For Pro-Life Advocates: Debate vs. Dialogue, How Do They Differ?

Opinion   |   John Ferrer   |   Apr 6, 2018   |   7:00PM   |   Washington, DC

Debate is fun for me, but I’m odd like that. I’m an academic and ethics teacher, so I’ve debated abortion formally and informally, in academic settings and elsewhere. The subject arises most every time I’m in a panel discussion, too. In that time, I’ve come to learn that debating is radically different from casual conversation. It’s miles apart from almost every kind of interaction we can have on campus, around the lunch table, walking to class, or hanging out over coffee.

Even with all that debate experience, I’m still a novice when it comes to casual conversations about abortion. I’m a little weird like that. Thanks to Josh, Tim, and the rest of the ERI team, I’m learning how to not be weird. One advantage of my experience, however, is that I can help explain the pitfalls of debating abortion, especially when the other person just wants a dialogue. I know those pitfalls by experience; I’ve tripped across almost all of them. I’m painfully aware that academic debate is entirely different from the street-level, day-to-day conversations regular people have about an issue.

Debate can be incredibly valuable in formal settings, in classes, or on certain websites that facilitate that sort of structured exchange. Most of the time, however, people aren’t looking for a debate, and so we can overpower and ruin a conversation if we try to force it into that mold. I’d like to offer some counsel on how to distinguish debate from dialogue so you can keep your conversations healthy and persuasive.

Big Difference #1: Artificial vs. Natural

From what I can tell, the biggest difference between academic debate and other kinds of dialogue, such as sidewalk conversations and dinner chatter, is that debates are artificial. They are structured and organized to fit academic settings. They have timed responses, logical argumentation, point-scoring, policing (judges, moderator), and so forth. They are a kind of invented formula designed for airing out the best evidence for and against something. Debaters have to follow standard practices adhering to formulaic patterns, or else they can lose credibility in the judge’s eyes.

As a result, debate can feel fabricated, strange, and ill-suited to informal conversation and non-academic settings. The same is true if someone at your dinner table were to launch into a prepared sermon, a 15-minute-long sales pitch, or a dramatic monologue. These aren’t organic methods of communication. They don’t invite people into a warm and trusting relationship. Instead, they feel like a wedge, dividing people from each other because they are not natural or personable modes of communication around the dinner table or on the sidewalk. Debaters, like myself, can ostracize ourselves, and marginalize our message if we wave our “weird” flag all over the place when the other person just wants a regular conversation.

Big Difference #2: Formal Rule-Based vs. Informal Relationship-Based

Formal debate has explicit rules of decorum. There are no “unwritten rules.” There are only clear cut rules defining what is and is not permitted. If any rules are left unclear, they become loopholes for debaters to exploit. Generally speaking, debates are based on rules of order. By contrast, the “rules” in regular conversations are typically unwritten or non-existent. The closest thing to “rules” for regular conversation are moral basics like “be honest,” and informal cultural norms like “don’t shout at strangers” and “say please and thank you.” Regular conversation works without explicit “rules of the game.” Conversations are generally organic, free-flowing, and informal.

A person doesn’t have to “study” and “prepare” to have a conversation. Nor does he or she have to study the other person’s views beforehand. The conversation itself can be the means of learning. Debates, on the other hand, typically require mutual learning beforehand, as both participants study and prepare for each other’s arguments; they learn rebuttals, anticipate objections, and try to have a mastery-level knowledge of their own views and their opponent’s views, all so they have the best chance at winning the debate. Regular conversations do not require any mutual learning or deep familiarity with both sides of the discussion.

And normal conversations are definitely not designed for one person to “defeat” the other.  If you approach a casual conversation like the goal is to defeat the other person, you’ll almost certainly ruin the conversation and make a bad impression (see below). Debate tactics, when dropped into a regular conversation, make you look like a bully, a kind of intellectual know-it-all who is disconnected from normal people.

Big Difference #3: Competition vs. Collaboration

Debates are also competitive. As mentioned above, this facet of debate makes it like a sport or game. Debaters work against each other so they can win and the other party loses. They also have adopted rules and standards which they mutually agree upon, and they have to follow these rules and standards or risk losing the debate. The rules force them to stay civil because, if they start to break the rules and descend into deceitful or unsportsmanlike behavior, they can lose the game. A regular conversation has none of that since it’s not based on formally-stated rules, but is based in an informal relationship with mutual benefit instead.

Conversation, typically, is the most rewarding and effective when it’s a collaborative effort in which people share their thoughts and feelings with each other. Conversation is aimed at relating graciously with each other and hopefully learning something in the process. The people work together to connect with each other, and, only sometimes do they have the aim of learning something beyond just that relationship. They are not necessarily aimed at changing each other’s minds, but can be aimed simply at understanding and caring more deeply about each other.

Ironically, people are often more likely to change their minds because of a meaningful conversation with a friend than from an academic debate featuring expert scholars destroying each other’s worldviews. People are more willing to listen to, understand, and find points of agreement with people they trust. And gracious conversations help build that trust. Conversation works best between teammates, but not so much with enemy combatants.

Big Difference #4: Aggressive vs. Laid Back

Debaters typically aren’t chill, laid back, or relatable. Generally speaking, debate rewards aggression, pushiness, and even bully-tactics. Debaters are supposed to be “civil” in the sense of professionalism and decorum. But that civility is essentially the respect shared between two Generals in a civil war. The structure of formal debate rewards debaters for “pressing the attack” like a battle plan or an offensive strategy on the ball field.

On the contrary, in casual conversations, people cannot “press the attack” without looking like a jerk. That aggression is a breach of trust. It hurts feelings, ruins conversations, and hardens people’s hearts against you. When people drop debate tactics into everyday conversations, they risk driving other people away.

People need to know that they have plenty of safe and friendly opportunities to express their beliefs and opinions as they learn the ins-and-outs of a topic. Friendly conversation runs much more smoothly when you can be patient, build trust, and sincerely care about the person in front of you. Aggressive debating, on the contrary, pressures people into a posture of unyielding defense. People are much more willing to change their minds in the course of gracious, casual conversations where they feel safe enough to talk through issues with someone they trust. [Tweet that!]

Additional Do’s and Don’ts

Besides the artificiality and the formal, competitive, and aggressive aspects of debate, there are some practical differences between debate and casual dialogue. Understanding these differences can help you be more conversational and persuasive when talking with people about abortion. These five points are all recommendations for debate settings. I’ve found debate to be uniquely valuable for exploring topics in the classroom, so feel free to implement these tips in your next classroom debate or at a “thinkers club” discussion if you have that sort of thing at your school or community center. But outside of an academic setting, you should probably do the opposite, as explained beneath each point.

#1: In debates, promptly get to your point, stating your thesis early.

It’s a conversation stopper if you skip past introductions, ignore any personal details, and start arguing your case from a prepared thesis statement. Healthy casual conversations need to have room to breathe, with a relational ebb and flow, where two people are learning a little bit about each other and showing that they care, even as they state their “agendas” and admit, honestly, what they hope to accomplish.

It is not as if debates have an agenda and conversations do not. All modes of communication have an agenda. So, you don’t have to hide your intentions or act under false pretenses. Go ahead and tell people what your beliefs are and what you hope to accomplish. But state your case in a context of caring about the person, listening to them, and respecting their right to disagree. It’s fine to state your “thesis” in a gracious, honest, and respectful way. Agendas aren’t the problem. The problem is when you prioritize the thesis over the person, making the person a means to our goal, instead of a part of our goal. If you skip over the relationship so you can get straight to your thesis, you will look like you are only interested in what you can do to them — change their mind.

In healthy conversations, your goals should be to relate with the person and persuade them, whereas debates work just fine if you argue your case rationally regardless of persuading or even caring about the other person.

#2: In debates, explain clearly the argument you are making, early on, explicitly numbering the premises of your logical argument.

In conversations, this makes you look stuffy and robotic. Conversations require you to be relational and responsive, inviting people to share more of their real feelings and beliefs. Enumerating the premises of your argument will likely sound unnaturally formal and controlling.

#3: In debates, shift the burden of proof where possible, so they have a growing responsibility to defend more than they can handle.

In conversations, this tactic can feel a little pushy and unpersuasive. In regular conversations, people don’t necessarily think about who has the burden of proof, or how much evidence they need to justify their beliefs. If you resort to shifting the burden of proof, you can give the impression of strong-arming the conversation, especially when the other person hasn’t necessarily thought through his or her views that deeply.  A better tactic is to assume as much of the burden of proof as possible so that the other person doesn’t feel threatened or feel like they are “losing.”

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You can also offer helpful suggestions in order to prompt their memory and show that you are trying to be a good sport. You can also give an “escape” clause where you offer them the option to not give an answer if they can’t think of one. For example, “Do you have some evidence for that claim? If not, that’s okay.

Conversations are delicate like that: they can “break” easily. If the other person feels like you are getting pushy, debaters are required to stay till the end of the debate, but conversants will just leave or escalate things into a fight.

#4: In debates, point out fallacies, by name, wherever they occur in your opponent’s argument, objections, and rebuttals.

In conversations, this tactic again is unpersuasive and pushy. You should probably still make mental notes about fallacies in their argument, but don’t point them out openly, as that can feel like shaming and uninvited competition. This practice effectively chills the conversation so that the other person is more likely to go passive and stop engaging with you. It can also irritate and upset them, triggering a fight-or-flight response leading to irrational defensive posturing (i.e., listening less, shouting more, or just leaving the conversation).

#5: In debates, conserve time by inserting additional arguments and evidence in the form of pointed questions.

In conversations, pointed questions can feel aggressive, competitive, and pushy. These should be used sparingly and not in heavy succession (i.e., steamrolling). There is a place for pointed questions, but they generally require: (a) permission by asking them, “Do you mind if I ask you a difficult question?”; (b) trust-building so that they know you have good intentions and are willing to listen; and (c) some additional context so it doesn’t feel forced or artificial, but, instead, fits naturally with the conversation.

They’re both good for different purposes

Debate and dialogue can both serve well in advancing the pro-life case; just remember that most people don’t care for debate unless they are attending it or watching it on YouTube. Debate is fine in formal and academic settings. But conversation, on the other hand, is a far more useful skill in persuading people, and that skill is built on kindness, trust, grace, understanding, and, of course, genuinely caring about the other person. [Tweet that!]

Even when a conversation gets lively and we are tempted to switch into “debate mode,” we need to suppress that urge so we don’t ruin a great conversation. We can still be adamant about human rights and the dignity of life without forcing the discussion into a debate. That sort of power move is what jerks do. We do well, instead, to let our conversations ebb and flow as a gracious exchange between two people seeking truth together. In casual conversations, our passion for protecting life draws its persuasive power from the love and respect we show to our fellow conversationalist.

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  • Tweet: People are much more willing to change their minds in the course of gracious, casual conversations where they feel safe enough to talk through issues with someone they trust.
  • Tweet: Conversation is a far more useful skill than debate in persuading people, and that skill is built on kindness, trust, grace, understanding, and, of course, genuinely caring about the other person.

LifeNews Note: The post “Debate vs. Dialogue: How Do They Differ?” 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.”