Lessons from a thousand bioethicists: How to disagree

“So it’s like a conference full of philosophers? That should make for some heated debates,” remarked the man in the plane seat next to me as I traveled to the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) annual conference. Like many others, he was unfamiliar with the field of bioethics. His above remark followed after I explained that bioethics is a field largely focused on ethical issues that arise in science and medicine.

Like this conversational stranger, I also expected the ASBH annual meeting to be rife with debate. In my mind, some of these conversations would inevitably get a bit heated. The conference provides scholars a platform to present work, but every presenter also leaves room for questions and comments from the audience.

The presenters are vulnerable. While they stand in front of the room thinking of their next line or slide, the audience members craft thoughtful, interrogative questions. The presenters must then quickly and succinctly respond with the added pressure of a room full of colleagues, friends and potential future employers.

These remarks from the audience often directly question the work the presenters poured so much time and effort into. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a presenter feel attacked and respond defensively or see an adversarial audience member bait a presenter into a trap just to advance their own opinion.

However, divisive discourse proved to be the exception. There was a bit of spirited jabbing, but never was there a comment that seemed intended to denigrate. Even when a listener questioned the foundation of a presenter’s work, the listener almost always seemed to do so in a way that was impressively friendly.

As these deep, yet cordial discussions continued, I couldn’t help but think that there was something we all could learn from bioethicists. In an age when many see more division than unity in our nation, it is increasingly important to skillfully engage in discussion with those who hold views that differ from our own. However, many of us lack the cultivated delicacy of a seasoned bioethicist.

Over the course of the weekend, I tried to jot down the elegant ways in which audience members expressed differing opinions and how presenters responded. Here are seven strategies to keep in mind when having discussions with those holding differing opinions:

  1. Clearly and narrowly define the question. Know exactly what you are discussing before you begin debating.


  1. Be mindful of nonverbal communication. Subtle gestures, grimaces, scowling eyebrows, and pointed intonation brew defensiveness. When appropriate, nod to express understanding or agreement.


  1. State your assumptions and interpretations. Every question we ask stems from our own interpretation of the presenter’s material. By stating these interpretations, we give the presenter a chance to correct us if the way in which we interpret their points is different from their intended argument.


  1. Inquisition before rejection. This stems from the previous point. When we are uncertain, it is best to seek clarity before jumping to reject a conclusion.


  1. Ask yourself how much you actually know about the topic at hand. Assess what has formed your opinions and how deeply you hold these beliefs. Know that we often overestimate our knowledge on a topic and fail to realize that we have much to learn, even from those of differing opinions.


  1. Don’t be afraid to stray from the initial question. Arguments are always built upon a body of definitions. Discussing these definitions may seem like a departure from the initial debate, but it is often both necessary and more fruitful. An example of this would be moving from a discussion of abortion to a discussion of personhood.


  1. Acknowledge commonalities. While not always salient, we always have many more commonalities than differences.

-By J. Thomas Gebert, M.D., Ph.D. candidate enrolled in the Medical Ethics Pathway at Baylvor College of Medicine and recipient of the Laurence McCullough Travel Award

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