When the Nonprofiteer becomes Queen of the Universe, the following phrase will be eliminated from all discourse at, about and affiliated with nonprofit agencies:

“I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.”

Let’s examine why people use that phrase:

  • Because they have an opinion they know to be unpopular and/or stupid and/or actively revolting to their interlocutors which they’d like to express without having to accept the necessary consequences of owning that opinion, namely, the opprobrium of the people around them.  (See also those who giggle “No offense” after saying something offensive.)
  • Because they like to listen to themselves talk but don’t have anything to contribute to the conversation that hasn’t already been said better.  Solution: say something they don’t actually believe which will restart the discussion and multiply their chances of returning to the center of attention.
  • [Most relevant to the group processes and consensus-building on which nonprofits rely so heavily] Because they delight in interfering with group process and consensus-building.  Either they oppose the consensus that is building (but don’t have the balls to say so) or they’re treating the nonprofit as their personal playground instead of a forum for the completion of actual work.  Key clue?  The words “I’m just playing . . . “.

Suggestion to Executive Directors and Board Presidents: the next time you’re in a meeting and someone says, “I’m just playing devil’s advocate here,” say the following:

“Don’t.”

Suggestion to facilitators who think a roomful of people aren’t thinking about something that needs considering, or are falling into consensus so quickly that it’s not true agreement but merely groupthink: Instead of saying “I’m just playing devil’s advocate, here,” try:

“If [X circumstance] turned out to be false, would that change your mind?”

That’s a polite way of getting people to examine their assumptions without modeling “I’m just playing . . . .” and thus turning the room over to its most disruptive denizen.

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Tomorrow is the Nonprofiteer’s favorite holiday (food without religion: what could be better?).  Publication will resume on Monday, December 1; meanwhile, happy celebrations to all.

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*When you sup with the devil, bring a long spoon.”

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