Recently I’ve been listening to the RTÉ podcast Hot Mess, presented by Philip Boucher-Hayes. The podcast asks awkward questions about Ireland’s climate responsibilities. Urgent stuff. I recommend it. 

In episode 3, ‘The Last Drop’, Boucher-Hayes facilitates a conversation between a dairy farmer, Tim O’Leary, and an ecologist, Dr James Moran. The subject matter is important in its own right, but as I listened I couldn’t help thinking that the way the two people talked was relevant to our mission here at the Minimise Project, of having better conversations about abortion. 

For starters, there was an openness to having the conversation. O’Leary accepted a need for ‘more reasonable dialogue’ between farmers and environmentalists. If this openness wasn’t there, persisting with the conversation would probably have been counterproductive.

The conversation was also held in good faith. This didn’t have to be spelled out; it was evident from the way the two people spoke. They both respected the other person’s sincerity.

Moran began by finding common ground. As Terrisa Bukovinac (now of PAAU) pointed out in an interview here, the more your interlocutor can see you have in common with them, the more likely they are to listen to your point of view. Moran explained that he himself grew up on a dairy farm, thereby demonstrated a genuine understanding of where O’Leary was coming from. 

O’Leary and Moran also readily agreed that the online debate around the climate crisis was toxic and unproductive. This surely applies equally to the abortion debate. Hurling insults at your opponents while the planet burns is not just unproductive, it’s actively counter-productive. Likewise, I’m pretty sure that arrogant pro-lifers ‘owning the libs’ on Twitter is not going to save the lives of any pre-born humans. (We’ve written about this here.) As Moran put it:

“Often when you’re having these difficult conversations, you know, you need to have them sort of face-to-face and understand where the other person is coming from, and particularly read body language so you know you’re not offending somebody. You can offend somebody inadvertently on social media very quickly…”

This is so true of an intensely personal and sensitive subject like abortion. Knowing when to shut up is just as important as knowing when to speak. 

Moran also avoided generalisations. He didn’t make assumptions about O’Leary’s individual circumstances, but asked him about his situation and took what O’Leary said into account. Moran listened. This is an essential part of a good conversation, but one which is often neglected. Someone – I forget who or where – once remarked that when it comes to conversations, many of us aren’t so much listening as waiting to respond.

Another thing I noticed was that Moran – deliberately or otherwise – avoided phrases which might be likely to alienate O’Leary, such as ‘green desert’. Earlier in the episode O’Leary noted that this phrase infuriated him. Language matters. Pro-lifers take note.

The conversation was constructive and hopefully laid the foundations for more. For O’Leary, it was ‘a pleasure to take part in a conversation where there is proper engagement’.

I recommend you listen to the conversation yourself. It’s worth listening to for the substantive issues discussed, but it’s also an excellent example of how to have a good conversation, and that’s what we’re all about.