Pro-Dialogue: Some Benefits of Deepening Our Conversations About Abortion
Last week, I attended a Braver Angels online debate about abortion. Over 150 people participated, representing a wide range of views. Braver Angels debates are highly structured and skillfully moderated. The format encourages thoughtful consideration of controversial topics and prevents the conversation from devolving into conflict. With courage and vulnerability, people volunteered to share their experiences and perspectives. I was glad to see the respect and support the collective expressed verbally and non-verbally. In contrast to what is often represented in media and social media, every speaker articulated complex and caring views.
Listening to people from varied perspectives talk about abortion transported me back in time. Thirty years ago, abortion was my entry to reaching across the political divide. In the early 1990’s, I started a Common Ground group to bring together pro-choice and pro-life people who wanted to engage in dialogue. Like the Braver Angels debate, Common Ground provided an opportunity to hear people talk about their views with authenticity and complexity. I listened to pro-life feminists and pro-choice Catholics and other varied standpoints. I found that I agreed with some things expressed by people on “the other side,” and I didn’t see eye-to-eye with everything I heard from people whose political position aligned with my own. It became obvious to me that most people’s views on abortion are far more complex than either movement’s labels and slogans communicate.
Although it didn’t change my stance on reproductive rights, it did shift my feelings about people who disagreed with me.
Common Ground was a transformational experience for me. Although it didn’t change my stance on reproductive rights, it did shift my feelings about people who disagreed with me. Understanding how others came to their views helped me recognize the sensitivity and reason that informed their conclusions. People did say things that struck me as short-sighted, hypocritical, or unsympathetic; however, it was clear to me that this was true of people on my own side, as well. Ultimately, listening with the intent to understand expanded my limited perception of people who disagreed with me as I came to appreciate their humanity and complexity.
Abortion is currently in the forefront of many people’s minds, and it is a particularly difficult time to bridge the divide. It’s completely understandable if your emotions are elevated, and you feel reluctant to engage with people who disagree with you on this weighty topic. However, if you do feel inclined to enhance your own comprehension of a different view, I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities and guidance offered by organizations such as Braver Angels and Living Room Conversations. If you are seeking additional preparation, a variety of resources are available on my website.
consider expanding your conversations with people whose politics are aligned with your own
If you’re repelled by the idea of listening to someone on the other side of the abortion debate, I wonder if you might consider expanding your conversations with people whose politics are aligned with your own. I find these exchanges often consist of confirming that the other person is on your side, conveying arguments and articles that affirm your mutual position, and venting frustration about people who disagree with your shared view. What if we went a little deeper? What if we invited them to share how they came to their views? What if we divulged experiences and values that shaped our own perspectives? What if we got curious about the complexity of people’s relationship to abortion?
You may wonder what there is to gain from deeper conversation with our allies. Based on my experience, these interactions foster insight into our own and others’ values, help us to refine our reasoning, and enhance our ability to articulate our perspectives. Furthermore, these novel interactions can strengthen our ties with people in our circle. All of which can prepare us to be more effective advocates and hone the skills that will help us to communicate across differences.
Whatever your views on abortion, whether or not you want to engage with someone on the other side of the debate, dialogue can help us connect with the humanity and complexity in ourselves and others. Through this foundation of deep conversation, we can strengthen the fabric of our relationships, our communities, and our country.
Tania Israel is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and award-winning author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work (APA, 2020).