To understand opposing views, understand values


When I was in college, I worked at Rockvale Square. One day while straightening a display of purses, a coworker and I started talking politics. It was enlightening. I hadn't considered her point of view before, and I was struck by how kind she was despite our complete disagreement.

We are not influenced by someone railing at us with their perspective. In fact, it makes us more steadfast in our own. Conversely, one of the biggest reasons we agree with someone else is if their perspective matches the values that we personally hold.

In a study by researchers Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, participants were asked to convince the opposing political side of their perspectives. Using the issue of same-sex marriage, they prompted liberal participants to use the values held by their conservative counterparts to convince them that same-sex marriage should be legal. Conservatives had to argue for more military spending.

What happened? Most of the participants fell back on arguing from their points of view or basing their arguments on their own values. So a liberal might say, ‘It’s fairer that gay Americans are legally allowed to get married. And a conservative might say, ‘It’s important to be proud of having the strongest military in the world.’

The truth is, conservatives put less emphasis on fairness than on patriotism and strength. Liberals view fairness and equality as extremely important values, more important than winning or strength.

But the researchers found if the message was framed in a way that matched the values of the listener, the likelihood of influencing him or her rose significantly.

If conservatives were invited to consider that gay Americans were proud and patriotic Americans who contributed to our economy and society, they were much more likely to soften toward legalizing same-sex marriage. If liberals thought about military spending as a way to bolster disadvantaged Americans and providing reliable income, by leaps and bounds they were more positive about the idea.

Last year, writer Olga Khazan wrote in The Atlantic magazine: “This even worked to get conservatives to dislike Donald Trump, and liberals to disavow Hillary Clinton. Conservatives were less likely to support Trump if arguments against him were presented in terms of his patriotism — Liberal participants, meanwhile, were more likely to be swayed by Clinton’s ties to Wall Street than by … Benghazi. “ 

It’s ridiculously hard to do because we hold our values so dear: It feels inauthentic to propose an idea using a different value that we don’t think of as important.

Start by ranking your own

As a way to widen one’s perspective to not only be more persuasive but to have a greater understanding of others, first take the Rokeach Values Survey, which can be found online. In the survey you will find a list of values. Your job is to prioritize them according to importance. This practice will underline how others might prioritize values differently than you do and how that can impact your understanding of others. Have other people on your team or in your family take it and prioritize their own values. It’s also wise to notice the values you rank on the bottom of your list.

Next, practice mindful listening. With mindful listening, you don’t have to agree with the other person. But you can make sure you fully comprehend their point of view. You can use the time to ascertain their values based on the arguments they present.

Lastly, practice empathy. With empathy, we imagine what it is like from the other person’s experience. What might it be like to grow up the way this person has? To see the world the way they do? What is it like being that person?

In the Harvard Business Review article, “Should You Talk Politics at Work?”, writer Rebecca Knight notes, “If coffee break chat veers into political territory that you’re passionate about — equal rights, say, or climate change — it may be worth it to you to speak your piece. Our world would be a less progressive place if there weren’t brave souls to push these issues forward.”

We spend a lot of time in the workplace with colleagues and the topic of politics might come up. While avoiding them altogether might be your preference, I’m still grateful to my friend for talking with me.

Sarah Colantonio works at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster County. Her focus is on communication and mindfulness in the workplace. She can be reached at