I’ve enjoyed doing this study. It’s a topic that I have already pondered on several times in life, and each time it has had new applications for me. First I wondered how to win the loyalty my younger siblings as a child. Then there was serving a mission, where I tried to proselyte the gospel message to others. Next there is my marriage, where my wife and I continually come to terms with our differences. Now I have children of my own, and the desire to teach them the things that matter most. There are also the daily interactions with friends, and the many different ideas and beliefs that we hold. And on top of all that are my efforts to convince my own self to live a higher life.
In all of these situations I want to be a voice for the things that I believe are important, but I do not want to become a tyrant. And even though this is a question I have considered before, there were absolutely new lessons waiting for me as I performed this study. The gospel is a well that can be drawn from many times over.
I am convinced that this topic is one our society as a whole needs to study, too. We will always have different opinions, and there is a lot of good that comes of this, but we need to know how to communicate and persuade in a way that is constructive, not divisive. Hopefully the principles I’ve learned can be useful to all of us.
You Cannot Convince an Enemy or an Inferior
First and foremost, if our intention is to make someone see what is right, we can never succeed. All we will accomplish is to entrench them more firmly in their original beliefs and make them resent us. Neither can we try to manipulate or coerce them into “seeing the light.” Passive-aggressiveness is just as ineffective as harshness.
Even a more academic debate is largely ineffective. There are very few who are going to separate reason from emotion. Thus, even if they see that you are technically right in your specific argument, they will still be convinced that you are wrong overall.
Appeals to authority fall short as well. If you have to explain to your subordinates why they should listen to you, then your actual authority over them is purely imagined. The more strongly you profess your superiority, the more you actively undermine any actual persuasion, because no one wants a tyrant for their mentor.
In short: brute force, invoked authority, and intellectual prowess are the most common ways we use to try and get people to believe and do what we want them to believe and do. Not only are these methods ineffective, they are each immoral in their own way.
Doctrine and Covenants 121:39- We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
Moses 1:19- And now, when Moses had said these words, Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me.
You Can’t Set Another’s Pace
Perhaps the greatest temptation to force another comes from the immediacy of want. We want someone to be a certain way, and we want them to be that way right now. Many of our wants can be immediately satisfied: when we are hungry we get food to eat and when we are tired we put ourselves to sleep. So when we want someone to do something, there is a strong inclination to just make them do it today. But even when done with good intentions, such as a parent that wants to make their child understand the right way to live, this method is ultimately ineffective.
Any behavior that is outwardly enforced will only continue so long as the force is maintained. If we teach others to be good by threats or bribes, then they will depend on those threats and bribes to maintain their virtues. Obviously this is far from the ideal. The ideal is for people to be motivated internally, by a personal desire that requires no external force to continue.
But how do we make that personal desire come alive in another? Quite simply we can’t. It is internal. It is out of our reach. We can love and we can set an example and we can be ready to receive their conversion, but we cannot make that conversion happen. For their transformation to be lasting, it can only occur when when they are ready for it.
Nehemiah 9:30- For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets.
Hosea 3:4-5- For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim:
Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; and shall fear the Lord and his goodness in the latter days.
A Hope in Human Nature
And this might be a hard reality for us to accept. This seems to be the most unreliable form of influence imaginable. The most hands-off, uncontrollable, indirect way there could be. If we don’t make sure that things work out right, how can we be sure that they ever will? That question, however, only betrays a lack of faith in humanity. We ask it only because we fail to appreciate that if people truly are the children of God, then it is already in their nature to come to Him.
The fundamental desire to be good is already alive in us all. Human beings everywhere naturally seek the light. They do not need to be told that they should go to it, they just need to have it held high and they will make their way over on their own.
So how do we persuade and influence other people? We simply hold aloft our light. We be kind and good. We love them regardless of whether they’re willing to follow our example yet or not. We let them sort things out on their own terms, and know that they will come when they are ready. We prepare ourselves to forgive all their wrongs in the meantime. We keep answers for when they start asking questions. We store up grace and mercy for the day that they are willing to accept it.
And we do this for them because it was what He first did for us.
Matthew 5:16- Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Luke 15:20- And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
Nehemiah 9:31- But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.