Debate vs. Dialogue: How Do They Differ?

John Ferrer debate

John Ferrer debates David Smalley on the problem of evil for The Bible & Beer Consortium.
Photo by Hillary Morgan Ferrer. Used with permission.

Debate is fun for me, but I’m odd like that. I’m an academic and ethics teacher, so I’ve debated abortion formally and informally, in academic settings and elsewhere. The subject arises most every time I’m in a panel discussion, too. In that time, I’ve come to learn that debating is radically different from casual conversation. It’s miles apart from almost every kind of interaction we can have on campus, around the lunch table, walking to class, or hanging out over coffee.

Even with all that debate experience, I’m still a novice when it comes to casual conversations about abortion. I’m a little weird like that. Thanks to Josh, Tim, and the rest of the ERI team, I’m learning how to not be weird. One advantage of my experience, however, is that I can help explain the pitfalls of debating abortion, especially when the other person just wants a dialogue. I know those pitfalls by experience; I’ve tripped across almost all of them. I’m painfully aware that academic debate is entirely different from the street-level, day-to-day conversations regular people have about an issue.

Debate can be incredibly valuable in formal settings, in classes, or on certain websites that facilitate that sort of structured exchange. Most of the time, however, people aren’t looking for a debate, and so we can overpower and ruin a conversation if we try to force it into that mold. I’d like to offer some counsel on how to distinguish debate from dialogue so you can keep your conversations healthy and persuasive.

Pay Attention to Who Should NOT Be in a Given Conversation

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.

Josh Brahm (middle) has a conversation with students at Davidson College while Rachel Crawford (left) watches. We don't have a picture of the actual conversation in this article, but it took place in the same spot.

Josh Brahm (middle) talks to students at Davidson College while Rachel Crawford (left) watches. We don’t have a picture of the actual conversation in this article, but it took place in the same spot.

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.

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.

How Your Brain Tricks You into Thinking the Other Side Is Stupid

Two Practical Tips for Better Social Media Conversations

Sometimes your brain plays tricks on you. For instance, when you look at a stick in the water, it looks bent, even though it isn’t. Or, when you’re driving on a hot day, it looks like there is water on the road at the horizon, even though there isn’t. If you want to have true beliefs, it helps to know when your perception is untrustworthy.

In general, people believe things about political issues based on what seems to be true to them. Many different factors influence what seems to be true to us, some of them more than they should. We all have biases, incomplete information, and sometimes faulty arguments that influence what seems to be true to us. But just like it seems to be true that the stick in the water is bent, sometimes what seems to be true politically isn’t actually true.

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.

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.