Strategies to Resolve Conflict over Deeply Held Values

Strategies to resolve conflict over sacred values are particularly needed in our polarized world. Three strategies can help negotiators generate compromises and concessions when values are on the table.

By Katie Shonkon / Conflict Resolution

Some of our most heated negotiations and disputes concern our core values, including personal moral standards, religious and political beliefs, and our family’s welfare. Business partners sometimes clash over the ethical standards they expect each other to uphold. Parents might forbid their teenager from attending a party during the pandemic. Friends may feel bitterly divided by political differences.

In negotiation, when deeply held beliefs and principles are at stake, typical strategies to resolve conflict may fail, whether in family conflict scenarios or in business. These three tailored strategies to resolve conflict over core values can help.

1. Highlight the Most Efficient Solution

In negotiation, we can often achieve better outcomes by making tradeoffs across issues than by haggling over issues one at a time. For example, suppose you represent a community group in conflict with a business over potential deforestation of two parcels of land that the business owns. Your group values Parcel A for its greater species diversity relative to Parcel B. Thus, you should be willing to make more concessions on Parcel B to protect a greater swath of Parcel A.

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In value conflicts, negotiators tend to reject such logrolling in favor of across-the-board concessions on all issues, Peter Lucas Stöckli (Military Academy at ETH Zurich) and Carmen Tanner (University of Zurich) found in their research. For example, you might prefer to make similar-sized cuts to both Parcel A and Parcel B than to sacrifice B to protect A. When a core value is at stake, across-the-board cuts may feel more satisfying because they don’t require sacrifices across values, Stöckli and Tanner theorize.

If your counterpart is resisting making tradeoffs, encourage them to see why such a deal would be more advantageous than similarly sized concessions across all issues. If they still resist, you might accept a less efficient agreement in return for the potentially larger goals of ending the value conflict and improving your relationship.

2. Offer a Concession on a Core Value

Turning to another conflict-resolution strategy, you might induce cooperation in a value conflict by making a difficult but symbolic concession on one of your key principles or beliefs.

Turning to real-life examples of conflict resolution, 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 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 in exchange for peace. And when each side was 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. Because we are likely to be offended by the suggestion that our support can be “bought,” proposing a meaningful sacrifice on one of your core values may demonstrate your seriousness and inspire reciprocation.

3. Affirm the Other Side’s Positive Qualities

Researchers Fieke Harinck of Leiden University in the Netherlands and Daniel Druckman of George Mason University compared the effectiveness of interventions aimed at resolving both value conflicts and conflicts over resources. They had pairs of participants attempt to negotiate a resolution to a resource conflict that either did or didn’t involve a core value.

Before negotiating, some participants were asked to list five positive qualities of their counterpart. Others were asked to focus on traits they had in common with their counterpart. And still others learned before negotiating that they would lose more money the longer they negotiated, thus creating a financial incentive to reach agreement quickly.

Which interventions worked best? For value conflicts, thinking about a counterpart’s positive qualities was most effective at maximizing 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 value conflicts. Interestingly, affirming one’s counterpart was the least successful strategy in straightforward resource conflicts (those not involving a core value). Thus, in a value 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.

These three strategies to resolve conflict—which are also effective leadership techniques—should allow negotiators to move forward when values are at stake.

What other strategies to resolve conflict have you found helpful when core values are at stake?