Three cheers for contrarians

While many of us avoid conflict, there are braver souls who can’t help but disagree with friends, colleagues or experts. As Jackie Hunter discovers, there’s a real value in being prepared to go against conventional wisdom

You’d be hard pushed to find a woman who doesn’t worship Coco Chanel — it’s her we have to thank, after all, for making trousers, T-shirts and little black dresses both chic and indispensable. In transforming women’s fashion, she transformed our lives. Whether we would have welcomed her as a friend, however, is a different matter. Despite being capable of great charm and wit, Chanel was remembered by her friends as proud, angry, sarcastic, mean and exasperating. She belonged to that breed of people who manage to inspire, impress, confound and infuriate us all at the same time: the contrarians.

Most of us have encountered such people, and even if you haven’t yet, you’ll know when it happens, because whatever you say, they’ll automatically say the opposite. It’s a personality trait that is virtually impossible to hide. Although contrarians may behave in similar ways, American psychologist Robert Sternberg points out that not all contrarians are the same.

There’s a spectrum of behaviour, ranging from the person who’s irritated by consensus and bureaucracy, to the type who thinks rules are made to be broken and the counter-intuitive thinker whose intelligence gives them a different perspective on life. ‘The more creative a person is, the more contrarian they are likely to be,’ says Sternberg. ‘There are also, though, contrarians who aren’t creative, they’re just disagreeable. And there are those who get their self-esteem from being contrary.’

Advertising creative Vivien, 32, has a talent for daring and original ideas. But her attitude has raised eyebrows in the office. ‘When our team is brainstorming a project I often get inspiration quickly,’ she says. ‘I’ll visualise the concept in my head and feel compelled to describe it all on the spot, no matter who else is talking. I also find it hard to keep quiet when colleagues are discussing ideas that I think won’t work.’ She admits to feeling bemused at the muted response to her interjections, but fails to realise she comes across as arrogant rather than creative and enthusiastic.

According to psychologist Sandi Mann, there is not always an intention to be obstinate or gratuitously provocative. We may see contrarians as devil’s advocates, she says, but their off-kilter opinions are often given in earnest, not just for the sake of putting across another point of view. ‘They have great talent for seeing things from another angle, are good problem-solvers and creative thinkers, unafraid to trust their judgment.’

Vivien’s colleagues were initially wary of her. ‘My manager championed my ideas, but in private she warned me I should be more subtle and focus on teamwork, or I’d alienate myself. I’m now trying to make myself more useful as a problem-
solver, rather than as a knee-jerk nay-sayer.’

There is an art to being a contrarian in a conventional-thinking world. Counter-intuitive thinkers often stumble over inter-
personal relationships, says Karl Albrecht, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science Of Success. ‘Often they haven’t [acquired] the tactical skills of developing their ideas. They tend to blurt them out, making them hard to accept, or else they disagree with others in a clumsy way.’

Albrecht confesses to being ‘something of a contrarian’ himself, but has learned to rely on the vital tool of social intelligence. ‘It’s not so much contrarian thinking that’s difficult as the way it’s put forward,' he says. 'It can be intimidating.’

So how do you exercise your counter-intuitive mind without infuriating or alienating others? Albrecht advises that when you have an unusual idea you need to formulate it before sharing it. Recall the language and references the other person has used and echo them. And learn to take it in your stride when people criticise your ideas.

We non-contrarians have work to do, too, because contrarians challenge us to be more patient. Before saying ‘I don’t agree…’, says Albrecht, we should pause, listen and think. For example, if your partner says, ‘Let’s go to Paris for the weekend’ when you’re frantic at work, the temptation is to scream, ‘Are you crazy?’. But to stimulate your high-level thinking — the process that lets your brain explore an issue — you need to resist this knee-jerk response. Take a moment to think, says Albrecht, and your considered reaction may be, ‘OK, Paris is only a couple of hours away, it’s not so crazy after all’.

Life with a contrarian is always stimulating, but it comes with conflict, says Sternberg. For some, that’s a good thing and even an expression of love. ‘If you’re both argumentative, the relationship can work really well, although you both need to get the same charge out of arguing for it to work.’ But beware of getting into a verbal battle with a contrarian just to shut them up, he warns.

‘Sometimes you argue back, thinking you’re defending your rights and leading to a good outcome for yourself, but all the other person wants is attention for their  position. Even if you resolve issue A, issue B will follow and then C and D. You have to ask yourself if it is more about the process than about resolving an issue. The way to extinguish their behaviour, if you can’t live with it, is by ignoring it rather than reinforcing it.

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