This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 4 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Fortunately for extreme introverts like me, there are particular skills you can develop that will lead to civil discussions — including discussions over explosive issues such as abortion in the current milieu. Surprisingly, even people who start off angry can be calmed if you put these skills into practice. As the proverb says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1 NASB).
Justice For All,1 a pro-life training organization, teaches that there are three ways a conversation can go: good, bad, or ugly. First, the ugly. An ugly conversation is one we’ve all likely seen. Both participants in the conversation are raising their voices, possibly using harsh language, and no one is listening to the other person. Both just want to say what they have to say and are offended that they’re not getting through to the other person. A bad conversation has an advantage over an ugly one: it is civil. No one is yelling, and there is no name-calling, but what makes it a bad conversation is that there is still no listening happening. A pro-choice person, Bill, might raise an issue, such as “It’s a woman’s choice to have an abortion.” A pro-life person, Ted, might, then, cycle through his list of pro-life arguments, telling Bill that human life begins at fertilization, that there is no substantial change from embryo to adult that changes the embryo from something that is not human or has no rights into something that is human and has rights, and that the heart starts beating in the third week of embryonic development, the brain at six weeks, and it can likely feel pain by twenty weeks. Whether or not these things are true, this is a bad conversation because, despite Bill’s insistence that he believes a woman has a right to choose, Ted is not listening to his actual concern. Since Ted is not listening to Bill’s actual concern, he is not addressing Bill’s actual argument. In essence, he is talking past Bill, and Bill’s mind certainly will end up not being changed.
Then there is a good conversation. A good conversation is one in which both people are active participants — they are listening to each other and addressing each other’s concerns. The conversation is civil, and if this keeps up, they could even leave the conversation as friends, or at least with a deeper respect for all people who hold to that person’s particular views. Rarely will you ever change someone’s mind immediately. Most people will have to think about it some and might change their views later while thinking back over what you said. So we rarely aim to change someone’s mind on the spot. Instead, we should give them something to think about that gnaws at them and gets them to continue thinking through the issue.2
The two most important things to remember in order to have good conversations? First, we need to focus on fostering the life of the mind. The best way to do this is to develop intellectual virtues. Second, we need to develop some necessary conversational skills in order to defuse a potentially hostile situation or to ensure that a civil conversation doesn’t become hostile.
Develop Intellectual Virtues
What is a virtue? A virtue is a morally excellent quality leading to any act that is generally seen as a good thing to do. Virtues are things such as courage, wisdom, temperance, and honor. These virtues also have corresponding vices — any act that is generally seen as a bad thing to do. Cowardice, ignorance, gluttony, and treachery are vices. And even though something like courage can be a virtue, too much of any virtue can also be a vice. Too much courage can lead to recklessness, for example. A person who wants to act virtuously must find the golden mean between the vice and the virtue in order to act in such a way as to be virtuous. Additionally, one act does not make someone virtuous or vicious. A virtuous person is a person who establishes good habits, and a vicious person is a person who establishes bad habits. A virtuous person should establish good habits so that doing good comes as second nature to that person. But these are moral virtues. What are intellectual virtues?
In his book Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development, Philip E. Dow3 presents several areas in which someone can develop his ability to think and reason in a way that is virtuous. This will cause a person to become more likely to be able to tell truth from falsity because of the intellectual habits he develops. The main thing we need to remember is that no human being is infallible. We all make mistakes, and we should all be willing to own up to them. Doing so will not only make you more likely to believe true things but also make you more convincing to a person you’re trying to persuade and will help ensure that your conversations remain civil. I will discuss three of the intellectual virtues for the purposes of this article.
Intellectual Courage. Dow writes, “Those who are intellectually courageous earnestly want to know the truth, and so they take risks in the pursuit and promotion of the truth.”4 A person who is intellectually courageous doesn’t surround herself with an echo chamber. She engages with a viewpoint and considers contradictory viewpoints. You can’t know your position is actually true unless you read what those who disagree with you have to say. Even if a particular view sounds good, you might be overlooking the holes and flaws with the argument that others who have noticed them can point out. Fostering this virtue will help you see your interlocutor as another human being who is trying to find truth, as you are, and you will be more inclined to hear him out rather than tune him out.
Intellectual Honesty. According to Dow, “Intellectual honesty is not primarily about the process of getting knowledge but rather about how we choose to use or present the knowledge we already have” (emphasis in original).5 Part of honestly seeking knowledge is learning how to interpret the evidence you have after you find it. You want to avoid dishonesty for honesty’s sake, but also because if the person you’re having a disagreement with recognizes that you’re an honest thinker and presenter of evidence, he will be more likely to trust you and give you the benefit of any doubts that arise. Of course, it’s always good to have a copy of your evidence with you, in case you do get called out on one or more of your claims. But if you establish a reputation of being intellectually honest, your conversation partner might be more inclined to take your word for something.
Intellectual Humility. This is one of the most important of the intellectual virtues. People can have a false humility, where they really have some skill and downplay it to appear humble. But Dow warns us this is dishonest and can actually cripple our ability to learn and grow. Rather, Dow explains, “Authentic humility is simply an attempt to see ourselves as we really are.”6 Intellectual humility is incredibly important because it shows that we understand we’re not infallible. We’re not going to be able to learn anything if we think we know everything. We have to place our desire to learn truth over our ego’s desire always to be right. Not only are people more suspicious of a person who thinks he’s always right, but if we think we’re always right, we’ll never recognize any actual need to learn anything. This is dangerous for any person’s thought life.
Three Conversational Skills
It’s not necessary that you master the life of the mind before talking to people about abortion, especially since there’s so much at stake. Just knowing what it means to be a good thinker and then taking steps toward fostering the intellectual virtues is a great start. But arguments and intellectual virtues are not enough. You can be the smartest pro-life person alive, but if you don’t know how to speak convincingly, then none of it matters.
In addition to the basic knowledge necessary for these discussions, we need a practical method for communicating this knowledge clearly and persuasively.7 If you’ve ever attended a Justice for All seminar, you’ve learned that there are three essential skills for any conversation. If you master these three skills, which I present below, then it doesn’t matter what kind of conversationalist you are — you will be able to handle any discussion.
Perhaps most importantly, we need good character. Possessing good character and a practical method will go a long way toward being persuasive with our arguments.8 The following skills will help you model the wisdom and character needed for persuasive communication.
Ask Questions. There are good reasons we ask questions. One reason is for clarification. For example, if someone says the common pro-choice slogan “My body, my choice,” there are at least four different things they could mean by that. You’re not going to know which it is unless you ask. Misrepresenting someone’s argument can lead to frustration on the part of the arguer, and it can lead to you attacking a version of the argument that the person doesn’t even believe. This is obviously unpersuasive. You can also more gently challenge someone’s view with a question than with a direct accusation.
Listen. Don’t just listen with the intent to respond; listen with the intent to understand. If you take the time to really understand someone’s viewpoint, then you can more accurately respond to his or her concern when it is your time to speak.
Find Common Ground. This does not mean compromise your views. You can find common ground with someone without accepting their position. We can agree that many women are in difficult situations when it comes to raising a child, without conceding that abortion would be permissible in those difficult situations.9 Finding common ground makes you more persuasive by showing you really do care about these situations. Glossing over them and focusing intently on the unborn without so much as mentioning the bad situations many women find themselves in can make you come across as callous to the difficulties of women in crisis pregnancies.
Exhibiting the intellectual virtues and conversational skills can be tricky, especially if we’re not used to them. But in time, through enough practice, you can get to the point where they become natural. Once you do, you’ll find that conversations no longer run the risk of becoming heated. You’ll also start to enjoy having these conversations rather than dreading them. That attitude is infectious and will rub off on many of your interlocutors as you find that more people will be open to the pro-life message just based on their good interaction with you.
Clinton Wilcox is a staff apologist for Life Training Institute. He writes for several popular pro-life blogs and recently had an article published in Bioethics, one of the top five bioethics journals in the world. He specializes in training pro-life people to make the case for life effectively and persuasively.
- Stephen Wagner is the executive director of Justice for All. Other pro-life organizations that do a great job in training people how to think well and converse civilly on the topic of abortion are Life Training Institute, with Scott Klusendorf as the president, and Equal Rights Institute, with Josh Brahm as the president.
- Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 38–40.
- Phillip E. Dow, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
- Dow, Virtuous Minds, 28.
- Dow, Virtuous Minds, 61.
- Dow, Virtuous Minds, 70.
- Koukl, Tactics, 24–25.
- Koukl, Tactics, 24–25.
- Stephen Wagner has written an excellent book called Common Ground without Compromise, in which he details twenty-five points of common ground that pro-life people can find with pro-choice advocates. You can