Sometimes It’s Not about the Argument

There’s a stereotypical story of married couples that you’re probably familiar with. The wife has had a bad day, so she goes to her husband to tell him about it. Her husband, being wired to fix problems, shows his love to his wife by offering solutions. The wife gets frustrated. Why is she frustrated? Because she doesn’t want her problems fixed! She wants sympathy! Click on the video below for a short, hilarious example of this stereotype.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes.

Part of the stereotype is that the desire to have your feelings affirmed is a “woman thing,” but it’s really not. It’s a human thing. No one wants to be perceived as stupid or irrational, so it gives us a feeling of safety when we are told that our feelings are reasonable, understandable, and even appropriate.

This year I decided to try to constantly affirm the feelings of pro-choice people in my conversations without being dishonest. It is the best change I have made to my approach to dialogue in a long time. People don’t change their minds if they feel combative instead of emotionally safe, or defensive instead of receptive. [Tweet that!] Actively affirming the pro-choice person’s feelings is an incredibly effective way to help them know that they are safe to honestly question their beliefs. For some people, I’d even go so far as to say that having their earnest, deeply held feeling acknowledged is a prerequisite to them being able to actually argue about the issue.

We have talked for years about the importance of finding common ground with pro-choice people, and frequently reference Steve Wagner and his excellent book Common Ground Without Compromise. There is certainly some overlap here, but I’m not merely rehashing the same point. It’s the same ethos, but, typically when we talk about finding common ground with people, we’re talking about acknowledging that we have agreement about statements. “I agree with you, abortion is a really difficult decision and women don’t take it lightly” is common ground. “You’re right to be frustrated with the pro-life people you’re talking about, they treated you really rudely, and I’m sorry for how they hurt you” is affirming feelings.

I am always opposed to faking compassion and lying to people to gain a better position in a dialogue, so don’t affirm feelings in a dishonest way. But even if you think the way someone feels is not appropriate, you can still give some kind of honest affirmation. You can say that it’s really understandable that they’re that bothered or affected by a given thing, and possibly even that you’d probably feel the same way if you were in their shoes. On the occasions that I can’t honestly affirm anything about their feelings because I think they’re just nuts, I keep it to myself, and make a mental note that my heart might not be in the right place.

While affirming pro-choice feelings is generally a good idea throughout a conversation about abortion, here are two specific examples of times where it is especially important.

#1: The Airing of Grievances

There are obnoxious people in any group of people, because people are naturally prone to obnoxiousness. The group of people called “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” is no exception.

Pro-choice people are often inclined to mention their negative experiences with pro-life people in a conversation about abortion. If you’re very friendly and a nice person to talk to, this becomes even more likely, because the contrast will often be startling enough to remind them of their bad experiences.

There is a natural human impulse to side with and defend “your people,” whether that’s your family, your friends, your political party, people of your religion, whatever. The optimist in me says that that impulse comes from loyalty, and loyalty is good. But when a pro-choice person is complaining about obnoxious pro-life people, you need to resist this impulse. You don’t need to defend the behavior of an anonymous pro-life person that was rude to the pro-choice person standing in front of you.

When pro-choice people bring up their negative experiences of pro-life people, they are almost never making an argument for legal abortion. All they are doing is venting. We all find venting to be therapeutic. In 2012 I vented about the result of the presidential election and in 2016 my Democrat friends vented for the same reason. My wife and I vent to each other all the time about things that frustrate us. It’s comforting.

If the pro-choice person is arguing that abortion needs to stay legal because her pro-life friend is a jerk, then argue back. If the pro-choice person is just venting, don’t try to argue them out of their venting. Affirm their feelings. Say something like:

“Yeah, it frustrates me too that more pro-life people don’t step up and adopt children. Many do, probably more than you think, and some honestly shouldn’t, but I think you’re right, some of them are being lazy.”

“I’m really sad to hear that your super-religious parents reacted too harshly when you stopped believing in God. I’m sure that must have been really hard for them, but that doesn’t even come close to justify them kicking you out of the house. That kind of rejection must have been so painful.”

“I’m sorry your pro-life friend yelled at you for voting for Clinton, that was really wrong, and if I were you, I’d be really frustrated too. How are you supposed to have a good friendship with someone that will yell at you over a political disagreement? That must be really upsetting.”

Be careful to not go too far here. It can be tempting to just throw pro-life people under the bus to gain rapport, and it’s better to give a balanced assessment. Sometimes you can affirm the pro-choice person’s frustration with the bad pro-life behavior and try to help the pro-choice person to sympathize better with the person they find frustrating. You could say something like:

“Yeah, sometimes pro-life people get kind of tunnel-visioned and they don’t seem to care about anything other than abortion, and that’s dumb. But on the other hand, I kind of get it. I’m not justifying it, but let’s be fair and think about it from their point of view. They think of abortion like you would think about the Holocaust, and, given the numbers, they have a point, or at least they would if you believed the unborn was a valuable person. I’d rather have someone take their own view seriously and be kinda overzealous than to just be apathetic. What do you think, is that fair?”

A comment like this can build rapport while simultaneously helping the pro-choice person to understand better how pro-life people think.

It’s obviously important to affirm feelings when the pro-choice person expresses appropriate frustration. But you can actually achieve some of the same benefit by affirming unstated pro-choice feelings. You don’t need to wait for them to say it. Sometimes I’ll mention that I find some pro-lifers to be really irritating before they even mention it in order to show the pro-choice person that I’m not going to side with every pro-life person over her.

#2: Have a Heart

Another incredibly valuable way to affirm unstated pro-choice feelings is to acknowledge the importance of compassion. As I have written previously, pro-choice people are heavily driven by compassion for women. Most pro-choice people are incapable of taking seriously someone who seems to have no compassion for women.

Even if they don’t mention compassion or anything, I intentionally bring it up for two reasons: First, I want to make it harder for them to write me off as uncompassionate; and, second, I want them to process their own compassion as they’re discussing arguments with me. I don’t want them to go into “logic mode” during our conversation and then write me off for emotional reasons after our conversation. I want them thinking logically and emotionally simultaneously so they can process holistically. [Tweet that!]

I have become especially fond of bringing up compassion when I “trot out a toddler.” If that phrase doesn’t ring a bell, it’s a very common pro-life dialogue tactic that we learned from Scott Klusendorf of Life Training Institute. Pro-life advocates have variations in the way they use this tactic, but I’ll explain the four-step approach we take at ERI. When someone makes a pro-choice argument that doesn’t address the moral status of the unborn or the importance of bodily autonomy, we often trot out a toddler to graciously help them understand the importance of those issues. Basically, we’re comparing their argument for legal abortion to an argument for legally killing a toddler.

For instance, if they say, “Some women are too poor to care for a child,” the first thing we will do is:

  1. Affirm Her Concern. “You’re right, some women are in terrible poverty and we need to help them as well as we can.”
  2. Brace Her for the Weird Question. “Can I ask you kind of a weird question, could you just go with me for a minute?” Assuming she says yes…
  3. Create a Parallel Situation. “Imagine a woman has a toddler and she is really poor. She just lost her job and she can barely feed herself, much less a child. Should she legally have the right to kill her toddler because she is so poor?” The answer is usually no.
  4. Describe the Logic. “Let me explain why I ask that weird question. I have a view that some people find really weird, but I have really good evidence for it. I think an embryo from fertilization is just as valuable a human person as you or I. Because I am so convinced of that, whenever someone argues for abortion, I have to ask myself, ‘Would this be a good argument for killing a toddler?’ And there just aren’t any good reasons to kill toddlers. So if I’m right about the embryo being a human person, then we can’t kill it because of poverty any more than we’d kill a toddler because of poverty. What do you think?”

Trotting out a toddler gives us an opportunity to affirm pro-choice concerns about difficult circumstances women are in, but it goes deeper than that. Lately, before jumping into Step 4, after they have said that it shouldn’t be legal for a woman to kill her toddler, I intentionally push them with the language of compassion that is so often used to justify abortion. I’m basically trying to inoculate them. I’ll say, “Really? But she’s in terrible poverty. She needs help and you would tell her she can’t do what she needs to do? Shouldn’t we be compassionate to her?”

This forces them to acknowledge that compassion isn’t a trump card for abortion (or anything else for that matter). Even though we want to be compassionate to someone in a difficult circumstance, that doesn’t mean we should let them kill. It’s good for them to mentally acknowledge that, but it’s even better for them to emotionally process it in terms of compassion.

When we’re thinking about apologetics, it’s easy to just think in terms of logic, or whether an argument is good or bad. But people, especially pro-choice people, believe what they believe partially because of feelings. In order to change a pro-choice person’s mind, you cannot ignore their feelings, you cannot deny their feelings, and you cannot condemn their feelings. You have to graciously show them that their valid feelings need not lead to the pro-choice conclusion.


Please tweet this article!

  • Tweet: Sometimes It’s Not about the Argument
  • Tweet: Two Cases When It’s Especially Important to Affirm Pro-Choice Feelings
  • Tweet: People don’t change their minds if they don’t feel emotionally safe or receptive.
  • Tweet: I want the pro-choice person I’m engaged with thinking logically and emotionally, processing holistically.

The post “Sometimes It’s Not about the Argument” 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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Former Director of Training

Timothy Brahm was formerly 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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