Many times, the issues involved in a conflict area are all about values. For example, consider:

  • Parents say no to a teenager attending a concert concerned about safety
  • You not wanting to do business with an unethical person
  • When business partners clash on short vs. long interests

You can relate to what you or the other person perceives as an attack on your or their core values. These types of conflicts are called value conflicts. Because participants view these types of issues as attacking their core value system these types of conflicts can be even more heightened and defensive than other types of conflicts.

A little neuroscience and background

Our brains prefer to do the least work possible in order to save energy. The brain is lazy wanting to conserve energy in case more energy is needed for something like an emergency, and you have to have a heightened level of awareness. This has allowed us to survive for a long time. The brain likes to look to past experiences, align those with current events, and apply what is known from past events rather than have to think about things differently.

We like things that are clearly right and wrong.

Political parties are aware of this too. They provide us with slanted information that tells us we are right; they are wrong and in fact they are so wrong that we should demonize the other party. This stifles the brain from exploring other ideas, keeping an open mind, and looking for areas of common interest? Why, because it is so much easier to demonize the other group and think we know best and of course we are right. That is all there is to it. Right?

Well not exactly. When something is new or unknown, our defensive mechanisms kick in to keep us safe. We are psychologically uncomfortable. That is healthy. Our brains also consider the source. Is the information from someone in our group? Someone from an unknown group? Or worst case someone from the group we have identified as that group that has it all wrong i.e., the demons.

Daniel Kahnerman refers to two types of thinking. These are type 1 and 2.

Type 1 thinking is fast, effortless, and emotionally charged; governed by habits, so they are difficult to modify or control.

This is effective for many things in everyday life. Think about things you do every day. Getting up, making breakfast, going to work and other daily rituals. It is nice to have habits that do not require much thinking. In fact, you may have such a habit that for example you may drive to work and not even remember the drive to work. Type 1 thinking makes use of our biases, emotional thinking, and how you might immediately reply to a suggestion. It did not require much thinking.

By comparison type 2 thinking is when you need to have critical thinking.

When you are goal focused, deliberate, careful, and considerate you are applying type 2 thinking. With type 2 thinking you really want to problem solve by clearly identifying the problem, developing a series of alternatives, determining the impact of alternatives (economically, socially, environmentally), evaluating the alternatives, and producing an alternative or hybrid alternative to reach a solution. You want to use type 2 thinking for big problems.

So, what can you do?

To avoid lazy thinking the Harvard Program on Negotiation has three ideas and  Nicole Lipkin has six recommendations.

The Harvard Program on Negotiation suggests:

1. Assess whether the value is truly sacred

That is, does this really require type 2 thinking and if does are the values being attacked truly sacred to us. If so, is it possible to abide by the spirit of the value rather than the value? Could this help the other party too? Think creatively in broader terms and imagine what that might mean.

2. Offer concessions on a core value

Perhaps a symbolic concession on a key principle may make the difference. In a recent volunteer mediation in housing court the tenant owed more than $10,000 in rent. The tenant felt that with the hours they worked for the landlord they owed no rent. There was no written contract for rent or payment, though the dollar an hour rate for the tenant was $25 per hour. Finally, the landlord suggested make an offer to me for some amount of rent and I will have the record expunged. An offer of a nominal amount of rent resulted in having the record expunged so the tenant did not have the unlawful detainer on the record going further.

3. Affirm the other side’s positive qualities

I have seen this work numerous times in negotiations and mediations. I have actually asked one side to take a few minutes and write down what they see as the positive qualities of the other party. When presented with this information, the other side that had dug in with their position, decided to change their position and the parties were able to come to an agreement.

Nicole Lipkin suggests these six ways to overcome brain laziness

Establish group diversity:  diversity (here are 17 characteristics of diversity) such as age, gender, ethnicity, and more

Define expectations: She suggests that you have a goal and stay on track. I will suggest that you should come with an attitude to find a way to work towards a common purpose rather than a hostile attitude.

Emphasize collective awareness: Understand your common group biases and try to keep them at bay.

Stress freedom of thought: From above, focus on type 2 thinking.

Insist on information sharing: Be as transparent as you can.

Promote innovation:  Stimulate people to be creative and think outside of the box.

Hopefully, the commentary presented here will give you some ideas on how you can work together on tough value conflicts. Keep an open mind when addressing these types of challenges and avoid the us versus them and instead the us (meaning all of us) versus the problem.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]