Note: In the episode, President Dallin H. Oaks is credited as having said “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” This quote should actually be attributed to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. However, President Oaks has been quoted as saying “Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable.” This quote is found in this talk.
In his April 2022 general conference address, President Russell M. Nelson suggested five ways to help maintain positive spiritual momentum, one of them being “End conflict in your personal life.” He invited us to both forgive and seek forgiveness. In some cases, what this looks like in practice may seem very clear but in other cases, our hopes for ending personal conflict seem to hinge on our ability to have tough conversations without contention. Specifically, conversations related to polarizing topics seem to be particularly hard to “get right” in today’s world. But Melaney Tagg has begun helping people with seemingly polarizing views come together to recognize that as children of God, we have more in common than we realize. Still, along the way, Melaney has noted several pitfalls that tend to trip people up in finding this common ground and she shared those, as well as tips for success in making peace in our homes, communities, and at church.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones Pearson: I think that there are some people who are hearing you talk Melaney, and they’re like, “This sounds great. I would love to have a positive experience surrounding some of these conversations that are going on in the world right now.” But these people, sometimes no matter how well-intentioned, or how hopeful they are, when they wade into the waters of this political or controversial discourse, it doesn’t end well. And so I wondered, what have you found to be some of the pitfalls that can trip us up in our best efforts?
Melaney Tagg: Sure, I think we, as humans, value our opinions. We like to think that we have been thoughtful and deliberate and informed in our opinion and we maybe wear it as a badge of honor a little bit to be firm on them, as if it’s noble to have come to the right answer about something, which is especially tricky in the Church where we do believe there are absolutes to which we cling, and that we love. And yet I fear we extrapolate that too far that certainty and that sureness about everything and I think that that’s misplaced. And so, so some of the pitfalls that we’ve seen, one is kind of an easy one and that’s pessimism—just assuming the worst about what the other guy thinks, or how it will go. If we simply had an air of generosity and optimism, I think that would go a long way to inform the process. I think we need to be aware of valuing our opinions and overvaluing learning.
I used to have a favorite gospel doctrine teacher and I loved it every time she said this, “I used to think this and now I think this,” and she so beautifully encouraged us and allowed us to be different to change, to grow, to learn. And we need to afford that to ourselves and to other people so that we aren’t so entrenched and intransigent in our opinions. This is one that is hard for me sometimes because I love a good debate... [but] we need to stop listening and interacting in order to convince the other person of something, and we need to listen to learn about them specifically, and about the things that they think and the things they value. A friend gave me good advice once, which is we should always consider that we may be wrong. And when you go through life that way, it really opens up a wide array of opportunities for learning things we’ve never thought of before that allows us to massage our opinions and to let them grow and be organic, and change, which is divine, right? The growth of thought and the enlarging of ideas is divine. It’s godly. I think a key pitfall is when we forget the divinity of the other guy. Whenever we think that we have any kind of moral high ground, we have forgotten that we share that divine moral high ground with everyone, that we all are divine. And then the last one that I would offer to you is that we don’t practice this enough. I think often we think, “Man, that guy over there. He’s from the other side. I’m not going to talk to him, I’m going to stick with these folks that think what I think” and we think in our silence and our avoidance, we are contention free. When we examine our hearts, that’s not contention-free. That’s just contention not out loud. And so we need to practice, we need to say, and I’m optimistic on [this with] any issue, guns, abortion, any issue, “You have really interesting thoughts on this, share with me your ideas, share with me your experiences that have led to these ideas.” And I have yet to have a time where I didn’t hear things I hadn’t thought of before. When I [come] without rancor and with an overarching mood of the divinity of the other person, I learned something every time. And my own opinions and views are, I think, divinely honed because my brother is divine and he just shared with me what he thinks. So practice, practice, practice.
Morgan Jones Pearson: Yes, well, you’ve given me some homework to work on. So I appreciate those tips so much. As I mentioned earlier, this is not something that has been or that should come as a surprise to members of the Church that it would even be a topic for this podcast. It might seem a little bit unusual but if we’ve been listening in recent general conferences, this is actually something that’s come up a lot and earlier last year, I was asked to give a talk about eliminating contention. And I was amazed by how much specifically President and Sister Nelson have talked about eliminating contention and how to do that. But President Oaks has said, “Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable.” What have you found to be the most important qualities in approaching conversations with those that might passionately believe things that are contrary to what we believe, and I love how you touched on in your last answer about we are people that believe in absolute truth. So, how do you balance being a passionate believer in absolute truth, but also being able to have conversations with those that may see things differently than we do?
Melaney Tagg: Isn’t it wonderful how much the Brethren and our organizational leaders have given us on this topic? It is everywhere. I’d say maybe for the last five years, these themes have been broadly in general conference, and I’m so thankful they give us language and thought on how to live in these loving ways. I love President Oak’s advice that we can disagree without being disagreeable. And he gave us some other language that I’ll use to talk about that question. He said, “On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify.” For me, unify—that sounds like a big word—to find unity when there’s a contested issue. But I find that I think mostly about that instruction from a prophet to moderate. And just like you highlighted, we do believe in some absolutes, but he’s telling us, “Look for where you can moderate instead of being firm, instead of being entrenched,” which is kind of counterintuitive to the believer in the restored gospel. And so I have to think, “What is he asking me to do what do I have to moderate? When I’m contesting with my brother, I have to moderate what does that mean?” Maybe that means I have to adapt, I have to hone a little more on what I thought I believed, Maybe it’s rough, maybe it needs to be smoothed out. Maybe I even need to change what I think about something in order to moderate—maybe I’m really far off. And moderation requires some full-on change on my part. If I’m moderating and you’re moderating the unify is easy. That’s the natural result that comes from this demanding process of figuring out how and what to moderate. I think that’s what he’s asking us to do. I think he’s asking us without being disagreeable, to openly talk to each other, “help me understand what you think.” And you’re going to ask me questions to help you understand what I think. And then even on enormous issues, when we really dig into what that word moderate means that a prophet of God has invited us to do. It’s hard work. And it requires us to be different, to change, to be humble. It requires us to ask a lot of questions of the other person, and to do some honest explaining, agreeably with the other person. And ultimately, it requires us to not view them as our enemy but to love them, learn from them, and then moderate, which is a big, big deal.