Devil’s Advocate and Brutal Honesty

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“Never play the Devil’s Advocate. Your words could be the difference between success and failure in someone else.” 

Ingrid Weir

Too often I hear people say, “I’m going to play Devil’s advocate now” to which I quickly reply, “Please don’t. The Devil has too many advocates as it is.” Or they say, “I know you’re not going to like this, but I’ve just got to be brutally honest with you.” To which I quickly interrupt saying, “No, you really don’t. In fact, you don’t ever need to be brutal with anyone, over anything.” Both these and other similar sayings are a big part of today’s massive interpersonal and intra-personal struggles seen in every corner of life; politics, religion, health, money, emotions, mental states and organizationally; in any situation in which two people can engage in conversation or behaviors that impact one another.

Too often tendencies to be righteous, aggressive, pushy and to think it is our job to change and even save other people, are promoted as if normal and acceptable. Activism is much needed today but not the activism with these destructive rules in which: 

  • Anything goes, including name-calling, hatred, closed hearts 
  • Judging that others are wrong, inferior, stupid and bad 
  • Trying to fix, convert, change and heal without invitation or permission 
  • Punitive and painful behaviors launched as if viable and justifiable 

This is not the activism nor discourse needed today. There is a place for debate and intelligent dialogue but not when the dialogue and intelligence is made more important than the people and their worthiness, or their right to be respected and honored, one and all. Too many people associate being open, influential, authentic and addressing dysfunction or misalignment in thought and actions, with being mean, confrontational, and aggressive. They also frequently mistake respect, dignity and honoring with passivity. A commitment to maintain common courtesy and firmness whilebeing respectful and purposeful is always possible. 

I recently watched RBG, a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well the movie “On the Basis of Sex” on her life too. In both, I was struck by the fact that the people of greatest influence (whether you believe in their politics, philosophy or choices) have also been people who are strong in their convictions while refusing to aggressively dehumanize or bulldoze over anyone in order to live up to their convictions. Take Ginsburg’s friendship with fellow judge Scalia, including the warmth and professionalism they both have exhibited for years, despite traditional divides that remain between them. Consider her marriage to Marty Ginsburg, in which two such different people made sure to help one another become wildly successful, despite conventional norms of the day.

I would love to see activism (so important in our world) that follows guidelines proven to bring about positive changes that are powerful and lasting while being harmless, with the following non-negotiable guidelines. These are the hallmarks of powerful, activists who are emotionally intelligent and courageous. They are the Ginsberg’s, Winfrey’s, Covey’s, Maxwell’s, Sinek’s and Brown’s of today and the Gandhi’s, MLK’s, Mother Teresa’s, Dalai Lama’s and Nelson Mandela’s (to name just a few from all times possible) among us. These people seem extraordinary but they are not. They are:

  • Mentally and emotionally mature and well, committed to be consistently strong and loving 
  • Seeking to understand 
  • Resisting judging, fixing, healing, converting and over-powering people without invitation or permission 
  • Respecting, acting trustworthy, and offering compassion and curiosity no matter what someone shares, believes or does
  • Listening without arguing and refusing to exercise power-over, power-under; win/lose behaviors
  • Fully informed and well-educated on the issues that matter to them
  • Asking respectfully to be heard by others, without demands
  • Regrouping again and again (with those who agree and those who do not) until trust is strong and solutions organically emerge

The world needs emotionally and socially responsible leaders. These leaders are sometimes students in grade school or high school or those cleaning the bathroom every day. In fact, every one of us is called to be the best leader and the best follower too, so that together, we are able to build courage in one another. We need each other to face today’s challenges, speed of change and uncertainty. Won’t you join me in being an advocate for good, and honest in a way that builds up the people in your workplace, home and communities? All you need are the human systems to pull it off. I’m here to help!

You see it all around you; people in reactive exchanges that do extensive damage without realizing how they got there, the repercussions, nor how to improve their relationships run amok. These exchanges put us into our flight, fight or freeze, reptilian brain, and then our ability to plan, organize, regulate, or to inhibit negative impulses, becomes compromised. We are unable to learn, grow and improve anything, and for a significant amount of time (at least 20 minutes per each incident) we lose touch with our wisdom.

As cortisol, adrenaline and stress hormones flood the brain, we grab onto fearful ideas like “I must fight,” “I must win,” “I must protect myself because others can’t be trusted,” and “I must convert, fix, change, heal and punish those who don’t think, speak or act like I do.” These beliefs and the survival-driven behaviors that accompany them, are not just impacting people on a physical level; they cost teamwork, productivity and profitability in businesses too. What’s the answer?

Making sense: Everything starts with an individual’s need to make sense to him or herself. Without this, one cannot heal nor understand what has, and may continue to happen today, related to psychological safety, dignity and self-respect. Imagine you experienced trauma in your past (as an adult and as a child) that remains hidden, unrecognized, unexplained and unresolved. You could not tie your experience to commonly described abuse like beatings, alcoholism, molestation, etc. and you did not have a caring person who connected with you in a compassionate way, nor helped you process your feelings and experiences in a healing way during and afterwards.

These hidden traumas then became triggers in you, that can be activated by customers, co-workers and authority figures. The negative impacts you experience then become like a contagious illness that sweeps your workplace and bewilders all in its path. You learned to cover your traumas with a mask, while a deep sense of confusion, self-doubt and low self-worth remained within you.

Psychological safety. Out of internalized misunderstanding, unresolved events, and resultant pain and shame, combined with current culture practices based in fear, comes aggression and struggles (internal and external) and misunderstandings. Experts say people who lack experiences of honoring, dignity and respect during and after unresolved events, tend to project self-loathing onto others and then reject, punish and banish them in an attempt to make some semblance of what’s happened resolve.

Your people need opportunities to learn emotional intelligence skills, and gain tools and support to resolve their problems (old and new). When you as a leader provide such in your workplace, you help them understand and process (heal) experiences from the past that show up each day, so they are able to grow strong and assist you in the growth of your organization and in meeting your business objectives while better fulfilling their life’s purposes at the same time. 

A Teal organizational model. As a business leader, it’s imperative you help your people by providing them with a culture that fosters dignity, honor and respect for all. No one need become therapists to create psychological safety. The systems you choose can help all to feel valued, calm, and skillful in the face of any and every challenge. That’s very powerful.

To do this, I encourage you to learn about and create a Teal organizational model that promotes trustworthiness as foundational and where power-over and power-under (aka, hierarchy) is replaced with shared power and high, social interest and purpose. Wholeness is nurtured in all, by all, creating the agility needed in today’s complex and rapidly changing world with all its uncertainty. Your people need you to help them, and you may need me to help you. I’m happy to help!

As published by Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, June 2019

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