Last week, I had the privilege of sitting next to author Ben Cheever during lunch at the Marymount Manhattan writer’s conference.* When I mentioned that I was writing about civil, compassionate dialogue, he recalled Rodney King’s famous line: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Given this golden opportunity to explain myself, I instantly responded with a lame throwaway line. (Ben, please accept my apologies.) So, in the Department of Damn, I Wish I’d Said This, I wish I’d said this:

Dialogue has nothing to do with “just getting along.”

Don’t misunderstand me here. Getting along, living and letting live, and agreeing to disagree—when understood properly—are all worthy of pursuit. I believe dialogue can move us toward those high ideals.

But the process itself can be pretty bumptious. People are passionate about their convictions. The anger that pervades today’s society often drives them to defend those convictions in kind. So if we approach them with anything that strays from their perspective, we may well catch some flak. 

A good friend of mine recently took offense at my post on immigration. In a lengthy email, she described the harmony and mutual goodwill in her multiethnic California neighborhood. She highlighted the absurdity of Anglocentrism in a region where Hispanic culture came first. She took umbrage at what she saw as stereotypes of Mexicans.

As it turns out, I totally agree with her. But she also lit into me for using language that, in her opinion, just inflamed the situation further.

I’m glad she cared enough to invest herself in a lengthy reply (not to mention the days of research she conducted to formulate her thoughts). I may not agree with her assessment of my post, but that’s not the point here. The point here is that it’s easy to stereotype dialogue as the domain of people who just want to make nice, and, well, it just doesn’t work that way.

Because of my family history and emotional makeup, I have compelling reasons to want to make nice. I’m sure my passion for dialogue springs from that. But for me at least, it can’t end there, because (as I’m now finding) reaching across the divide means jumping into the fray—not on “our side” or “their side,” but as one trying to stop the shouting and start the talking.

Have you ever caught flak while trying to start an honest dialogue? How did you deal with it? Did it convince you never to enter the fray again, or did you find a way through? I’d love to know. Please use the Comments function below and share your experience.

*One benefit of this blog for you, dear reader, is that you don’t have to endure endless name dropping. The reason is simple: I don’t name-drop because I don’t know any names. If I ever come to know any names, I will name-drop only when necessary to make the point or wake up the search engines. Promise.