When and How You Should End Unproductive Conversations

It is one of the questions I’m asked the most often. We’ve all experienced it. You’re talking to someone about abortion or something else and it’s just not going very well. You start doubting whether any good will come from letting the dialogue continue.

If you do decide to end the conversation, you have to figure out how to graciously bring the dialogue to a close, which can also be tricky.

How do you know? What factors should you consider?

Before ending any conversation you should ask yourself, have I used the “three essential skills of good dialogue” today? Steve Wagner at Justice For All believes the three essential skills of good dialogue are:

  1. Asking good questions.
  2. Listening to understand.
  3. Finding genuine common ground when possible.

You can hear me explain the three essential skills in the video below, from 4:41 to 17:43.

If you haven’t used the three essential skills, that very well may be why the dialogue isn’t going well. I’d encourage you to say, “Can we take a moment outside of the debate? I think it’s really important to listen well and not just be thinking of your next argument, and I haven’t done a good job of that today. I want to ask you to do two things. Forgive me for being ungracious to you and not listening to you well. Secondly, I’d like to ask you to give me another chance. Tell me what you believe, and I promise to try to really hear you.”

But what if you have used the three essential skills? Are there some dialogues that are not worth continuing?  Yes.  Is it easy to tell which conversations you should bring to an end? No. 

I gave a speech at the national Students for Life conference this year on practical dialogue tips, and I said something towards the end that has evolved into a motto at Equal Rights Institute seminars:

“Every conversation is a series of difficult judgment calls amidst prayer without ceasing.”

Sometimes you will be in conversations and it’s not apparent whether it’s worth continuing. You’ll need to make a difficult judgment call, and be aware that sometimes you will probably make the wrong call, and that’s okay.

I’ve previously blogged these two examples where it’s probably time to end the conversation: (I’ve made some additions and adjustments to my explanation of them.)

#1: You’re talking to a bully.

I was at CSU Bakersfield last month mentoring our volunteers who had come out to dialogue with pro-choice people, and I had a frustrating experience talking to a bully. “Jason” was either incredibly closed-minded, taking on the attitude of an internet debater who assumes that everyone who disagrees with him is an idiot, or he was a very calculating person trying to mess up my conversations with other people. When he talked he would accuse me of ridiculous and terrible things. Then I began answering a question from another pro-choice student, “Leslie”, and he began laughing and sneering at me! It was at that point that I turned to him and called him out on it. I said something like, “Man, you’re being really aggressive, and kind of a jerk to me. I want to help people to have good dialogues about this issue, and Leslie asked a very legitimate and very tough question. I’d like to try to answer that now.”

He rolled his eyes and let out a loud sigh, and I turned to Leslie and began responding to her. We ultimately had an amazing conversation, after Jason got bored and walked away. Leslie is one of the brightest pro-choice people I’ve ever met, and while she told me she was as offended by our presence as Jason was when she walked up, we left an hour later with a lot of mutual respect and a very clear idea of where our philosophical disagreements lie. We’re planning on continuing the conversation through email.

Josh talking to "Leslie."

Me talking to “Leslie.”

Here’s the point: I didn’t owe Jason anything. I didn’t have to lie down and be his pro-life whipping boy all day. I don’t think the context of Matthew 5:39 (the “turn the other cheek” verse) requires Christians to allow anyone to waste our time whenever they want to, or force us to violate our consciences. I spent some time with Jason before Leslie walked up responding to his statements, but ultimately a good dialogue with him was impossible, both because of the way he acted and because virtually all of his rhetorical statements begged the question by assuming that abortion is a human right. So I gave up on being helpful to Jason that day and moved on to someone who I also knew would be a huge challenge, but had a different attitude. Leslie more or less said, “I’m as angry as Jason is, but I’m legitimately curious as to how you would respond to my bodily autonomy arguments. I dare you to impress me.” And ultimately, thanks to some clarification questions my brother Timothy asked her, we did.

#2: There’s a time-sensitive issue at play.

Photo Credit: JFAweb.org

Photo Credit: JFAweb.org

In the Spring of 2011 Justice For All came to Fresno State, and there was some down-time right after lunch where almost no one was hanging around to talk about abortion, except “Thomas” (pictured on the right). I continued to talk with Thomas for 45 minutes because 1) he wanted to talk, and 2) even though he didn’t seem open-minded, I didn’t have others to talk to, so trusting God to work through this conversation He was making available, I continued. However, when it was clear that there were others to talk to, I politely ended the conversation, trusting that God would use the time I had spent with Thomas in whatever way He deemed appropriate.

The difficult thing about decisions like this is that it’s hard to know which conversations are actually productive. I had a 75-minute conversation with a pro-choice woman at Fresno State that same weekend that didn’t seem to be going anywhere until the last 5 minutes when she said, “I hadn’t thought of that before. I guess I won’t have an abortion if I get pregnant now!”

When I asked Steve Wagner for his opinion on this, he said:

Because we don’t know what’s actually going on in the mind of the person we’re talking with, we should prayerfully make decisions on which conversations seem to be most productive. Here are some of the factors I consider in making those decisions: Is the person I’m talking to open to rethinking? Is she open to discarding false views, working through her questions, or considering the arguments I’m presenting? Is God working through the conversation to help me rethink? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, I tends to think the conversation is worth having.

When you realize that it’s time to end the dialogue, how should you do it?

I try to do it politely, clearly, and honestly. [Tweet that]

When I was at CSU Bakersfield last month, a guy I’ll call “Harrison” came up to me and we started talking. He didn’t like our poll table question, “Should Abortion Remain Legal?” because he thinks we should be asking about taxpayer funding of abortion. Harrison described himself as a “Christian anarchist” who wants Christians to completely separate from governments. I asked him a few questions about that. Harrison’s views of government seemed identical to other anarcho-capitalists that I’ve talked to in the past, and it appeared to me that he would be happy to spend all afternoon telling me what the world should be like. Harrison wasn’t being rude, but I made a judgment call that I needed to politely end this conversation, as several of our volunteers were in dialogues and I wasn’t helping them by talking to an anarcho-capitalist.

So I ended the conversation politely, clearly, and honestly. I said:

“Harrison, I think your views about government are interesting. I’m sure you’d be willing to spend a few hours talking with me about that.”

[He nodded vigorously.]

“But I’m not willing to do that today. I’m here to help these volunteers have good conversations with people about abortion. I can’t do that if we’re talking about anarcho-capitalism.”

[Harrison started to cut in about how if I just understood…]

“I think I do understand, Harrison. I have spent hours of my life before talking to acquaintances who are anarcho-capitalists, and I think I have a decent general picture of what you believe. I’m not convinced, but I could be if we spent enough time and your arguments were persuasive. But again, I’m not willing to do that today. I need to help these folks.”

Harrison said that he understood, we shook hands, and I walked over to our volunteers and began helping them.

I was polite and I was honest about my situation and why I was ending the dialogue. I’ve never seen this method go badly before. People usually understand that sometimes a person has other commitments, and out of politeness they won’t want to be an annoying distraction to those commitments.

When you’re in a dialogue and it isn’t going well, ask yourself if you used the three essential skills. If you have and your judgment call in the moment is that it’s time to move on, politely end the dialogue by just being honest about your situation, and consider offering to continue the dialogue through email.

Please tweet this article!

Question: How do you realize that you’re in an unproductive conversation? What methods of politely ending the conversation have you found helpful?

The post “When and How You Should End Unproductive Conversations” 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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President

Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh uses speaking, writing and campus outreach to emphasize practical dialogue tips, pro-life philosophy, and relational apologetics.

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