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A little Background first: Due to events in my past I am very self aware and practiced a lot, trying to understand motivations of others without letting my personal views/motivation induce bias into that thought process.

I dare to say I became very good at this, and am able to just on the run initiate a thought process, totally detached from my own views1.

I am someone who likes having discussions. Be it political, philosophical or what ever else I feel like.

In such discussions it often happens that someone says something like:

I can't see why anyone would want/expect/support/[...] that.

And this is a sentence I often hear and that somewhat triggers me. As I find it intolerant. So I usually, either already have a few examples of why an fictitious person would, or it takes me just a few seconds to set my self into a fictitious person and finding reasons why someone would. And then I just come up with that explanation. The point is, the easiest views to come up with, are the most extreme, as they usually have their origin in fears of what ever. So most often my responses go along lines like:

Well, I could see, that an [arbitrary extremist] would want/expect/support/[...] that, as imagine you would...

And then I start explaining the view point with the given influences such a person would have, and after that I keep having the discussion from this fictitious persons point of view, as I want the other person to understand, its emotions driving people to such points of view, and you can't take them their fear by just telling them their emotions are wrong. You need to understand their emotions first to be able to make them understand that their emotions are a fallacy.

That in itself is fine I think and I really enjoy having these kinds of discussions.

But what I just figured recently was, that the "Well, I could see, that an[...]" introduction for such a thought experiment seems to not be enough.

As I realized, most people having had such a discussion with me actually think that I am homophobic/left extreme/right extreme/sexist or who knows what other view frames I already presented. And that's the problem, as I am definitely nothing of that.

So, how can I have such discussions, where I detach my own views and adopt the view of a fictitious person and arguing from that perspective, without running risk the other person might assume this actually IS my personal view?


1Having achieved learned this skill, made me also a very tolerant person. And with this I mean not tolerant towards something but to everyone/everything, as I rarely can't find motivations for any point of view. What is part of the reason why the problem of this OP bugs me.

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    If people are thinking that you are homophobic / left extreme etc. in these discussions, how well do they know you (assuming your views differ from the 'hypothetical person' you create)? Are you avoiding giving your own personal opinion entirely? – user8671 Feb 19 at 12:29
  • @Kozaky: How well they do know that, I can't really say. As they aren't bringing it up, but I observed recently there seem to be assumption towards me by them, being inline with views I adopted before in discussions with them. Also note, that I just start this thought process when being in a vivid and open minded discussion so the people I am talking about usually wouldn't judge me for what ever views I had nor would they be people not liking having discussions generally. – dhein Feb 19 at 12:50
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    This seems like a very similar question: How can I play devil's advocate in politics without being attacked? – Em C Feb 19 at 13:39
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    @Philipp: Could you at least possibly leave a note, why you disagree with previous comments? I mean it makes a reasonable difference, if we are considering having such conversations with partially strangers, what the linked post is about, or with close acquaintance / friends, you know who like having these kind of discussions. Also the goal is different in "not want to be attacked" which in my case is almost given for sure, and here the goal hence more is about "not leaving a wrong impression". – dhein Feb 20 at 6:09
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Two things. First, to answer your question, you need only to use "they" a little more, and toss in the odd parenthetical. For example, when someone says "anyone who would vote for X is clearly just stupid, there is no other reason" you might respond:

Perhaps some of them have [been laid off, seen their families persecuted, whatever] and that has left them more sensitive to [issue.] Then they believe what X says about fixing that, even though it seems unbelievable to you and me, and so they vote that way.

You can then discuss what would make someone believe something unbelievable whether that's wish-fulfillment, the psychological tricks in X's advertising, or whatever. By always saying "they" instead of "well, if I was such a person I would" you reinforce that you don't believe these things yourself. By putting in side comments like (wrongly) or (unlike you and me) you remind them that you are only thinking about the other person's position, not sharing it.

But my second thing. I get a real sense from your question that this is a fun intellectual game for you, a use of your powers to think and imagine, and that you enjoy it a lot. When a person who is gay says "how can anyone object to same sex marriage" and their friend says "oh, sure, no problem, here are 10 terrific reasons to think same sex marriage is terrible!" that gay person is not enjoying the intellectual fun of imagining people's motivations. Same if a person of colour asks about racists or a persecuted person in general asks about persecutions. You might need a little more empathy to understand the asymmetry in these conversations: what to you might be an interesting exercise in debate and critical thinking might be to another person a repudiation not just of their opinions, but of their right to exist as themselves. It sounds like that's sort of what's happening to you. So be sure to adjust your speaking to show your real position of support and love (tolerance? Do you tolerate a sunset? We only tolerate things that are actually not ok but we've decided to put up with) for your friends.

That might mean going further than above and leading with something like:

I've thought about that a lot, because it's so clearly wrong to [thing] yet people do it. I think perhaps that they might...

If there is a heated discussion while you're "sticking up for" or defending a position that isn't just in disagreement with the other person's opinions, but is more like "you should have less rights than me", be sure to keep coming back to "I feel you should have all the same rights as me. I think what motivates the people who disagree with us is..." rather than staying "in character" all the time. You don't need to do this while you're arguing about whether to pour the milk or the tea first into the cup, but you should when it's understanding why people are not as tolerant (or even supportive and celebratory) as you are of others.

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    Hey, I like your answer but I would add "(but I could be wrong)" after "But my second thing. I get a real sense from your question". Because, if you are wrong, the OP might be hurt by your assumption which isn't what we want. – Ælis Feb 19 at 13:22
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    @Kate Gregory: You are totally right that this in fact is an intellectual game I enjoy playing. I see your point, and this is a good answer. But I will have to digest first what you wrote and will later have a few questions for clarification. As a) I never was considering the point, that even if it is not my views, the other person might not enjoy hearing this. And b) I am not sure if your answer is applicable without adding side notes about my personal views. As that's something I usually try to avoid for reasons, irrelevant to my OP. But I totally like the idea of using "they" instead of "I" – dhein Feb 19 at 13:37
  • But still @Ælis first comment holds true, that this might have been hurtfull if your assumption would have been wrong ^^ – dhein Feb 19 at 13:38
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    Excellent answer! This isn't enough for a new one, but I wanted to suggest that the I can't see why [X] construction is usually not literally what the speaker means- it's often a statement about the strength of their disagreement. They generally can imagine conditions which might produce a given view, but what they are saying is that they don't find any of those imagined points at all convincing, to the point that they find it strange that someone would persist in that belief. Not every time, of course, but often it's mildly colorful phrasing mixed with some hyperbole. – Upper_Case Feb 19 at 14:02
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    @KateGregory: And it isn't the "breaking character" being the problem here. I had no problem with doing that. But I have a problem with giving others an idea of my personal views, if it is not being requested. I allways feel when doing that, as if the other might perceive me like I just want them to sympathize with me. And hence it feels like faking for me, despite as said, I know it isn't neccesarily. (except for the times, I in fact share some of the views of the character I am playing what could happen, aswell) – dhein Feb 21 at 6:24
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I do what you're trying to do all the time, and the simple answer is that there is no foolproof way to distance yourself from the people who's point you're arguing. It's called playing the devil's advocate, and you can't do that without advocating for the devil.

In a perfect world, you would never have to explain yourself. Being able to argue both sides of an argument is crucial to understanding it in the first place. Unfortunately, much of today's population believes that even understanding the opposing side means that you side with them.

That said, I have picked up a few tips over the years.

First off, like Ed Grimm suggested, make it blatantly obvious that you only know these things because you have talked to others who believe it, or you've researched alternate points of view. In fact, the second sentence Ed suggests is a staple in any of my conversations (repeating it here so you don't have to scroll down):

I feel it's important to understand why someone would hold a different opinion. I've talked with a lot of people from the other side, and what I found was

This works in a lot of situations, because it says in no uncertain terms that you are not the person who holds those beliefs.

Second, make sure you use third person pronouns as frequently as possible. And I don't mean in place of first-person pronouns, I mean everywhere you can. Just like in your original post, use "They" and "some people" and "the idea is that ..." This can play a big part, by just subtly reminding your audience constantly that you are not talking about yourself.

Lastly, here's the biggest one for me. Point out the flaws in the logic you are describing. The people that you need to use these tricks on are already incredibly single minded, I tend to find. Anything you say that goes against their beliefs elicits a bad response, and anything that conforms to their worldview makes them happy. So, if you slip in a few asides about why the extremist logic doesn't make sense (even if the aside is utter garbage and you actually know a counter-counter-argument for the counter-argument), the person listening is more likely to view you as a rational person and not an extremist.

The most important thing to remember is that you are never going to change anyone's mind, not without a lot of work. It's possible, but not in the time frame of a few conversations. Sometimes you just need to pick your battles and, depending on who you are with, bite your tongue and say "yeah, some people are crazy". You aren't usually going to win the argument in a satisfying way. Playing the Devil's advocate is a useful skill, but take care not to do it too much. Eventually you'll start being associated with him.

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Couching your statements is important. Before I try the stunt you're talking about, I'll say something like

To be able to come up with a stance more people can agree to, I feel it's important that we consider various opposing viewpoints.

or

I feel it's important to understand why someone would hold a different opinion. I've talked with a lot of people from the other side, and what I found was

A couching phrase doesn't have to be this long or formal. But what it does need to do is distance what you're about to say from yourself. Saying that you're imagining the person holding this view tells them that you came up with this thought that they find so repugnant.

Don't get me wrong. Just because you've couched your statements a particular way isn't a magic answer that lets you say anything you want without repercussions. But couching the conversation like this, and always being certain to attribute the views to "them", "the people I've talked with", and similar entities, you can say a lot more without it being treated as your views. Of special note, "my friends in the opposing party" is not a similar entity; using the word friends asserts a sense of camaraderie that most politically minded people will not trust someone they don't know well to have with the other faction.

It's also important to know how to discuss things with those you're discussing things. If you can't have a civil debate with them on a topic where you actually have a well considered position different from theirs, they are not strongly tied to their position, and you feel comfortable admitting the position you hold, you're probably not going to do well at being a devil's advocate. It's fine to practice either skill first, but the two are related. You can't reasonably expect to be able to argue with someone without consequences by claiming you're just playing devil's advocate if you don't have the verbal skill to discuss without negative consequences normally.

Explaining what I've learned of the other people's views is not something I do with strangers, as a general rule. The closest I've come to this is discussing things on an online forum, where I know all of the regulars but people I don't know could theoretically chime in at any time. I have done this on World of Warcraft, back in the day, but that was a fruitless exercise. I left WoW sometime around the point where I realized there was no way to have a civil discussion with many of those people, full stop.

There are times when I'm out in public and I witness somebody being impatient with someone or something, and I might make a single comment to try to get them to take a step back and realize that maybe other people are other people, with different life experiences and priorities. But I've had enough bad experiences doing that, it's generally something I say on my way out of wherever they are, and I don't stick around to discuss anything. In those instances, I do not make the couching statement; I'll say something more like what Kate Gregory suggested, but shorter. That said, I try to pay attention to my audience still; most of the people around here seem to react poorly to "perhaps", as if it's somehow a fancier word than "maybe".


To make my position clear: I don't play devil's advocate for fun, except with my closest friends with whom it's simply enough for one of us to announce we're doing devil's advocate. For me, outside of that core group, it's a very serious thing. I feel understanding why other people hold the views they have is a necessary part of understanding people and the ramifications of political decisions. I also understand why a lot of people don't do it; it's a lot of work, and it requires talking with a lot of people. As someone on the autistic spectrum, talking with a lot of people is difficult for me.

I'll also admit that I'm not intentionally adopting a fictitious person's views for my discussions. I don't have names to go along with the views in most cases, and if I do have a name to go along with the view, I'm certainly not going to share it. I generally don't use online conversations for this, because it's difficult to tell what are people's real beliefs versus what are statements of trolls, and "friendly trolls" are much harder to spot online.

  • Interesting answer. I have 2 Questions. First, could you give a bit more insight on experiences you made with this? Cause if I am just imagining doing it this way. such a "couching" phrase feels like that would be a bit overloaded for the conversations I was asking this about. It feels like I would put the conversation in a more serious manner than it was supposed to be. But I totally am open for the idea, that I am wrong here. And 2nd question: What you refer to with the last 2 paragraphs? I am not sure I can see the connection to your answer. – dhein Mar 19 at 6:12
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    I've attempted to update my answer per your comment's first question. As for the second, the last two paragraphs are intended to describe where I'm coming into this from, which is a very different place than you are. Based on your question, it feels to you like this is a game you like to play and would prefer if people don't get mad at you for playing it. I'm coming from a very different place, which could affect how applicable my answer is to you. – Ed Grimm Mar 22 at 3:29
  • Ah, I see. Thanks for your effort. I am gonna check it and let you know if there should be further questions :) – dhein Mar 22 at 5:07

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