Conflict Resolution Scenarios: Negotiating Values

Conflict resolution scenarios and recent research findings can help you get negotiations back on track when you’re at odds with others over your deepest beliefs and principles.

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conflict resolution scenarios

Consider the following real-life conflict scenarios:

  • Two siblings argue over whether to sell some of their late parents’ possessions.
  • An activist group blocks access to a road to prevent a company from developing forestland it recently purchased.
  • Business partners argue over whether to accept a potentially lucrative client that sells a product that one of the partners opposes on moral grounds.

The most heated types of conflict in organizations and in our personal lives often concern our core values, such as our personal moral standards, our religious and political beliefs, and our family’s welfare. Such values conflicts can escalate and intervening quickly in cases of conflict is essential. The following three conflict resolution scenarios can help you get back on track.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


1. Assess Whether the Value Is Truly Sacred

Values conflict often arise because one or more of the parties involved considers a value to be sacred and nonnegotiable. In some cases, our values truly are not open to compromise. In other situations, however, our values turn out to be “pseudo-sacred”—that is, we are willing to negotiate them under certain conditions, notes Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman.

For example, in one study, negotiators with little power (namely, those with a weak BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement) were more likely to compromise on a seemingly sacred issue than negotiators with greater power, Notre Dame University professor Ann E. Tenbrunsel and her colleagues found in their research. A lack of alternatives led the low-power negotiators to become more flexible on the “sacred” issue.

Before refusing to budge on an issue you deem sacred, try to envision an outcome that would allow you to abide by the spirit of your values even as you make concessions on the specifics. Or if a counterpart insists a particular issue is sacred, make a proposal that honors his values while also bringing you closer to agreement. Such creative thinking can lead to conflict resolution success stories.

This doesn’t mean putting price tags on your most cherished beliefs; rather, it means thinking creatively about how to meet your broader goals. Take the case of the siblings who disagree about whether to sell possessions of their late parents. What if they agreed to donate a share of the proceeds from the sale to a charity that their parents supported? They might both come to believe that this solution honors their parents’ values even more than keeping the belongings.

2. Offer a Concession on One of Your Core Values

In a 2007 study, Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research and his team presented various proposals for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to citizens residing in the West Bank and Gaza: Jewish-Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian student supporters of Hamas. All three groups soundly rejected proposals that would require their group to make a concession on a core issue (such as Israeli withdrawal from the regions or Palestinian forfeiture of the right of return to Israel) in exchange for peace. And when each side was also offered significant economic aid, they were repulsed by the idea of trading their sacred values for cash.

However, when asked whether they would accept the peace deal if it was accompanied by a significant concession from the opposing side on one of its sacred values, all three groups became willing to negotiate.

When our most sacred values are at stake, we are likely to be offended by the suggestion that our support can be “bought.” By contrast, effective conflict resolution scenarios can involve moving beyond claiming value in negotiation by proposing a meaningful sacrifice on one of your own core values to demonstrate your seriousness and inspire reciprocation. 

3. Affirm the Other Side’s Positive Qualities

In a 2015 study, researchers Fieke Harinck of Leiden University in the Netherlands and Daniel Druckman of George Mason University compared the effectiveness of particular conflict resolution scenarios. They paired participants and had them attempt to negotiate a resolution to a resource conflict that either did or did not involve a core value.

Some participants were asked to list five positive qualities of their counterpart, such as an impression or a behavior they’d observed. Others were asked to focus on traits they had in common with their counterpart. And a third group was given a financial incentive to reach agreement quickly.

For values conflicts, thinking about a counterpart’s positive qualities was most effective at maximizing the parties’ joint outcomes. Focusing on shared identity was marginally less effective than no intervention at all, and concentrating on transaction costs was least effective in values conflicts. Thus, in a values conflict, it may be wise to think about the qualities you appreciate in your counterpart, such as ingenuity, trustworthiness, deep convictions, or some other virtue.

What other conflict resolution scenarios have you found useful in resolving values conflicts?

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