Don’t Dialogue Like Hamilton OR Aaron Burr

Hamilton

The character of Aaron Burr in Hamilton: An American Musical stands in stark contrast to the title character. Alexander Hamilton is brash, aggressive, tactless, and always reaches for what he wants, while Aaron Burr is polite, careful, and hesitant. When he initially meets Hamilton, Burr encourages him to:

Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.

Sadly, this line reminds me all too well of some well-meaning pro-life people.

Think of it in terms of a dialogue spectrum. On one side of the spectrum, pro-life people dialogue far too aggressively and tactlessly, and, because of that, they don’t usually persuade pro-choice people. Let’s call this “The Hamilton Approach.”

Many agreeable pro-life people wind up on the other end of the spectrum. They say little of consequence in their conversations, they don’t challenge people, and they just focus on being really friendly. Let’s call this “The Aaron Burr Approach.”

The problem is that the people who take the Aaron Burr Approach don’t accomplish much either. Sure, they’re less irritating than people who take the Hamilton Approach, but they don’t persuade anyone of anything because they’re too meek and cautious.

In order for most people to change their minds in a healthy way, they need to feel emotionally safe, but that is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. In other words, most people need to feel emotionally safe to change their minds, but that is not all they need to change their minds. One of the other conditions is for them to experience some kind of cognitive dissonance, and the best way to help someone to have that is to give them a compelling argument.

There is a healthy approach to dialogue that incorporates the virtues of both Hamilton and Burr. Let’s name it after the character from the musical that acts courageously but is also winsome and respectable: “The Washington Approach.” Like Burr, you have to be gracious, you have to listen well, and you have to be patient. Exercising these virtues will help you to build the kind of rapport with the other person that makes it possible for them to hear you when you challenge them. And then, like Hamilton, you need to decide to “not throw away your shot,” meaning you need to have the courage to say hard truths (but, unlike Hamilton, you need to say those hard truths while remaining gracious).

Hamilton

Left: Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of his musical “Hamilton.” (Steve Jurvetson)
Center: Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in the musical “Hamilton.” (Joan Marcus)
Right: Christopher Jackson as George Washington in the musical “Hamilton.” (Karyn Miller-Medzon)

Rapport is important in dialogue, but it’s a means to an end, not an end unto itself. It’s a resource that you should spend. [Tweet that!]

You shouldn’t attempt to spend rapport you don’t have by starting a conversation too strongly. For instance, you shouldn’t say, “Hey, listen up, you need to take this seriously,” in the first two minutes because you don’t have the rapport to back up that kind of a push. But after a thirty-minute friendly conversation where you can tell the person is more willing to listen to you, you can, and should, say something like, “Hey, I know this is an uncomfortable thing to think about, but if I’m right about the unborn, you’re standing on the sidelines while thousands of babies are being killed every day, and you should take that seriously.”

If it’s someone I’m likely to talk to again about abortion, I might end a given conversation without a hard push because I don’t want to spend all of my rapport in that moment. It may be better to invest that in a future conversation. But, if I’m likely to never see them again, not using that rapport is just a waste. It’s like chips at a casino. It’s currency that is worthless everywhere else, so cash in your chips when you leave!

Here are a few examples of ways I’ll cash in my rapport at the end of a conversation:

#1: Reminder of the Bullet

Many conversations about abortion hit a wall because the pro-choice person bites the bullet on one of your thought-experiments. When that happens, I want to emphasize to them what they have agreed to, with the hope that they’ll regret biting that bullet later. For instance, if they’re about to leave, I’ll say something like:

Hey, thanks for stopping to talk with me, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Before you go, I want to leave you with one thought. In order to defend abortion, you had to defend [infanticide, or the view that squirrels are equal to humans, or a bodily autonomy view that includes the right to torture the fetus for fun]. That seems like a real problem, and, I hope that, as you reflect on it, you realize that you don’t really believe that. It isn’t worth biting the bullet on that in order to defend abortion. Maybe abortion is just wrong. Thanks for talking with me.

#2: Reminder of the Unresolved Question

Sometimes pro-choice people have many different ideas they’re processing at once, so they frequently change the subject. It’s especially frustrating when they quickly shift after I’ve made an important challenge that they haven’t answered. I don’t want the pro-choice person to forget that critical point, so, before they leave, I’ll say something like:

Hey, I really enjoyed talking with you. Please don’t forget that point earlier in our conversation when I asked you about what kinds of things should be legal. Some people’s lives are complicated, but we wouldn’t ever give them the legal right to kill their newborns, and we already agree that the unborn is a human child. I think that means abortion should be illegal, too, even though people’s lives are complicated. I hope you have a good class.

#3: Push Them to Not Be Lazy

Alexis, one of our volunteers, talks with “Will” the next day. He came back looking for me, but I was in another conversation at the time.

At our most recent outreach, my colleague Jacob Nels talked for a long time with a student I’ll call “Will.” After Will started name-dropping philosophers, Jacob called me over and passed the conversation on to me. Will and I discussed his very unusual pro-choice view for thirty minutes or so and eventually hit a standstill. I didn’t see us making much more progress on abortion, so I turned the conversation back to religion, which we had briefly touched on earlier. I told him he should believe in God because that’s the most rational thing to believe, and then presented him with historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and evidence for the trustworthiness of the gospels. He found the arguments I gave him fascinating, and made a comment about how I was going to make his life a lot more complicated. Once I was finished, he said he had no idea how to answer any of that evidence, so he wasn’t sure how to respond. I said:

There are two versions of that, one of which I really respect, and the other I really don’t. The version I respect is something like: “Just because I have no answer to that argument in the moment, that doesn’t mean I need to change my mind immediately. I need to do some research and see if I think there’s a compelling response.” The version I don’t respect is something like: “Yeah, I don’t have any response to that, but I don’t care, and I’m going to forget about it now.” You can do better than that. Here’s my card. This is my personal phone number and email address. Do your research and call me.

He said he would call me and that he needed to go to class. First he wanted to say goodbye to Jacob and another student he had spoken with. Everything was incredibly friendly and positive. We had a ton of rapport, so before he left, I decided to push him one more time. I’ve given my card to many students before and they almost never get back to me, and I really wanted Will to get back to me, so I said:

Will, before you go, I want to push you one more time. [He smiled and nodded.] You don’t live in deepest, darkest Africa, you aren’t someone who has never heard. God introduced you to me and now you’ve heard good evidence for why you should believe in Him, which means now you’re clearly culpable. You can’t just go on acting like God doesn’t exist without thinking through this, you have to call me or you have no excuse. Please call me.

He laughed again, kind of acknowledging how bold I was being, and exclaimed, “Oh, no, you’re making this so much harder for me!” We laughed together, then he shook my hand again and promised that he would call.

I’m not saying you need to push people as hard as I pushed Will. Every conversation is a series of difficult judgment calls amidst prayer without ceasing. I’m just saying don’t leave your chips on the table. Put your rapport to good use.

Burr’s refrain is, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” When you have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, you should take it, and that means graciously letting them know what you’re against and what you’re for.

Please tweet this article!

  • Tweet: Don’t Dialogue Like Hamilton OR Aaron Burr
  • Tweet: The Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Washington Approaches: What are they?
  • Tweet: In order for most people to change their minds in a healthy way, they need to feel emotionally safe and experience cognitive dissonance.
  • Tweet: Rapport is important in dialogue, but it’s a means to an end, not an end unto itself. It’s a resource that you should spend.
  • TweetWhen you have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, you should take it, and that means graciously letting them know what you’re against and what you’re for.

The post “Don’t Dialogue Like Hamilton OR Aaron Burr” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Director of Training

Timothy Brahm is the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

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  • elpolloloco5000

    You have not included the most important aspect of a respectful dialogue on a difficult or controversial topic…permission or consent. And much like consent when it comes to intimate relationships, permission is always ongoing. Too often pro life advocates engage without permission or push to far without consent and undermine their outreach before it begins.

    • Guest

      Nobody is forcing you to engage with a pro-life outreach. You have the ability to ignore it or end the conversation as you see appropriate.

      • elpolloloco5000

        Engagement does not always equal consent. That’s the point and its an important one if your goal is to change minds… The only reason to dismiss this point as you did, would be if you had no interest in changing someone’s mind and had an altogehter different motive for engagement.

        • Guest

          Come again?

          • elpolloloco5000

            Just because someone engages with pro lifers in a booth does not mean they have any interest in debating the morality of abortion (or that such a debate is appropriate).

            • Guest

              Just because someone engages with pro lifers in a booth does not mean
              they have any interest in debating the morality of abortion

              …in which case they can end the conversation if they don’t like the way it’s going. Or talk about whatever else they’re interested in.

              So where are you going with this? What’s wrong with the way ERI conducts pro-life outreach, and how would you do it differently if you were trying to change minds about abortion on a university campus?

  • Good article, thanks. I found the idea of cashing in especially helpful.

    A recent Vox article, “For elites, politics is driven by ideology. For voters, it’s not,” says:

    “We choose our [political] party for a variety of reasons — chief among them being the preferences of our family members, core groups, and community — and then we sign on to their platforms.”

    This is not a completely new idea, but the author cites work by Kinder & Kalmoe that seems to further establish the idea. Jonathan Haidt and others have also done work recently bolstering the idea that our tribal loyalties determine our ideologies and not vice versa.

    We want people to “change their minds in a healthy way,” as you say, and “sign on to the pro-life platform,” as the Vox article would say, but unfortunately it seems that the power of arguments has little to do with why people change their minds. Most people will change their ideology only after changing their “family members [or de facto family members], core groups, and communities.”

    Pro-lifers need to offer an attractive community. Pro-life organizations should follow the lead of many churches and emphasize bonding through social activities and personal friendships, and not try to create bonding through purely ideology-driven meetings, marches and outreach alone. Some pro-life organizations are already closely associated with churches of that kind, but in order to break the abortion deadlock in the US, secular and non-denominational pro-life organizations also need to start following that model and creating attractive communities. ERI’s relational apologetics seems like a perfect gateway to a pro-life community, but the community it will lead to must be a fully developed one.