If you are a part of a dialogue-oriented outreach, you should be paying attention to who should be in a given conversation, and who should not be.
Estimated reading time: 16 minutes.
It was our second day of outreach at Davidson College and after having had several conversations, a lull swept over our area of campus while all of the students were in class. I went behind our poll table setup to take a short break with ERI staff member Rachel Crawford who was also sitting back there. We were talking about the dialogues we’d had that day. Two other male volunteers stood behind Rachel talking with us.
While we were talking, a young woman whom I will call “Alice” walked straight up to us to ask us what the point of our outreach was. I responded that we’re trying to help pro-life and pro-choice people to have better conversations with each other, to hear each other, to learn from each other, and hopefully help people get closer to finding truth on the subject. I then asked her, “What do you think about abortion?”
She confidently responded with a statement about being pro-choice, but instead of offering the logical reasons why she believes that, she started describing the abortion experience she had had only five months before. She also shared with us some very personal information about how she didn’t feel like her boyfriend was supportive of her through the process and how she didn’t talk to her friends about it either. She also shared that her parents had abandoned her as a child and that she had been raised by her grandma. She felt very alone in this situation and ultimately one of the staff members of the campus health center had to be the one to drive her to and from the abortion facility. The campus even gave her a loan to pay for the abortion, which she worked through the summer to pay off.
At this point in the conversation Rachel and I had the same goal: to make Alice feel safe and willing to share what she wanted to share with us. If we could have also at some point been able to share our thoughts about abortion, that would have been nice, but that was a secondary goal. We knew that even if that didn’t happen, she would at least remember the pro-life advocates who cared about her enough to hear what she had to say.
Rachel expressed to Alice that she was sorry to hear about her experience and started asking questions like “when did this happen” and “what was it like for you?”
At this point I asked Alice a question that I learned from my former mentor at Justice For All, Steve Wagner. I said:
Alice, obviously we have some different thoughts about abortion than you do, but I want to thank you for honoring us by sharing such personal information about your experience. We’re obviously happy to share our thoughts with you too, but I also think that we could learn things from you. So, knowing that we’re here today to have gracious and productive conversations with pro-choice people, what would you want us to know?
Again, we were trying to make her feel safe. Our staff have learned a lot from pro-choice people in conversations like this, and that affects the way we think about how to have better conversations when the really personal topics come up. I am being really intentional about asking this open-ended question of Alice because there are some things that people will only share if they’ve been explicitly invited to. By asking her what she would want us to know I am taking a big step towards helping her to feel more comfortable about opening up to us. I purposefully allowed her to lead the conversation because I honestly believe that she has a perspective that is important for me as the pro-life person to understand.
Alice then expressed frustration about how unhelpful her boyfriend was in contrast with how helpful the campus staff person was to her. There wasn’t a lot there for us to respond to since obviously we are coming at the situation from a very different perspective. I don’t want boyfriends to help their girlfriends have abortions. Instead I want them to take a stand and say, “We’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to have a baby, and either we’re going to connect the baby with a loving couple through adoption or we’re keeping this baby. I’m in, I’m not leaving you. I’m going to help with this because I want to be a good father to our son or daughter.” But there wasn’t a good way to steer the conversation toward our differing philosophical thoughts about abortion. Based on the kinds of comments Alice made combined with her tone and body language, I had a clear impression that she was willing to vent with us, and she was willing to have a conversation about her personal experience, but she wasn’t interested in a philosophical debate that morning.
In fact Alice showed no signs of regret at all (she even later mentioned to Rachel that she would be speaking at a sort of “speak out about your abortion” event in the coming weeks, where people listen and affirm each other’s stories). I wanted her to know about post-abortive healing programs without making her feel like she needed to validate her feelings to me. She might feel regret about her abortion later in the future but it is not something I thought would be productive to argue about with her.
So I took a cue from ERI staff member Jacob Nels and said:
This might not be relevant to you, but I have lots of post-abortive friends who at some point later felt guilt about their abortions. Post-abortive guilt is a really particular thing, and I think one of the best evidences that the pro-life movement really cares about women (and men) and not just babies is the thousands of free post-abortion healing programs there are around the country.
I’m not assuming that you will necessarily want that, but you might have a friend who goes through that guilt, and if so, I would just want you to know that those programs are out there, and I’ve spent time with some of the groups who put those programs on, and they are some of the nicest, most loving people I’ve ever been around.
Notice how I made it about Alice’s potential friends who might want this information, instead of forcing a pamphlet on Alice and implying that “clearly you are going to need this at some point.” That would come across as very rude and presumptuous, even if there are good reasons to think that she will feel regret one day. That very well may be true, but she doesn’t know that yet, and she has no reason to believe that since most or all of her community is pro-choice and will be very supportive of women making the “brave” decisions to have abortions if they’re “not ready to have a child.” (I’m making that assumption about her community based on the fact that most people surround themselves with people who agree with them on things, as opposed to something that we advocate for, which is cultivating friendships with people who disagree with you.)
At this point Rachel took the lead in talking to Alice and while listening to that exchange, I looked around at our surroundings. It was certainly an unusual situation. We weren’t in front of the poll table, we were behind it where all of our gear and drinks were stored. I started thinking about who was in or around this very sensitive conversation: three pro-life men including myself and one pro-life woman, talking to one pro-choice woman. This was not an ideal situation, especially given the intimate details Alice was willing to share.
As I was thinking about that I noticed another male pro-life volunteer was walking straight over to us, seeing that something interesting might be going on. I immediately walked over to him and intercepted him, walking him away from the conversation saying that I had something to ask him about. Once we were far enough away I said, “I lied. I don’t have anything to ask you, it’s just that that conversation over there has gotten really personal and there were already too many people in it, so I was just getting both you and I out of there.” The volunteer looked thankful and said that he understood why I had done this.
Now it was Rachel with Alice and two male volunteers, a guy named Andrew and a friend of ours from Students for Life of America, Ryan Eyrich. I was trying to figure out a non-awkward way to get those two guys out of the conversation too when I remembered that I had Ryan’s cell phone number. So I pulled out my phone and texted Ryan:
I was worried that Ryan wouldn’t notice his phone vibrate or even ignore it, but thankfully he instantly pulled out his phone, read my text, tapped Andrew’s shoulder, and gestured for him to follow Ryan as he walked over to me. I explained to them why I wanted Rachel and Alice to be one-on-one by saying:
“Alice obviously has a lot going on, and I think it’s great that she’s willing to be so open with us, but I think the best chance Rachel has of taking the conversation to the next level is if there aren’t several guys hanging around listening in.”
Rachel and Alice talked for another 15-20 minutes, and Rachel later confirmed that the conversation was made better by being one-on-one. Rachel was able to get her to sit down because now there weren’t other people still standing around. It would have been weird for Alice to be sitting while guys stood around watching her and Rachel talk together. Now it was just two women sitting in chairs, eye-to-eye, without someone standing over them and giving off domineering body language.
When the dialogue ended Alice thanked Rachel, saying that she felt like the conversation “was really productive.” Rachel confirmed that the conversation was definitely less awkward and more personal after we left, although to be fair, Alice had already shared some really personal information before I got the guys out of there.
Ironically, a different situation happened the afternoon before where I didn’t follow this rule of helping a conversation stay one-on-one, and it would have been better if I had.
Rachel and I were debriefing with one of our other volunteers while Tim was having a great conversation with a pro-choice guy. Suddenly a pro-choice woman with an umbrella walked up and started chewing Tim out. She had heard Tim making an argument for the personhood of the unborn and very uncharitably concluded that this was all the proof she needed that all Tim cared about was the unborn, and then started lecturing him. Tim tried to explain the context that she had walked into, but she wasn’t really listening to him and only got more and more aggressive. The pro-choice guy that Tim was talking with even defended Tim’s character to the woman, saying that she showed up in the middle of a conversation and didn’t know the context.
I made the decision to send Rachel in to stand at the perimeter of the conversation, telling her that this might only get defused if another woman vouches for Tim’s character, saying something like, “I get why you thought what you did given the way some pro-life people talk and given the tiny snippet you overheard when you were walking up, but I’ve known Tim for years and he’s really not anything like what you think.” It’s hard to say something like that about yourself without just sounding defensive, so having a character witness can sometimes be helpful in situations like this.
It was a reasonable strategy given the awkwardness of the situation, but ultimately it didn’t end up helping Tim because Rachel didn’t find a way to break in. Another problem Tim was having was that there were other volunteers listening in on this unusual dialogue, which made it difficult to get her to calm down. She was not only chewing Tim out, she was performing to an audience, and was not going to allow for the possibility that she was in the wrong at any level. As Tim explained when telling this story in the 33rd episode of the Equipped for Life Course Podcast:
“The fact that there was a group [around] was a big problem, and because her initial impression of me was I’m this jerky guy who doesn’t care about women because I’m talking about the unborn . . . I couldn’t say to her, “Hey, there’s a group here, you want to go talk one-on-one?” She was already upset with me. We didn’t have the rapport for that to be possible, so given that, I was pretty stuck . . . So that’s an example of, if there’s a group around a conversation that’s better for it to be just one, help your team out, and pull people away.”
The bad judgment call that I made in that situation was that instead of it helping Tim to have more people around, it actually made the conversation even harder than it already was. This was a great learning experience for our team.
Rachel made a great point in that podcast discussion:
“The majority of the time it’s going to good to bring people away instead of bringing somebody else in . . . Most of the time your best move is going to be to deescalate by removing the crowd if there is a crowd.”
Three More Examples
Adding or removing people from a conversation can be a tough judgment call, so here are three more examples to give you a fuller picture of what we’re thinking about at our outreaches:
- Sometimes there are angry pro-choice people who want to make a scene or be disruptive at your event. Sending in a volunteer to talk with them away from the already ongoing conversations will be the best thing for those who are having dialogues.
- If you have an obnoxious pro-life person who sees your outreach and starts jumping into conversations, interrupting people and being rude, it can be really important to ask them to leave since they aren’t a volunteer at your event. Sometimes that person won’t want to leave though, because they think they’re being really helpful or because they’re passionate about the unborn. If we have two team members in a conversation with at least one pro-choice person and the obnoxious pro-life guy shows up, one of those team members will distract the obnoxious guy by removing them from the conversation to talk about something else. This move is a little tricky, but it can literally save a potentially good conversation from going bad.
- It is well worth your time to prepare for your event by making sure that at least one post-abortive person can join the outreach. Then when you meet someone who says they’ve had an abortion experience, you can try to introduce them to your friend who’s had the same experience, because the pro-choice person may feel a lot safer talking about that experience with someone who’s been through the same thing. This is probably the most important time to add someone to the conversation as opposed to removing someone.
Five Practical Outreach Tips
Here are five tips that I have gathered through these outreach experiences and others that will help you navigate judgment calls about who should be involved in a given conversation at outreach.
- Keep an eye out for newer volunteers who need backup. Everybody’s first outreach is scary and intimidating. Every once in awhile a pro-choice student will come to the outreach area angry and wanting to blow off some steam. If the first person they see happens to be one of the novices, that novice is about to have a bad time. I try to always be aware of what is going on at all times in our outreach area, and if one of our novices is having a conversation alone, I try to occasionally walk by to get a sense of how the conversation is going. Then I make a judgment call about whether or not I should just stand in the perimeter of the conversation, being available to help out if the novice gets stuck. Sometimes I do this when I hear the pro-choice person making a tricky argument that the pro-life person might be struggling with and just need the backup of a more experienced advocate.
- Obey “The Vampire Rule.” Tim created this rule and we’re pretty strict about it (the name is based on vampire lore that says that vampires can only enter a house that they’ve been invited into by the owners): Don’t enter an existing conversation unless you’re invited into it. So if I walk up to be available backup to a novice, that novice knows that I’m not going to say anything unless the novice says something like, “That’s a really interesting thought. Josh, what do you think about that?” Now I can be an active part of the conversation. But I won’t say anything until that happens because I don’t want to insert myself into a dialogue where the person has already built up rapport and already knows all of the things the pro-choice person said before I arrived. This is their conversation, and I’m only making myself available to be tagged in if they want the help.
- There should rarely be more than two pro-life advocates in a conversation. Any more than that and it starts feeling like the pro-choice person is being ganged up on.
- Keep an eye out for who should not be in a given conversation. Intervene if necessary in order to make it the most likely that the pro-choice person will be helped as a result of the dialogue.
- Debrief after each outreach day and include time where people can discuss what could have been done in certain situations to make the outreach go better. I talked about this during that episode of the Equipped for Life Podcast:
“You’re going to get better working together as a team the more you do this and the more you’re talking about this. I feel like this is the kind of experience I have when I’m on a music band, which is the more that we play together we kind of start figuring out what are each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how can we help each other out and not step on each other’s musical toes, and sometimes it takes that time. But if you’re debriefing and talking [afterwards] you can say “Okay, here’s this situation that happened with this girl, here’s how I would have wanted everyone to handle it in a perfect universe.” That helps everyone to figure out how to make the second outreach better than the first one and it’s going to advance the growth and maturing of the group really well so that instead of it being like, “Wow, that was a rough outreach,” it can be “Okay, that was pretty good. We can make it even better next time, so here’s some different things that we can talk about.” Don’t just leave the campus because you’ve taken down your poll table. Take that stuff down and then go find a table or some grass or whatever and spend like a half hour talking about that experience so you can learn as much as you can from it.”
Want more practical outreach tips? Read Rachel’s article, 10 Practical Tips for Leading a Campus Outreach.
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The post “Pay Attention to Who Should NOT Be in a Given Conversation” 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.”