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Editors’ Note: The author earned his living for many years mediating between 20,000 scientists and working with interdisciplinary research teams. Reflecting on his career, Gadlin finds himself valuing disagreement (at least sometimes) more than agreement. Especially among scientists or other people who must think and work in teams, disagreement can spur new thinking. Developing this theme, Gadlin finds that the maintenance of productive disagreement has its own principles, and is at the heart of professional practice in an increasing number of occupations and settings which depend on developing new intellectual property.
The idea first came to me on the tennis court. I was in the midst of an exciting match marked by extended rallies in which my opponent and I were pushing each other to our limits. As the match progressed and each of us did what we could to win each point, I suddenly understood why in tennis one’s opponent is often called one’s partner. As the set went on I felt a growing connection to, and appreciation of, the person on the other side of the net. That feeling continued whether I won or lost the points. There was pleasure in the competition itself, independent of outcome, and in many ways playing well almost mattered more than winning.
Driving back to NIH from that match I was reviewing in my mind a presentation about conflict resolution I had given to a team of scientists. Although the talk was well received and seemed to address concerns such as how to deal with problematic post-docs and students, I still felt I hadn’t directly touched the matters that affect them the most. It felt as if the whole sensibility of conflict resolution was not quite right for people engaged in scientific research. That’s when the connection to tennis kicked in. Tennis is a competition, but one cannot aim to address the underlying interests of both parties because their interests (winning) are antithetical; there are no compromise solutions and the competition is the only way to get to the end of the match. In many ways, science is similar.
Scientists thrive on, and science depends upon, disagreement—productive disagreement. Previously accepted ideas get challenged and discarded; research results are questioned; facts lose their credibility and are reformulated [NDR: Adler, Negotiating Facts]; theories are updated and eventually replaced by more powerful or more elegant theories. While the conflict resolution approach I was presenting might be helpful for addressing interpersonal issues that were interfering with the scientific work in the lab, it wasn’t quite relevant to the scientific work itself. In some ways, in the field of science, the conflict is more interesting than the resolution. To be really helpful to scientists I needed to shift the focus of my presentations from techniques for resolving conflicts to approaches for creating the conditions for productive conflicts—conflicts grounded in substantive and methodological disagreements.
Getting Past Resolution
As a mediator I’ve always leaned toward a facilitative style; I pride myself on being very attentive to the dynamics of communication and power, and working to enhance disputants’ appreciation of each other’s interests and understanding of each other’s stories. Still, lurking in the background, and informing what I say and how I intervene, is watchfulness for possible solutions to the obstacles or problems that are keeping the parties from resolution. But as I worked more with scientists, especially with scientists working in complex collaborations or large scientific teams, I noticed that increasingly I was paying less attention to potential paths to resolution, because resolution no longer seemed central to our work. Instead I was focusing on how they handled and communicated about differences; differences in discipline, theoretical framework, methodology, preferred forms of data and statistical analysis, and a host of other differentiating factors. It seemed that helping to ensure that the scientists were having the same conversation was more important than where that conversation ended.
It doesn’t make sense to think about resolution if the “disputants” are not having the same conversation. This is a pivotal point. Many work disputes revolve around differences in interests and preferred outcomes. The mediator’s work often involves helping people to move beyond a narrow win-lose sensibility toward a joint problem-solving framework. However in many of the science situations with which I work, the initial framework is a problem-solving framework: they have common interests such as to develop a vaccine for a particular disease, or to identify the underlying mechanism for a particular biomedical problem or phenome....
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