How to Talk About Abortion (and Other Difficult Things)

Tips for making it worthwhile

I've spent a lifetime arguing with people. Being number four in a family of five, I grew up having to negotiate and discuss my place in the world from my earliest memory. I then married an articulate, intelligent woman, and together we raised two very articulate, intelligent men. In addition, my entire working career has been dominated by having difficult, but important, discussions. Here are a few tips I've picked up along the way on how to do this well.

Your goal is to win a friend, not an argument.

People are more important than your opinion. Even if you are the most correct person in the whole world, a veritable Einstein of knowledge, the person you are speaking to is of infinitely higher worth than whatever it is you wanted to say. Besides, if you win a friend you will have won a lifetime of chances to get your points across (and they to you.)

You won't change minds, but you can improve understanding.

People don't have lightly-held opinions about difficult topics. Any opinion they have will be founded on a deeply interconnected web of facts, experiences, assumptions, emotions and deductions. You're not going to change all that in a single conversation! At most, you can improve your mutual understanding, and based on that, engage in future discussions. If they're still willing to go out to lunch with you after your big discussion, that's a win. Major life decisions can take years to be resolved. Change isn't easy. And maybe the person who needs changing is you.

Be grateful that they're willing to talk to you.

Always, always be grateful for anyone who engages – and say so. To engage on a difficult topic is a real act of courage. Everyone knows it's going to be messy. They know it could get heated and out of hand. They know that feelings could definitely get hurt, that the chances of being misunderstood are very high. So when they decide to talk to you anyway, it's an act of grace on their part. Act accordingly.

Difficult topics are emotionally draining.

Nobody wants to talk about difficult topics like abortion. It's exhausting and emotionally draining. The only reason they do it is because they feel it just has to be done. Never respond quickly to a post or a comment on social media. Put some time between a statement and your response. I personally like to give it a whole day, so I can sleep on it. If emotions still run too high, call a time out, agree on a future meet – and make sure you show up (even if they don't.)

Pick just one thread and stick to it.

Difficult topics are difficult because they are broad and deep. There are literally dozens of simultaneous facets and angles at play at any one time. It's so easy to just fall back on the tried-and-true stances, slogans and statements. You've got to cut through the thicket. Pick just one thread and work it to everyone's satisfaction. And don't pick the most radioactive thread first. Work your way up to the more contentious points, building agreement upon agreement.  

Define your terms.

English is an exceptionally frustrating language to use when one is trying to be precise. Unless you're speaking in an academic or specialized language with millions of precise words, you need to spend time in the discussion making sure everyone is using the same senses of a word. Especially open-ended words such as "freedom".

Always say what you agree with first.

Every person is living alone, on an island of self. Every now and then we see another island in the distance and we hastily scribble a note, stuff it in a bottle, and throw it into the sea. We don't really know what those other islands are like. We don't really know what the other person living there really thinks. And we can't know even if they understood our message until they throw a bottle back to us in response.

So you've got to give them a sign. When you find them saying something you agree with, repeat it back. People literally do not know you agree with them until you say so. And unless they know you agree – or, at the very least, understand your disagreement – they will keep repeating the same point over and over.

Repeat their strongest points back to them.

Always engage with what you consider is their best, most effective point. Put their best foot forward for them. This demonstrates two things: first, that you are listening to what they are telling you, and second, that you are unafraid to respond to it. In fact, tell them explicitly that you are picking their best point, highlight it and praise them for it. A good point is a good point even if it's wrong. That sounds contradictory, but it isn't.

For example, the essential point of contention in abortion is over the personhood of the unborn. If someone firmly believes that the unborn aren't persons, then allowing abortion is a perfectly rational stance for them to take. It's a very strong position. So if you want to convince them otherwise, start right there: Yes, if the unborn aren't persons, then it would be right – and conversely, if they are, then it wouldn't be. So, let's talk to that. What is a "person"? Etc.

Never, ever question someone's motives.

And now the best for last. This is the Golden Rule of talking about difficult things. If you are going to have a conversation at all with someone, then you must presume they are operating in good faith. For this reason, I don't enter into difficult conversations lightly. If it's clear they're only interested in slogans, or shouting matches, or talking past you, then find something lightweight to talk about or just walk away. But if they are sincerely willing to engage, you absolutely must give them the grace of believing in them.

Image credit: "listen to ME!" by Orange_Beard is marked with CC BY 2.0.


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