Contrarian or Jerk?

March 5, 2018

Originally published in AllSides

Debilyn Molineaux, AllSides

We all know them — and we may be them. Who? People who seem to tear down every idea, project or dream we’ve been carefully crafting and protecting. Us dreamers are gonna dream — and to make dreams a reality, we actually need the contrarians in our lives to help us. The challenge we have today is distinguishing between the contrarians, whose intention is to challenge us and our ideas to help us improve them; and the jerks, who think they look smart by pointing out our deficiencies and tearing everything apart.

Maybe we’re a little of both.

Back when I was new to nonprofit board service, my perception of a really good leader was the lack of conflict within the board. This meant that we all shared the same opinion and could act quickly on decisions we made. It was very efficient.

Then it was my turn to be the President of the board. And I had one board member that reliably disagreed with everyone else. Every. Single. Time. On. Every. Single. Thing.  I had a choice to make. While I was tempted to ask for her resignation, I was also curious about WHY she saw the need to disagree with the rest of the board. Other board members were also grumbling. So I invited her to lunch. I shared my observation with her and just asked, “why do you do this?”  She replied: “I think it is my responsibility as a board member to represent the people who are not in the room and share their viewpoint, as I know it.  I want the actions we take to be better.”


In that moment, our relationship was transformed. Moving forward, I would regularly share ideas with her before the meeting and give her the opportunity to present other viewpoints, poke holes in the discussion and share her best ideas. We would modify proposals prior to the meetings and they were better for her input. Together, we were able to harness the healthy power of her contrarian nature to produce better results. 

What is it that makes some people jerks? Imagine if I had asked her to leave the board — as if her intention to improve our actions was blocked and even punished? Have you ever had your contribution blocked as unwanted?  Your ideas discarded as invalid, because you “rocked the boat?”  What did you do with that energy? Hmmm.  I usually become a jerk for a little while, as a means to vent my hurt feelings. But it passes.

And yet, there are people who just want to appear to be the smartest person in the room. And they will use many tools to maintain this appearance. Below is a list of recognizable jerk tools. I know them well — from personal experience. Here is a partial list.

  • Sarcasm
  • Leading questions
  • Mocking
  • Willful ignorance
  • Unwilling to consider another perspective
  • “I’m right” attitude
  • Walking away if winning isn’t an option

When you shared your latest dream, did you meet up with a contrarian? Or a jerk? My advice is to welcome the contrarian and avoid the jerk. Do you have a project or dream that needs to be tested? Or are you afraid to share your ideas with anyone who might seem critical? Many of our dreams are unfulfilled because we don’t share them with others and go through this vetting process. We treat all criticism as if it comes from jerks.  But maybe that contrarian in your life is actually trying to help.

To all the contrarians in my life, thank you. And I’m sorry if I became a jerk when you wanted to help me.