Value conflicts: when people can’t agree on their values

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Don’t we all believe the same things are important in life? Surely there’s a set of core values everyone follows, like honesty, integrity, compassion and kindness? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But the more people you meet, the more value conflicts you’ll discover.

And it can be a shock to realise that not everyone has the same values as you. If they did, you’d hope that nobody would be tempted to exploit or harm others. Fewer people would be rude, skive off at work, or tell white lies.

Individual value systems

Actually, there are as many value systems as people in the world. Everyone has a unique take on what’s important in life. So everyone has a unique, individual set of values that they live by.

Most of us don’t realise this. We tend to assume everyone has the same values we do, and therefore that they’ll act much the same as we do.

But try starting a discussion about politics, religion or money. You’ll soon find out that people believe in very different things. And often they can’t agree on which values are most important.

Value conflicts between people

Whenever people gather, you’ll find conflicts between their value systems. It happens in every household, classroom, workplace or clubroom.  

And people are quickly annoyed by something that seems wrong. They sense a value important to them is being flouted. And that’s even if they haven’t clearly defined their values to themselves.

For instance:

1 Employees don’t always agree with the way their workplace is heading. Businesses that churn staff don’t seem to care for the welfare of their workers. So managements can seem to value profit more than having a well-trained, workforce with good employment conditions. 

2 Parents often dislike school policies that are discriminatory. And yet, entrance exams to some exclusive schools may be so hard that only the highest achievers pass. So school boards seem to place a higher value on the reputation of the school, than on equal opportunity.

Arguments around value conflicts

You can often tell when one of your values has been ignored. You’ll feel angry or annoyed, or let down in some way. So arguments are often related to values.

For example:

1 You want to share lottery winnings with family, but your partner doesn’t. The two of you have different beliefs around many values such as generosity, kindness, relationships, financial security and self-reliance. 

If the ideals you both hold are opposite to each others’, it can seem as if you’ll never be able to reconcile them.

2 You’ve worked hard all your life, and been generous to your children. Your values include generosity, relationships, quality of life, achievement, and the wise use of resources.

Now, you’d like to buy a few pieces of good furniture for yourself to enjoy. 

However, a relative is disgusted with your decision. He values hoarding resources, postponing pleasure for duty, extreme self-sacrifice and parsimony.

The values that underpin your two world views are so different, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see eye to eye.

Pressure to conform

However, some people think that everyone else should hold similar values to them. They put expectations on others to believe what they believe in, and to act the way they do.

Of course, these expectations aren’t helpful. We can’t force others to believe what we believe in. We’re all different, with different values and different goals. 

So heated arguments can arise when values are in conflict.

But pressuring others to change often backs them into a corner. And you’ve probably noticed yourself, that anyone who’s pressured to change their views, often end up holding their old views even more strongly.

Far better to discuss these issues calmly, with no anger or coercion at all. Make an honest attempt to listen to what others say, without interrupting or criticising. Acknowledge the points they’re making, even if they’re different to your beliefs. You don’t have to agree with them: simply accept that this is what they think is important.

Then they may also give you the courtesy of listening to what you’re saying. 

An example of value conflicts

Let’s see how the local football club is handling a conflict between members. 

Currently members are wrangling over whether to offer more training to local kids. They’ve almost had to stop meetings after people got too agitated when trying to push their own agenda.

Under this apparently simple issue lurks a range of conflicting values. Some members value elitism. They think only the best players, or those who can pay, should get training.

Others value equality and inclusiveness. They want everyone to have a chance regardless.

And those who value thrift don’t want to spend any money at all.

Values outside awareness

Most club members haven’t thought about what’s behind their decision. They may never have clearly defined their values to themselves. Their values are largely held outside their conscious awareness.

So they don’t realise how these unexpressed values affect their opinions, or the decisions they make.

Every choice they make, day in, day out, might be affected by their values. But they’re not always aware of why they make the decisions they do. And if someone comes in, guns blazing, to try to change their minds, they’ll resist and dig in their heels. 

To prevent this hardening of attitudes, it’s more helpful to explore the pros and cons of each option objectively. That way, they may have more chance of gaining consensus. 

Our values affect how we act

So our values determine much of our behaviour and the decisions we make.

This is seen clearly on the public stage. Once politicians are elected, their values are on show. Do they support the environment or scientific research? Education, health-care and public housing? Animal welfare?

Or big business, high finance and trade agreements?

What they support depends on their priorities. Politicians join the party that best matches their own values. And they also support programs that best fit their values.

For example, politician X believes in self-reliance and self-motivation. They believe individuals should be responsible for their own lives. Therefore they don’t support social security programs.

But politician Y knows health or employment issues can be out of an individual’s control. Just look at the COVID-19 situation. Therefore this politician will support programs to help people in need.

Balancing values

Lobby groups and party-room pressure can also sway how politicians vote. Sometimes MPs have to act against their own values, even though they don’t want to.

And this can happen in daily life too. Sometimes you have to balance conflicting priorities. For example, do you:

work full-time or stay home part-time with your baby?
splash out on overseas trips, or save for a house?
take that high-paying stressful job, or be content with the enjoyable but low-paying job you have?

In each of these, you’re torn between two choices. Each option has pros and cons that relate to values you hold.

Be aware of value conflicts

So be aware of potential value conflicts in your everyday activities. 

Value conflicts can cause friction between people, and also set up internal tensions within a person. Knowing your own values is a first step to reducing this conflict.

You can guess others’ values by studying their decisions and behaviour. Then you can then decide if it’s worth trying to influence them or not.

Most people are surprised to find that not everyone has the same values. The reality is that we’re all individuals, with individual beliefs. However, often when we embark on a relationship, we’re often oblivious to this fact.

This young couple are in conflict due to their differing values. Will they be able to resolve their differences?

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