How are you around disagreement?  Is it something you avoid like the plague? Does it give you the gitters? What would it feel like to seek out actively people who disagree with you? What impact would this have on your thinking?

These issues are the focus of a Ted Talk given by Margaret Heffernan. Whether you are a researcher, clinician or manager it is well worth 12 minutes of your time to listen. Within this short time she covers: the challenges of being a female scientist in the mid 1950s; the time taken to move evidence into practice; the formulation of a model for research collaboration; the positive impact of constructive disagreement on organisational development.

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It is fitting in the week of International Women’s Day that the talk is set within the context of the work and achievements of Dr Alice Stewart. Dr Stewart was a medic and only the ninth female to become a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. She worked as an epidemiologist and, through her work, documented the link between childhood leukaemia and mothers exposure to X-rays during pregnancy. You can gain a greater insight into her work and the challenges she faced in this obituary in the Guardian.

Whilst the biographical information about Alice Stewart is interesting it is the description of her working relationship with the statistician and collaborator George Kneale that really caught my attention. His role in the collaboration was described thus, ‘My job is to prove Dr Stewart wrong……. to actively seek disconfirmation and create conflict around her theories.’

However, the sentence which made me pause and think was this,‘ to actively seek thinking collaborators and partners who aren’t echo chambers’. How often do I think in an echo chamber? How often do I seek out actively a thinking partner who will constructively challenge my perspective, view point or data?

Reframing disagreement.

Margaret Heffernan goes on to describe the need to seek out consciously people who are different from ourselves, from different backgrounds, with different ways of thinking. This is congruent with the focus on multi-professional research collaborations. It is aligned also with  the patient and public involvement in research agenda. However, it also challenges us to think about how such collaborations and involvement is shaped. How do we create a culture in which people feel confident in voicing disagreement? If we are leading a team, chairing a meeting or involved in supervision how can we encourage disagreement? Margaret Heffernan suggests that we need to reframe disagreement as constructive criticism. To see it as a skill we need to develop in our relationships to become thinking teams, organisations and a thinking society.

As researchers, especially at the early stages of a research career, this can be a real challenge. Our natural instinct is to seek affirmation that we are on the right track.  To network with people who are similar to ourselves, to share our thoughts with the people we feel confident with. It is a different ball game when we step into the territory of sharing our thinking and data with people who we know may disagree with us.

Disagreement can be seen as, at best, criticism and at worst confirmation of our inadequacies.  It can fuel our self-doubt and feed our imposter syndrome if we let it. Is this really something we want to willingly open ourselves to? Well, maybe it needs to be and maybe we need to reframe our relationship with disagreement. To welcome opportunities to test our thinking, to seek diversity and engage in the act of thinking together to create something greater than we ever could inside an echo chamber.

Margaret Heffernan acknowledges the energy and time it takes to develop this skill and these work relationships. However, she also describes how the act of doing this is can be seen an expression of the love we have for our work. An aspiration to push the boundaries of our thinking to ensure that it is the best it possibly can be.

So if you are in the midst of developing a research proposal, analysing your data or writing up your discussion are you thinking inside an echo chamber? Who do you look to to challenge your thinking? Who is your George Kneale? As suggested by Margaret Heffernan when we learn to handle disagreement, ‘we open ourselves to our best thinking’.