When someone crosses the line of decency, our words to them can either help shed light on the situation or pour gasoline on the fire. A recent apology for an incident 30 years ago helped me understand the power of words.

I got a cool note recently from a self-described "Molly Mormon" who recounted an incident from my high school seminary class. A couple friends and I were the type who attended that class only because we had to, and our choice of language and comments largely reflected that.

One day in class I guess she had had enough of our choice of words, and she let us know it. Almost 30 years later, she found our contact information and apologized for something that was probably called for in the first place. From her account, she implied that she had been rude and had gone a little overboard in her delivery, and it had gnawed at her for years.

I'll be honest — I don't remember the event. It amazed me that she had even held onto it this long, much less apologized for it.

Here's the irony. In our high school days, there couldn't have been two people more different. Back then (and now) her path in life could probably be described in three words: straight and narrow. My path included frequent detours and train derailments. Today? Parallel paths with the same destination in mind.

Her account of that incident made me think. If we could catch a glimpse of the future in those times that we struggle with the present, would it change the way we speak today? Probably.

It’s not easy to view people for "what they may become” (see "See Others as They May Become," President Thomas S. Monson, Ensign, November 2102) instead of what they’re doing now. Having a healthy balance of "today" and "tomorrow" is key to not only solving a current problem, but also extending a lifeline for the future. So what can we do in one of those situations where someone around you is crossing the line of decency? After being on both sides of that line, here is what I've learned:

Stay true, but go easy

The offending party probably doesn't have the same life experiences that you have. They may or may not understand what they've done. Either way, most people will respond positively to a polite request. Try to stay in that space. You can stay true to your beliefs without creating a backlash.

Don't fire back

Getting angry with the offensive person is a little like saying, "People who judge are jerks." You become a living oxymoron. We have no idea of what's going on in those persons' lives that has led up to their actions. More than likely, what they need is an ear, not a mouth. Choose your words carefully, and with concern.

Patience, patience, patience

As most parents know, it can be very difficult when someone ignores you or blatantly disobeys. It happens. If a couple of your attempts to softly remedy a situation go unheeded, you may need someone else's help. All the while, however, try to keep a calm head. Things go so much smoother when you separate the gas from the matches.

Back to that three decade-delayed apology. I am grateful for those people in my life that were stalwart and patient as I slowly found solid ground. As one of those black sheep that eventually found the Shepherd, I know that our words in times of conflict can affect how others do the same.

Tim Johnson is the art director at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City. He and his wife, Alicia, are the proud parents of five daughters who, thankfully, look like their mother.