How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable
September 2021

Digital Only: Young Adults

How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable

As a psychotherapist, I’ve discovered how three prophetic truths can help us learn to resolve conflict without contention.

two men talking at a table

All of us feel strongly about something. And not everyone is going to agree with all our perceptions, opinions, ideas, or beliefs.

These two facts of life mean that experiencing disagreement from time to time is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean contention is inevitable.

We know that as followers of Jesus Christ, we don’t want to be contentious (see 3 Nephi 11:29–30). So, in moments when we disagree with others, we have the choice to either allow our differences to end in contention—pushing us apart and potentially damaging our relationship—or allow the disagreement to help us have a new understanding and appreciation for those we disagree with.

As hard as it can be at times, I would go with the second option!

As a psychotherapist, I often work with clients who are struggling to overcome conflict with others in their lives. And some of the most common issues that I have seen cause contention in relationships are jealousy, comparison, misunderstandings about relationship expectations, and differing perspectives on politics or religion. Although these issues can be difficult to navigate, they don’t have to divide us.

President Russell M. Nelson has testified of three important principles that can help us make our disagreements more positive experiences. He encouraged us to “show compassionate concern for others,” “bridle the passion to speak … contentiously for personal gain or glory,” and “truly [love] God.”1

Taking these three truths, I would like to draw upon insights that I’ve gained in my profession to offer ideas on how we can disagree without being disagreeable.

1. “Show compassionate concern for others.”

One of the keys to showing compassionate concern for others is recognizing the person’s worth. The scriptures teach that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 18:10), and we need to see that this is true of every one of His children. Sometimes it may be difficult to see a person’s divine worth because of his or her behavior or because of our own limited perspective, but these things do not change the value of the person.

In 1 John 3:1, we read, “The world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” Our natural eyes, which cause us to see from a worldly perspective, can’t recognize the true and eternal worth of ourselves or others, just as the world couldn’t see Christ’s worth. We can come to see others the way God sees them as we strive to look beyond what we see with our natural eyes (see Moses 6:35–36). Here are some suggestions as to how we can do this:

  • Pray for the gift of discernment to see the good in others.

  • Practice remembering the divine worth of everyone you meet.

  • Act from a position of love and concern for the eternal welfare of others.

As we take these steps and learn to see the divine worth of others, we will be able to show more compassion toward them, even in difficult moments.

2. “Bridle the passion to speak … contentiously for personal gain or glory.”

Proverbs 13:10 teaches that “only by pride cometh contention.” When we allow pride and our drive for personal glory to be our motivator in conversations, we will more often find contention. When we work to manage our pride and look for ways to understand the other person’s perspective, we will be more likely to have a productive and positive conversation.

A few years ago, I counseled a man who had very strong political opinions and was very educated about his viewpoints. Because of his knowledge, he had become very prideful. This pride had crept into the way he interacted with everyone in his life, and he would often seek out conflict with others just to prove them wrong. Unsurprisingly, his relationships with coworkers, friends, and family members were falling apart, which caused him to finally seek help.

One of the first areas we focused on to help him work toward healthier relationships was to examine the end goal he had in mind when interacting with others. He recognized that his pride was causing him to focus on his desire to be right. When he decided to stop giving in to that desire and to manage his pride, he was able to have more peace in his relationships. Here are a few key questions we discussed in our meetings that may be helpful to you as you seek to overcome pride:

  • Are you being driven by compassion and understanding?

  • Are you wanting to cause hurt and stir up angry feelings?

  • Are you arguing for the sake of being right?

  • Are you focused on building a healthy relationship with the other person?

  • Are you having conversations where the Spirit can be present?

Remember, before you engage in a disagreement, think about what you want to accomplish. Question your motives. This one simple step can help you start improving your relationships and interactions with others.

3. “Truly [love] God.”

The two great commandments—to love God and to love our neighbor—go hand in hand. When we love God, it leads us to also love our neighbor. (See Matthew 22:37–39; 1 John 4:20.) As Jesus taught, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Our love for God can help motivate us to love others, and we can look at how we treat others to know if we are demonstrating our love for God. Here are three ways we can show our love for God and decrease contention:

  • Avoid using generalized statements and labels. When we’re frustrated, it can be easy to make generalized statements or label others, saying things like, “My aunt never thinks about …” or “This close-minded jerk I was talking to …” But labeling others in this way will keep you from developing meaningful connections or being open to hearing their views. We should also try to avoid statements that include the words never or always, because both words are generalizations and are rarely accurate.

  • Labeling one another with a derogatory title or in a one-dimensional way can make us lose sight of the fact that we are all sons and daughters of heavenly parents with a variety of knowledge, qualities, talents, and abilities.

  • Consider other perspectives. Getting defensive and making assumptions are common in disagreements, especially when we don’t share the other person’s beliefs or experiences. In these instances, try to keep an open mind as you listen to other perspectives. There are few situations where there is only one right answer.

  • When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it becomes easier to maintain a civil conversation, and you’ll likely learn something about them you didn’t know before. Ask them how their perspective has been shaped by their experiences and seek to understand rather than correct them or prove them wrong.

  • Validate feelings. Validating is different than agreeing. You can still disagree while also respecting the other person’s thoughts and feelings. As you try to validate their feelings, you might realize that you see things more similarly than you originally thought.

  • To validate another person, listen to their words, observe their body language and facial expressions, recognize their emotions, and show them you care about their experience by asking questions and repeating back to them what you understood from what they said. Validation is really learning to listen and understand another’s experiences without judging them or feeling a need to correct them.

President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, reminded us: “The Savior taught that contention is a tool of the devil. … All of us should banish hateful communications and practice civility for differences of opinion.”2

We can all work on offering an increase of love and acceptance to others, regardless of our different views. Our differences do not need to divide us. Just as Doctrine and Covenants 88:125 says, “And above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace.”

Our difficult conversations can become opportunities to grow closer together, not further apart. And as we work toward changing for the better, remember that we have the Savior on our side, who can help us make positive changes when it is difficult to do so on our own (see Ether 12:27).

As you work to develop the skill of disagreeing without being disagreeable by showing compassion, removing pride, and loving God, you will find a decrease in contention and a greater sense of peace and joy in your interactions with others.