Why Can't We Talk?: Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart

This highly readable and timely guide to engaging dialogue as a habit of the heart prepares you to approach your adversaries with curiosity, civility and compassion.

John Backman
Foreword by Kay Lindahl

6 x 9, 176 pp | 978-1-59473-443-4

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Learn How to Contribute More Effectively and Compassionately to the Conversations that Shape Your Life

“Anything could happen when we start to talk. Nothing will happen if we don’t. That alone makes the way of dialogue a journey worth taking.”

—from the Epilogue

Think of an issue that makes your blood boil. Now imagine lunch with a friend who is just as passionate about it—on the other side. How can the two of you even broach the issue, let alone hear each other with curiosity and compassion?

The answer begins long before the lunch does, by learning to engage dialogue as a habit of the heart—an inner transformation that the ancient practices of Christian spirituality can address. This highly readable and timely guide to restoring dialogue shows you how to cultivate this transformation while preparing you to approach your adversaries with curiosity, civility and compassion. With dialogue expert John Backman leading the way, you will:

  • Examine the obstacles that keep you from dialogue: black-and-white thinking, a Ҥistraction lifestyle, the fear of change and negative impressions from others.
  • Explore the strength of character from which healthy dialogue springs—and the work of the soul that cultivates them.
  • Learn practical guidelines for dialogue and how they work in an imperfect world.
  • Encounter anecdotes of dialogue in action, from resolutions of interpersonal conflict to difficult dialogues on some of the most divisive issues of our age.
  • Use provocative questions at the end of each chapter to stimulate group discussion and individual reflection.

“Beautiful, passionate and very personal … reminds us again of why we need to be aware of the present moment: that’s where God is.”

John Lionberger, author, Renewal in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Guide to Connecting with God in the Natural World

“Genuinely profound … Offers wise counsel to develop in practical ways a deep and intimate relationship with the immediacy of life. An invaluable resource for those interested in realizing the spiritual in daily life.”

Christopher Titmuss, co-founder, Gaia House; author, An Awakened Life: Uncommon Wisdom from Everyday Life

“Leaps alive with insightful stories, honest reflection and practical suggestions of finding the Divine in the daily-ness of our lives.… A must for anyone seeking or struggling to create a spiritual practice.”

Nancy Corcoran, CSJ, author, Secrets of Prayer: A Multifaith Guide to Creating Personal Prayer in Your Life

“Attention is the great problem of our distractable age. Here’s a solution!”

Bill McKibben, author, The End of Nature

“Uncovers the presence of God in scripture, nature, everyday events, and the glad tidings of creativity. These observations and practices are sturdy companions.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, co-directors, spiritualityandpractice.com; coauthors, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life and Spiritual Rx.: Prescriptions for  Living a Meaningful Life

“Puts St. Paul’s teaching of ‘pray without ceasing’ into the context of our everyday lives. A poetic and practical, eloquent and accessible book.”

Alice Peck, editor, Next to Godliness: Finding the Sacred in Housekeeping

“[Provides] a connection to peace, to faith, and to natural compassion—a ‘homey’ comfort.”

Sylvia Boorstein, author, Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness

“A pilgrim’s field guide to the Sacred.… Reminds us that by waiting and watching we will encounter the Sacred in the everyday stuff of life.”

Philip Harnden, author, Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light with Thomas Merton, Bashō, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard & Others

Foreword vii
INTRODUCTION: Talking with the Adversary ix
1 When You Have to Move the Elephant 1
2 Hearing the Call to Dialogue 17
3 Roadblocks on the Way 29
4 Engaging the Work of the Soul 41
5 Three Mind-Sets for the Journey 59
6 Pushing beyond Our Borders 69
7 Making Dialogue Happen 83
8 Dialogue Unbound 97
9 Dialogue in the War Zone 111
EPILOGUE: A Gentle Challenge to Our Culture 125
Acknowledgments 129
APPENDIX: Spiritual Practices for the Way of Dialogue 132
Notes 141
Suggestions for Further Reading 148



Why the interest in dialogue?
I’ve always been conflict-averse. Rodney King’s famous line “Can we all get along?” could be my mantra. At first I may have seen dialogue as a nice, pleasant way to avoid conflict. Only later did I begin to see the beauty of dialogue for what it is: a path through conflict that fosters empathy and compassion—a way to bridge the persistent divides that fracture our society.

So, why can’t we talk? And what can we do about it?
There are so many factors involved. As a culture, we’re caught in a cycle of anger and polarization that just seems to be getting worse. As individuals, we often fear dialogue because it makes us vulnerable. What if we find out we�re wrong, especially about a conviction we’ve built our lives around? Most fundamental, though, is our fight-or-flight response: if we perceive someone else’s opinion as a threat, our instinct is to act like our ancestors before a charging mastodon—run like mad or stand and fight. It’s so human to react this way.

That’s why I start with the call to inner transformation at the heart of many faith traditions. As we open our hearts to God, God’s heart opens to us, and we start to reflect divine values—love, connection, peacemaking—from the inside out. This transformation changes our gut response from anger and defensiveness to curiosity and compassion. We go from “Doggone it, you’re wrong!” to “That’s fascinating. Tell me more.”

I notice the subtitle of the book includes the word Christian. What’s in there for non-Christian or non-religious readers?
The goal is to draw from the treasures of the Christian tradition—particularly ancient monastic practices like silent prayer and contemplation—in a way that can benefit anyone. A good deal of the book is devoted to other paths to inner transformation, such as fundamental mindshifts and practical steps to engage our world. Any reader can use these paths right away.


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When You Have to Move an Elephant

  • In what areas of your life does dialogue happen most naturally for you? Where do you find it a struggle?
  • How do you seek to promote dialogue in your own life?
  • How has this chapter changed or enriched your understanding of dialogue?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?

Hearing the Call to Dialogue

  • How do you see the future of the Church, particularly with regard to the controversies that currently divide it? Can we still preserve the unity to which Jesus calls us, and if so, how?
  • How do you see the future of your church or denomination?
  • Could you be a catalyst for change or reconciliation on the issues that divide the Church (or your church)? How? What gifts do you have that would lend themselves to this type of effort?
  • Some of the scripture passages quoted in this chapter—like the story of the Canaanite woman, or “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”—are difficult for many of us. How do you interpret them? How do you connect them to the broader mission of Jesus?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?

Roadblocks on the Way

  • Consider the obstacles to dialogue presented in this chapter. Which influence you the most? How could you overcome their influence in your own life?
  • How do you use language to support your convictions? What are some of your favorite catchphrases?
  • How could you reword your favorite catchphrases to shed more light on your beliefs—and open the door to dialogue?
  • What other obstacles to dialogue come to mind? What kind of influence do they have on you? on the state of dialogue in our society?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?

Engaging the Work of the Soul

  • What are your most cherished beliefs? Why do you cherish them?
  • What do you consider the greatest threat to these beliefs? How (if at all) could you see that threat as simply another perspective? Is it appropriate to do so?
  • Do you belong to a faith community? If so, how do the beliefs of the community support—or challenge—your own beliefs? How (if at all) does it nurture the virtues of dialogue in your soul? If not, where do you seek out the benefits of community for your own life? How does it help you to grow?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?
  • Choose one of the spiritual disciplines listed in this chapter to try for a week—or, even better, a month. (See the appendix for basic how-tos.) What draws you to that practice? How do you think it will affect you? Take notes to share with the group about insights you gather and any difference in you see in yourself or the way you see the world.

Three Mindsets for the Journey

  • Think of a time when you suddenly saw the merit of someone else’s argument or belief. How did you feel? How did you react? What happened to the conversation? What lessons can you take from that experience into the rest of your life?
  • Various words, phrases or observations strike different people in different ways. How do the three phrases in this chapter strike you? What other phrases or mind-sets might help you become more oriented toward dialogue?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?

Pushing beyond Our Borders

  • Take a fresh look at your news sources. Evaluate them from as many perspectives as you can think of: conservative versus liberal, social conservative versus economic conservative, atheist versus evangelical and so on. What are the strengths of your media diet? What news sources would help you balance it?
  • What foreign country fascinates you? What would it take for you to travel there, to learn its language or to explore it online?
  • How many of your good friends are not like you? In what ways? How could you broaden your circle to broaden your perspective?
  • What part of your community lies furthest outside your comfort zone? What would happen if you volunteered in that area or with those people?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?

Making Dialogue Happen

  • Whom did you choose for your first dialogue partner? Why?
  • Think of an issue about which you are wildly passionate. Now imagine sitting across the table from someone who believes exactly the opposite of the way you do. How could you reframe the issue to arrive at common ground? Does this reveal any new insights about the issue at hand?
  • Think back to the last time someone completely misunderstood a word or phrase you thought was common knowledge. How did the person react? How did you react? What did you do to clarify what you meant? How would you handle this kind of situation the next time it arose?
  • What might happen if, the next time you meet with someone who dislikes your opinions, you start by discussing the funniest lines you’ve ever heard in a meeting? How could you build on that to make progress in your dialogue with that person?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?

Dialogue Unbound

  • Search your memory for a discussion that went awry. Why did it fail? What good things came out of it?
  • Consider one of the polarizing issues of our times: gay marriage, for instance, or war, or capital punishment. What are the shopworn arguments that characterize each side? How might we reframe the issue to foster dialogue?
  • Come back to the issue about which you are wildly passionate and the people with whom you disagree (which you defined in response to the questions from chapter 7). What kinds of policy initiatives or volunteer activities could you take up together that might allow you to see one another�s humanity?
  • Did you learn other lessons from the sample dialogues we explored in this chapter—lessons that did not come up earlier in the book? What kind of lessons?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?

Dialogue in the War Zone

  • Consider the other side of a topic discussed in this chapter: abortion, LGBTQ issues or evangelism. Without judging, see if you can fathom the line of reasoning behind it. Seek out a website that attempts to lay out the position in a civil manner (ProCon.org is an excellent place to start). What do you hear in this position? Can you see how a reasonable, goodhearted person might come to that belief? How might you open a dialogue with such a person?
  • What other topics would you consider “war zones”—conflicts that have raged with seemingly no hope of dialogue? How would you start a dialogue on these topics?
  • With what in this chapter do you disagree? Why?