Values are everywhere: even supermarkets have them these days and I'm not just thinking of buying something and getting another one free (hard to resist even if you don't need or want it).
The idea of 'values' as a dimension of the issues we work on is hardly new. When I was first involved in political conflict resolution we used to divide many situations into 'conflicts of interest' (such as conflict over territory or resources) and 'conflicts of value' (less material things, such as ideology, religion and things of symbolic significance). Conflict analysis these days is more sophisticated but the division between the material and the non-material is still important.
There are two particular, practical and linked aspects of values, when you come across them in an operational setting such as a stakeholder workshop, that are often overlooked. Facilitators can use these to tease out what people really mean and what is really important to them. (And that, by the way, is a good working definition of a 'value' - something that is important to a person: it may not satisfy the philosophers but it captures why values are potent motivating factors in a person's thinking.)
The two practical aspects of values worth remembering are, first, that values are never held in isolation. People always have a hierarchy of values, not all of which are held consciously, and they are relative to each other. The second, linked aspect of this is that values, however firmly and sincerely held, are never as rigid and absolute as people tend to say.
Let me offer a simple example to explain this. A red-hot, deep-green, radical environmentalist is walking along the street with a child. This person would put the need to combat climate change at the top of their list of values, hates everything that symbolises affluence and waste, walks or cycles everywhere and never, but never, steps into a car, let alone a gas-guzzling 4x4.
But the child suddenly collapses and a rabid capitalist driving a Range Rover screeches to a halt and offers help. My bet is that the child's life is suddenly more important than the need to hate capitalism and climate change, and they are straight off to hospital in the Range Rover.
This over-simple example illustrates both points: that values are held in hierarchy and a change in circumstances can re-position their relative importance, and that deeply held views can change in an instant when necessary. It emphatically does not mean that the person is insincere in their values - merely that human beings are naturally adaptive and circumstances change cases.
Now let's apply this same principle to a values-related issue that is constantly in the papers at the moment: the government's commitment both to fighting climate change and to expanding airports and aviation. These are often quoted as being diametrically opposed to each other and an example of both inconsistency and hypocrisy.
As independent facilitators Dialogue by Design does not, of course, take sides, but we do have opinions about the processes that lead to sustainable dialogue around such complex issues. In this case it is that where values (and the policies they motivate) appear to be in competition, one of the most destructive results is 'cognitive dissonance'.
This is the uncomfortable feeling that arises from a clash between beliefs and actions - like the environmentalist forced into the Range Rover. If the feeling is sufficiently uncomfortable the person experiencing it will either change their beliefs or change their actions: the environmentalist will acknowledge that the child is as important to them as the climate.
In the case of aviation and climate change there is a public perception of cognitive dissonance and the feeling that either the government should acknowledge that the economic benefits of airports are as important as curbing carbon emissions, or that they should forgo one in favour of the other.
Cognitive dissonance is the indigestion that stems from trying to have your cake and eat it.
So what is the significance of all this from the point of view of people trying to encourage constructive dialogue?
First, it is useful to explore different sets of values and the hierarchies in which they are held because this explains what motivates people more than the stating of positions and interests.
Secondly, values tend to be more fluid than people admit, and the detailed examination of alternatives and options can reveal compromises that are, on the surface, unlikely.
Finally, when values and actions collide there will be discomfort until something happens to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance. Where such resolution is impossible because both are so important, the only remedy is to acknowledge the problem and work with others to create solutions that can encompass both.
Good dialogue is a cure for many things - even political indigestion.
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A look under the surface of a public consultation: Part 5/5 - Publication
By Remco van der Stoep
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