Two Practical Dialogue Tips for Changing More Minds about Abortion
by Josh Brahm
Editor’s Note: while the author applies this to abortion, the same principles apply to dialogue on any issue.
I was standing in the exhibit hall in front of our booth at the Students for Life National Conference a few years ago when a student walked up to me. He had just heard me speak on how to philosophically refute the strongest pro-abortion-choice arguments, so he asked:
“Do you change 100% of the minds that you talk to?”
I was taken aback a little, and replied, “No,” and before I could explain further he interjected:
“So, 99% then?”
I exclaimed, “No, not even 50%!”
I could tell he was confused. To him, I should change every mind I talk to because my arguments are better.
So I explained: “If people were perfectly logical robots, then sure, with adequate time, I believe I could get them all to be pro-life. But people are not perfectly logical robots. We are emotionally messy creatures with all kinds of baggage, based on our own experiences, what our parents taught us, what our church teaches, the university we attend, the friends we talk to, and the TV channels or podcasts we listen to, among other things.”
When a pro-abortion-choice college student walks up to my outreach table to talk, they are never walking up as a perfectly reasonable, open-minded person with zero biases. They are in a defensive posture. They have a position they hold on abortion, and they don’t want to change their mind. There’s an invisible wall between us, so when our philosophy team is designing arguments or testing dialogue techniques, we’re always trying to get around that wall. With dialogue techniques, it’s all about helping them change their posture from defensive to receptive and seeing those walls go down. Said another way, I am trying as quickly as possible to make this stranger feel like they’re talking to a friend over coffee, both trying to think more clearly about a topic.
Here are two of the most useful dialogue techniques that our team uses in virtually every conversation that we have:
#1: Be Obviously Open-Minded
Have you ever had a debate with someone who was super closed-minded, meaning there was nothing you (or anybody else) could say that could change their mind? I bet that was a frustrating experience for you. When I’m talking to a closed-minded person, I feel like I’m playing tennis with a brick wall. I might get better as a result of the exercise, but that wall isn’t changing no matter how skilled my tennis moves are, and a closed-minded person isn’t changing no matter how persuasive my arguments are.
I want someone to be willing to talk to me for a long time, because it usually takes a long time for someone to even have a chance to see all of their primary arguments refuted, preparing them to change their own mind about the topic. Therefore, I should demonstrate that I’m open-minded by speaking what we call “open-mindedese.” That means saying the kinds of things only open-minded people say, like, “I might be wrong, but the reason I currently believe this is X,” or “I don’t want to believe false things, so correct me if I’m wrong, but Y . . .”
If the idea of a pro-life leader like me being open-minded about abortion makes you a little uncomfortable, you’re not alone. This topic freaks a lot of people out because they think that being open-minded means being wishy-washy. As I explain in the Equipped for Life Course:
[Being open-minded] means having the humility to believe something based on having good reasons, not because you’re too stubborn to believe anything else. I’m open-minded about abortion because I know what kind of arguments it would take to prove to me that abortion should be legal. I’m not concerned about quitting my day job though, because I’m really confident that those arguments don’t work.
But here’s the key: what is driving my confidence? Is it mere dogma? Is it because my parents raised me that way? No, it’s because I’m following the evidence where it leads, and I’m committed to believing what is true.
#2: Rephrase What They Said
Pro-choice rhetoric can often be vague, and we want to make clarity entirely our responsibility. I don’t merely attempt to make sure they understand what I’m saying, but I also want to make sure I accurately understand what they are saying.
The problem is, even if I’m listening carefully, my brain still sometimes misinterprets what people say, especially when I’m talking to someone from a different cultural background than mine. I think of it like those funny videos in which a singer plugs the lyrics from a famous song into Google Translate and runs it from English to Spanish, then from Spanish to French, and then from French back into English, and then records those lyrics. They come out funny because Google Translate isn’t perfect, and the more iterations you add, the further the words get from the original meaning.
That is why after the person I’m speaking to explains their view, I say something like, “I want to make sure I understand you. Let me repeat back to you what I heard you say, so you can correct me if I’ve gotten it wrong. It sounded to me like you said . . .” and then I rephrase her view in my own words, and ask her to correct me if I got anything wrong.
Sometimes it takes a few tries before she approves of my summary, but that’s okay. People have complicated views about abortion, and it’s well worth a few minutes of my time to understand her perspective instead of just responding to a carbon copy picture in my head of what pro-choice people think.
Then when I make my argument, she knows I’m not about to strawman her, and she is listening carefully to what I have to say, because she knows that I truly understand her view. Only then do I have a chance of changing her mind.
To learn more practical dialogue tips, read our other articles on that topic on our blog archive. Finally, consider purchasing the Equipped for Life Course, which has seven more practical dialogue tips and the most persuasive pro-life arguments we’ve tested in thousands of conversations on college campuses.
Josh Brahm is the President and Co-Founder of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly, and argue persuasively. They use speaking, writing, YouTube videos, podcasts, online courses, and campus outreach to train pro-life advocates in the areas of practical dialogue tips, relational apologetics, pro-life philosophy, and sidewalk counseling.
For another of our blog posts about dialog, see Tips on Dialogue.