7 Tips for Handling a Forced Political Debate at the Holiday Dinner Table

Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on being an effective pro-life advocate at family holiday gatherings. Part one is here: 6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before the Holidays.

7 Tips for Handling a Forced Political Debate at the Holiday Dinner Table

In my first article on this subject, I explained that political discussions with extended family are some of the most complicated dialogue situations to navigate due largely to the power dynamics. I also discussed several reasons why the holiday dinner table is not an ideal time or place for persuading people to change their mind about abortion.

But what if your pro-choice aunt does bring up abortion or another political topic at the dinner table and tries to pull you into a debate with her? Here are seven tips for making the best of that situation:

6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before the Holidays

Author’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on being an effective pro-life advocate over the holidays.

6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before the Holidays

I’ve been speaking about relational apologetics more often lately, a phrase that I define as “cultivating relationships with people who have different beliefs, for the sake of genuine friendship and for discovering truth together.” One of the most frequent questions I get asked after discussing this topic is how to handle potentially volatile political discussions with family members, such as in the context of a big family dinner at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Even Saturday Night Live has made light of how politically charged Thanksgiving dinners can become:

As my colleague Rachel Crawford noted during a discussion of relational apologetics that we recorded for the Equipped for Life Course Podcast:

I think that a large part of long-term apologetics is going to be coming from what sort of relationship you have with the other person. . . . Having relational apologetics with a family member, especially if they are your mother or your grandmother and they are not a peer, that is going to be especially difficult. . . . that poses an extra challenge.

Family members present several challenges that may make engaging in discourse with them particularly  difficult if you want to be persuasive. I’d like to explain why that is and offer several practical tips for optimizing your chances of changing people’s minds in this context.

Here are six things to keep in mind before you arrive at a big family gathering this holiday season:

Six Abortion Conversation Starters

Image: Coffee cups, great additions to a relational apologetics environment when talking about abortion.

Do you want to discuss abortion with your pro-choice friends, but can’t figure out where to start? Abortion is an uncomfortable subject, so most people are reluctant to initiate a conversation about it. If you want to have a productive dialogue, then you don’t want to bring up abortion in a way that either feels unnecessarily confrontational or awkwardly puts your friends on the spot.

If you’ve never talked about abortion with your pro-choice friends before, then your goal for that first conversation should be modest—you simply want to build some rapport and lay the groundwork for future conversations. People are much more likely to change their minds slowly over time than all at once in one epic conversation.[Tweet that!] When you have pro-choice friends, you have the unique opportunity to give them the time to process your arguments and work through the details with you. The first conversation about abortion is the foundation of everything that is to follow. It is like a first impression, even if you have been friends for a decade. Viewing it as one piece of a much bigger picture will help you set realistic expectations.

Here are six ways to bring up abortion with your friends:

“How Should I Initiate an Abortion Dialogue with My Pen Pal?”

I received an email from a follower I’ll call “Mike” who wanted some advice on how to initiate a dialogue about abortion with his pen pal. I thought some of my tips might help you if you’re trying to figure out how to use relational apologetics.

I’ve removed some of the details from Mike’s email to help protect his identity. 

Mike wrote:

Hi, Josh.

Since you spend a lot of time writing about how pro-lifers ought to communicate their views when conversing with others, I thought I’d email you with a question I had. I’ve been emailing a pen pal of mine for a few months now, and we mostly talk about our own lives and mutual interests. We’ve never discussed the abortion issue before, and it’s not something I really want to bring up, but I also want to be able to discuss other topics without worrying about whether or not it will eventually lead to a full-blown abortion debate.

Funnily enough, we’re both interested in bioethics, and she’s asked me what bioethical issues interest me the most. I’m not really sure if I should use this as an opportunity to mention my views as a pro-lifer and consistent life ethicist.

Thank you for your help. I really appreciate it.

I’d use the bioethics common ground to tread a little into abortion waters. Say that the bioethical issue you’re most interested in is the ethics of abortion, and that you’ve actually been a little worried that mentioning that might make things awkward. Say that you’d be really interested in her take on that if she’d be willing to share it. Say that you’re not one of those obnoxious pro-lifers that shouts opinions at people. You’re interested in both sides learning from each other and having respectful dialogue. You would especially like to do that with a friend since it gives more opportunity for learning from each other, since you can both research each other’s statements and then go back again for clarification.

And then let her take that where she wants to. If she doesn’t want to get into it, respect that. She may love debating that stuff though, and now you have a great launchpad into that topic.

Question: Do you have any advice for Mike? Post it below in the comments!