In the immediate aftermath of last week's US Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs Wade, the 1973 case that largely guaranteed American women the right to abortion, huge numbers of Americans took to the streets. Some celebrated and some raged. Few issues are more divisive in recent years in the US than abortion.
The depth of belief and emotion surrounding abortion in the US is such that it has a long association with violence, including hundreds of bombings or arsons at abortion providers, at least 11 people killed in attacks on abortion providers, and many more threats and thwarted attempts.
While the debate may be less heated in New Zealand, the media scuffles among New Zealand politicians in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision reminded us that we have our own history of emotional debate on this issue. That includes marches and protests in the 1970s, surrounding the opening of New Zealand's first abortion clinic in 1974, as well as harassment of patients and an arson attack.
This raises the question: How can we have civil dialogue about this and other controversial issues when people feel so committed to the moral righteousness of their opinion?
The Limits of Logic
As a lecturer and researcher on communication for nearly 40 years, I've often focused on the importance of logic and reason in deliberation – that is, making evidence-based arguments. These are critically important in a democratic society.
So, in the lead up to the Supreme Court's decision, hundreds of prominent scientists, physicians, public health experts, and even economists submitted statements to the Court arguing that restricting abortion access has negative societal consequences because of the negative effects on the pregnant women who seek and are denied abortions and thus the health and wellbeing of their children and families. Women suffer increased risk of physical and mental-health negative effects/complications when they are denied the option of an abortion. The submissions were from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, among others.
But all this evidence was ineffective with six Supreme Court justices, so it is likely to be not just unconvincing but possibly off-putting when we are talking to family or friends standing on the opposite side of a hot-button issue like abortion.
Part of the difficulty – and why logic and reason fail to change hearts and minds – is that positions on abortion are often rooted either in religion-based moral reasoning or in "tribal" affiliation within a highly politically polarised society in the US – or both. Referred to as political sectarianism or political tribalism, this kind of worldview sees people identifying with one side and seeing the other side as morally repugnant, with no common ground possible. Abortion is one of a set of "culture war" issues, along with gun rights, LGBTQI rights and COVID vaccination and restrictions, and taking the "right" position on those issues is necessary to belong in the tribe.
So, if evidence and logical reasoning won't help us talk to each other, what do we do?
Here's what doesn't work: Being snarky, argumentative, or trying to show people the error of their ways. This causes people to dig in and stop listening; whatever openness may have existed due to your friendship or personal connection becomes a hardened position.
It is tempting to avoid entering the conversation by claiming neutrality or just refusing to talk about it. But that also carries risks. A recent study found that people who opted to stay neutral on a contentious issue were often seen by others as deceptive, less trustworthy and less likeable.
Having Civil Conversations
There are some initiatives in the US that offer signs of hope. All are based on the idea that we can have civil conversations with those with whom we disagree and that doing so brings us closer together. As one example, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution brings together "people and groups with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues."
While there are differences in approaches, these initiatives have seen successes, and all use a common base of evidence-based communication practices that simultaneously foster civil dialogue and build relationships.
I have used these practices myself in more than a hundred workshops in business settings to help groups find collaborative solutions on contentious issues. I have also tested some of these ideas in research, finding that when two groups with different attitudes towards an issue engage in constructive dialogue they come closer together. By contrast, people who already share similar views tend to harden their stance when they get together and discuss the issues in a group.
Importantly, we can use these communication practices in our everyday lives to engage in civil conversations that bring us together rather than driving us apart. Here are a few of the most important guidelines:
First, inviting someone into a conversation rather than demanding or pressuring them sets the scene for a constructive conversation. A sincere invitation such as "I'd really like to understand your views on this" is a good start.
Second, demonstrate conversational receptiveness. That is, communicate your willingness to engage with the other person's views. Conversational receptiveness includes using phrases that show you're acknowledging and trying to understand the other person, such as "I believe what you're saying is...".
Similarly, hedging, or indicating some uncertainty or flexibility about your own views, signals receptiveness, for example, saying "I think my plan might help…" rather than "My plan will absolutely solve the problem".
Third, show curiosity and openness to the other's views - even when you vehemently disagree. That sort of respectful inquiry tends to be reciprocated.
Fourth, look for common ground. Even on an issue like abortion, there are often areas on which people on both sides of the issue can agree – such as the safety of pregnant women and their children.
Finally, after carefully listening, try to explain the other person's view fully and respectfully until the other person can agree that you've captured the essence of it. And then ask him or her to do the same for you.
The essence of these guidelines is listening respectfully to understand (not to rebut) and approaching the conversation with a view to learning and understanding – not convincing each other. Even if you're very persuasive, you probably won't succeed in changing a stalwart's views on abortion or other contentious issues. But you may be able to find enough respectful common ground to enjoy a cup of tea together with someone you didn't think you could.
Ted Zorn, originally from the USA and with dual New Zealand-American citizenship, is professor of Organisational Communication at Massey University in Auckland. He speaks and writes frequently on US politics.