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Contrary Voices


The Greek Sophists taught their followers the importance of Antilogike, the ability to argue both sides of an issue. This concept is still being taught by law professors and debate team coaches. Ancient Sophists taught Antilogike out of a belief that truth is relative. Law professors and debate coaches teach the technique in order to win arguments. Leaders should understand both sides of an issue to evaluate their own opinions. Effective leaders make a habit of questioning and testing their own assumptions and biases; they seek out and listen to contrary voices.

In modern organizations, as in modern society, many issues facing leaders do not have clear-cut solutions. H.L. Mencken put it well, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” To more fully understand the complex problems they face, leaders must question their own assumptions and biases. In an earlier column, I mentioned confirmation bias, which is our tendency to seek out and interpret information in a way that supports our preconceived beliefs. While we’re all susceptible, confirmation bias is especially damaging to leaders. Openly seeking and considering contrary opinions help leaders overcome confirmation bias.

When we listen (and I mean really listen) to those who hold opinions contrary to our own, there are three potential outcomes, all of which are positive. One possibility is that you drastically change your opinion; in other words, you discover that you’re wrong. In my experience, this rarely happens immediately upon hearing a contrary voice. It’s more likely to occur over time. A second possibility is that you adjust your position; you are partially right. On the surface, you might think that a leader who changes or adjusts her or his opinion might be weak or indecisive. On the contrary, leaders who are willing to change their positions based on new information are more effective. Is it better to change your position, or to stubbornly cling to a wrong position? Few would argue for the latter. Leaders who listen to and consider contrary voices are smart enough to know that they are not omniscient. They are willing to learn. The third possible outcome is increased confidence in your position. The experience of listening to and considering contrary voices strengthens the foundation of your belief. In addition, you better understand the contrary view, which is helpful when advocating for your position.

In the spirit of listening to a variety of opinions, from 9 a.m. until noon on Thursday, Nov. 7, Alliance Bank Business Outreach Center, which is a division of The W.A. Franke College of Business, will hold its 38th Annual Economic Outlook Conference. This year’s keynote speaker is former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. Secretary Reich is currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkley. Professor Reich is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Financial Times. NAU economists Ron Gunderson and Dennis Foster, and Elliot Pollack, CEO of Elliot D. Pollock & Company will offer their views on the economy.

For more information or to register, call 928-523-3322, email or visit the conference website: FBN


The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to approximately 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Please email me:



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