Estimated reading time: 9 minutes.
Imagine there is an eager pro-life high school student named Jared. He has spent hours talking with his pro-choice friends on Facebook, but their conversations never seem to go anywhere. Although he sometimes thinks that his friends make good points, he doesn’t always know how to respond to them. In order to be the best pro-life advocate possible, Jared decides that he needs to gain a better understanding of people who disagree with him and learn how to defend his own beliefs more persuasively. He reads abortion philosophy books, attends pro-life conferences, and listens to podcasts. After all this studying, he feels eager to discuss abortion with his friends—except this time he decides to talk with them in person during lunch instead of online. Afraid of forgetting any of the important arguments he has learned, he decides to bring a notebook outlining his talking points. Although his intentions are well-meaning, his delivery is noticeably awkward. Every time his pro-choice friends ask a question or make a comment, he refers to his notes before responding. Not only do his friends feel a little uncomfortable, but they also begin to think that the conversation isn’t genuine.
When you talk with pro-choice people, you probably don’t commit faux pas as flagrant as Jared’s notebook, but you may be making similar mistakes. If we come across in conversations as though we have spent time studying how to persuade people, they may feel uncomfortable and misinterpret our intentions. We don’t want people to think that we are reading from a script or that we have been coached on what to say. If we are making people feel this way, then our preparation is working against us instead of improving our advocacy. We don’t want to be deceptive; if someone asked me if I’ve spent time preparing for abortion conversations, I’d say yes. But I’m trying to not make that fact obvious because, when it’s obvious, it’s usually off-putting. Here are some easily overlooked mistakes that could prevent your dialogues from feeling relaxed and natural:
Using Weird Vernacular
In the world of pro-life apologetics, we frequently use certain terms that help advocates understand different aspects of the abortion debate. We label different arguments, dialogue tools, and thought experiments for convenience, but if you take these labels out of that context and use them in an abortion dialogue, they will likely confuse the other person. Those of us who are immersed in pro-life apologetics are especially prone to making this mistake because we have become so accustomed to using this terminology with each other.
For example, when talking with pro-choice people, you should avoid using pro-life vernacular like “The Sovereign Zone View” or “Trot Out a Toddler.” Pro-choice people will likely have no idea what you mean by these phrases, so they may seem random or off topic. Additionally, try to refrain from using academic language that doesn’t match the tone of the conversation like “syllogism” or “epistemological.” I am intentional about staying away from this language because I never want the other person to think I am trying to talk down to them. I had a professor in college who would sometimes ask us to first explain our answer to her and then explain our answer again, only this time as though we were talking to her grandmother, who had an eighth grade education. I recommend using this approach when studying apologetics because it will help you gain a deeper understanding of the material and improve your ability to dialogue with any audience.
Rattling Off Memorized Statistics
Whenever I have seen pro-life people rely solely on abortion statistics in one-on-one conversations, they have rarely succeeded in persuading pro-choice people. That being said, I think referring to statistics and facts can sometimes help inform the conversation and work in tandem with other tools. The effectiveness of statistics in this context largely depends on delivery. It can be intimidating if it seems like you are just rattling off some fact you’ve memorized from a textbook.
This is a mistake that I could imagine Leslie Knope making. If you have never seen the show Parks and Recreation, then you should know Leslie is the embodiment of a quintessential Type A personality fueled by positivity and sugar. The hallmarks of her character include her tendencies to speak too quickly and to overachieve to a fault. Her desire to perform well is so strong that she can be off-putting when she gets excited. If Leslie were a pro-life advocate, I think she would have abortion facts and statistics memorized and sorted by subject in color-coded binders.
For example, Leslie might say to a friend, “There were over 1,058,000 abortions in 2011. That is nearly 2,900 abortions per day, 120 per hour, 1 every 30 seconds!” She wants her friend to know that abortion isn’t rare—that, in fact, the numbers are staggering. However, presenting the information this way requires her pro-choice friend to digest too many numbers at once. Instead of rattling off statistics like Leslie, you should present facts in a more relaxed way. If you’re having a productive conversation, you’ll probably end up exchanging a great deal of information, so the details will likely be forgotten later anyway.
Compare the “Leslie Knope Fact Method” with a pro-life advocate who says, “We may disagree about whether or not abortion should be legal, but can we at least agree that abortion is not at all rare, and maybe even that it happens far more frequently than it should? Around one million abortions occur every year in the U.S., meaning that an abortion takes place every 30 seconds. Don’t you think that sounds too high?”
Presenting the fact this way helps the other person follow your line of reasoning and understand why you are bringing up the statistic in the first place. If you know what you’re talking about, it will be self-evident that you’ve done your homework. While the “Casual Fact Method” seeks to bring clarity to the conversation, the “Leslie Knope Method” may inadvertently make it seem like you’re looking for a gold star.
Seeming Like You Have an Agenda
Some pro-life advocates spend a significant amount of time talking about abortion, so when they talk to people who haven’t thought much about this issue, they are on an uneven playing field. If during our one-on-one conversations we make the other person feel outmatched, then we are doing something wrong. It is perfectly okay to have an idea of where you’d like the abortion conversation to go; after all, we do ultimately want to help people change their minds about abortion and become pro-life. But we have to strike a balance between giving the conversation a purposeful direction and coming off like all you care about is changing their mind on one issue. Otherwise, they may feel like they are simply part of our agenda as opposed to people with value.
Some of us have experienced this sort of thing as a kid when our grandfather would ask us an oddball question. We knew it was a set-up to a one-line joke even if we didn’t know the punchline. He might say something like, “Why do hens lay eggs?” Then we would reply, “I don’t know, why?” After waiting a beat, he would say, “Because if they threw them, they’d break!” If you were good-natured, you’d fake a laugh for Grandpa and act like you didn’t know it was a set-up.
In our conversations with pro-choice people, we don’t want them to be wondering what the punchline is or feel like they are being tricked into giving us an answer we want. Sometimes this happens when pro-life advocates ask questions with contractions like, “Aren’t newborns also dependent on their mother?” or “Isn’t it true that the baby has its own unique set of DNA?” Rhetorical moves like these may work well for fast-paced online videos or live debates, but in one-on-one dialogues, these moves can work against you if your goal is to persuade the other person. If we pose all of our questions this way, the other person may think that we are trying to set them up for failure. Helping people change their minds is more than simply defeating their arguments. How they feel during the conversation is sometimes just as or even more important than the arguments you are making. [Tweet that!] If they feel like they are being bamboozled by our questions, then their emotional walls are going to go up and they will not be receptive to our arguments.
People may also suspect that you have an agenda if you refuse to let them change the subject. If they bring up a related issue and want to ask you about it, but you refuse to address their point, they may feel frustrated. I am not saying that you should always let them pivot the conversation to unrelated topics, but if you shut down all of their ideas, they may find it difficult to engage with you.
Lastly, you will seem like you have an agenda if you make the other person feel like you care about changing their mind more than you care about them. If you are primarily having conversations in order to add conversion notches to your belt, others will take notice. We should have multiple agendas in the conversation, but we shouldn’t allow any one of these agendas to overshadow the others. When your priorities are misplaced, you’re far more likely to only hear what you want to hear and say what you want to say, which is both rude and unhelpful. For example, one agenda should be to help the other person change their mind about abortion, and another should be to attend to that person’s unique needs. If you only focus on the first of these, you may end up missing an opportunity to fill an emotional need of someone who discloses a very personal detail to you. Perhaps you have an agenda to demonstrate to pro-choice people that not all pro-life people are obnoxiously abrasive, that, in fact, some of us are gracious, understanding people. While fine on its own, if you allow this agenda to dominate your conversations, then you may have people walk away thinking you were really nice, but you won’t help them become pro-life. There are some agendas which are obviously unhelpful and selfish, like if you want people to think you’re the most charming, intelligent person in the room. If that’s your goal, well, get over yourself. Take stock of what your goals are in the conversation. Make sure they include both being persuasive about abortion for the sake of unborn humans and caring for the human in front of you.
If during a pro-life outreach you find yourself using weird vernacular, rattling off memorized statistics, forgetting crucial information, or approaching dialogues with an agenda, then you probably won’t succeed in persuading pro-choice people. If, however, you take a more organic approach and demonstrate a willingness to understand and respect the other person, then you’re far more likely to change that person’s mind.
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The post “Don’t Come across like You’ve Taken an Apologetics Course” 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.”