By Ben Kaplan

Founder + CEO, PR Hacker

In 1587, during the reign of Pope Sixtus V, the Roman Catholic Church established a special and influential office holder.  Empowered to argue against the merits of a proposed candidate for sainthood, this official’s duty was to challenge the candidate’s character, take a skeptical view of the miracles attributed to the would-be saint and poke holes in the supportive religious evidence.
 
This official came to be known by a simple, yet ominous, Latin name:  advocatus diaboli.  And in this way, the first official “devil’s advocate” was born.
 
These days, the concept of a devil’s advocate is less religious and more metaphorical in nature: If a person chooses to argue an opposing position—even if he or she doesn’t necessarily agree with that position—we say the person is “playing devil’s advocate.”  This person may do so to enhance the quality of the debate or help identify and bolster weak spots in conventional thinking.
 
Taken to extremes, however, the self-appointed devil’s advocate has the potential to be destructive. Have you ever met someone who seems to revel in opposing anything and everything you propose?  Upon hearing your inspired idea for a new project, this overly eager devil’s advocate may immediately start poking holes in your raw, early-stage enthusiasm and thought process. Instead of embracing the idea and contributing to its logical development, this uninvited guest can kill the personal momentum you’ve built up with a single judgmental remark or bit of unsolicited advice.
 
Learning how to handle those who might impede you progress is an important life skill, whether you're just starting out your career or starting your third business.  Here are three strategies that have proved helpful for me.
 

1.  Identify your best early-stage supporters

 
In the original conception by the Roman Catholic Church, the devil’s advocate was opposed by the advocatus dei or the “God’s advocate.”  This formidable individual was charged with making a powerful and compelling argument in favor of a candidate’s sainthood.
 
Similarly, in our 21st century lives, we need to identify those individuals who possess the enthusiasm, insights and open-minded attitude to best support our cause.
 
So who are the friends, peers, mentors, and family members in your life who see future possibilities rather than current limitations?  Who are the individuals with a contagious creative energy?
 

2.  Build an instant critical mass

 
Once we’ve identified these key supporters, it’s time to get them on speed dial.  In my experience, being able to talk over an idea before the initial excitement has faded away makes all of the difference.  
 
If much time elapses between idea creation and discussion, I’ve found, it becomes far too easy to practice a dangerous form of self-censorship.  Without timely positive reinforcement, we start to wonder if our ideas are foolish, impractical or unattainable and our creative spirit loses steam.
 
That’s why on those occasions when I’m personally struck by a lighting bolt of inspiration, I drop whatever I’m doing at the moment and call my dad within minutes to discuss the concept.  The back-and-forth brainstorming sessions that result help transform my ideas into the critical mass they need to survive—even after the initial adrenaline rush wears off.
 

3.  Change the conversation

 
No matter what you do, you can’t help but encounter an abundance of devil’s advocates among your friends, family, and co-workers.  Many of these people may mean well and have important perspectives to share at some point, but they may not have the temperament, listening skills or tactfulness to choose the appropriate time to offer this advice.
 
If you sense the conversation spiraling downward, steer the conversation upward to areas where you might have more common ground.  Explain that you are in the brainstorming phase right now and intend to consider all possibilities before making any judgments.  Let them know that you’ll be back for more critical comments when the time is right.
 
Whatever happens, remember that self-appointed devils advocates specialize in negativity. If your’e told that your ideas are impractical or odds of success impossible, remember that you’ve just described every great success story. 

About Ben Kaplan

Ben Kaplan is a best-selling author, popular speaker, and CEO of PR Hacker — the world's fastest growing viral marketing firm. He has been featured on more than 5,000 TV and radio shows including appearances on Oprah, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, NPR, and the BBC.

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