Our values guide us through life, helping us decide what is right and wrong, and what we will and won’t do.
But what happens when someone or something challenges our values? What can we do about it?
When your values are challenged, start by embracing the experience, then work to understand other perspectives, reflect on your values and consider changing them. If your values remain fully valid for you, then you can speak up, refuse to comply, find a creative workaround or leave the situation.
Let’s look at each of these potential responses in more detail.
What to do when your values are being challenged
Here’s six things you can do when you find yourself in a situation where your values are being challenged.
Firstly, start with examining your values.
1. Embrace the experience
It’s easy to think that having our values challenged is a bad thing – and it certainly can be very uncomfortable – but it’s actually worthwhile to step back and welcome the experience if you can.
Because when you find yourself in a clash of values, it’s the perfect opportunity for you to get even clearer about what’s most important to you.
Become curious about what the situation is showing you about your values, and use that information to decide which of your values is being threatened, and what you will choose to do about it.
For example, perhaps you’re being asked to slightly modify some paperwork in order to save your business some money.
This may challenge your value of honesty, but at the same time, you also value having a job that you enjoy or you value minimising conflict.
This situation will help you decide which of these values is the most important to you, which will make it easier to respond to similar situations in the future.
2. Discuss the challenge with others
The person (or people) involved in creating this challenge to your values may not even be aware that you are struggling with their request, so if it all possible, have a discussion with them about it.
And it doesn’t have to be confrontational. You can simply express how the situation is making you feel, and why you are struggling.
One of my favourite ways to approach this is through non-violent communication, which is explained fully in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Amazon affiliate link) by Marshall B Rosenberg.
As you have these conversations, look for ways in which your values overlap, and the things you are both trying to achieve.
You might find more in common than you think, and decreasing the perceived differences in your values will help increase cooperation and strengthen your relationship with the others involved.
Also make use of active listening, to make sure that you’re genuinely hearing the other point of view and taking it on board.
3. Reflect on your values
Once you understand the other point of view a little better, take some time to reflect on the values that are being challenged.
Ask yourself these questions:
Do they still seem valid to you?
Have you learned something that suggests that your values are invalid or might be based on incorrect information?
For example, if avoiding intimate relationships is important to you in order to avoid betrayal, would getting to know a happy couple who have been together for over 40 years suggest that other values might be possible and valid?
Does your current experience suggest that those values might need adjusting?
Is something happening around you that is incompatible with your values, or that does not measure up with what you would expect if they were 100% true?
For example, if telling the absolute truth in all situations is essential to you, would the observation of someone’s emotional suffering as a result of brutal honesty suggest a need for a modification of that value?
Are your values serving you?
Can you see any ways in which your current values are harming you instead of helping you?
For example, if absolute punctuality is very important to you, is it helpful or harmful for you to expect others to also be unfailingly punctual?
Or could it make your friendships a little easier if you were able to accept and allow for their varying approaches to being on time?
Are your values still relevant?
Has the world around you – or even just your world – changed enough that your values are no longer meaningful?
For example, you may feel that it is important to not get divorced no matter what, but when you look around and see the number of people leaving relationships that are unhealthy or downright dangerous, would you be willing to see that value as less relevant than it used to be?
This great TED talk from Jan Stassen, explains why values matter in our lives.
Now that you’ve examined your values, it’s time to decide what to do about the challenge you’re experiencing, and you have three options.
4. Consider changing your values
If you’ve taken a good hard look at your values, and realised that they’re outdated, unhelpful or simply invalid, then you always have the option to change them.
Changing values is not necessarily straightforward, but if you have information or an experience that is very clear, or a reason that is sufficiently compelling, then you will be able change what is most important to you.
A recent example of this in my own life was watching my 16-year-old son struggle emotionally with the pressures of high school. And not just a little, but to the point of regular breakdowns and abject misery.
I had always highly valued completing school and going on to university because this is what I learned growing up and had done myself.
But as I watched him struggle, day after day, and began to worry that we would lose him completely if things continued on this way, I had to challenge this cherished value of mine.
It was difficult and took some time for me to adjust, but in the end, it was more important to me that my son be happy and safe, than that he jumped through some arbitrary hoops in order to meet some idea of mine about what mattered.
I changed my view on the importance of higher education, and instead trust that my son will find his own unique way to his path in the world.
5. Compromise your values
One of the less attractive options we have when our values are being challenged is to compromise them.
This means going ahead and doing something that goes against our values, even when we don’t feel that it’s the right thing to do.
For example, your friends might ask you to sneak into a movie theatre with them, which goes against your value of honesty and integrity.
But you tell yourself things like “it’s only once” or “it’s not that much money” or “it makes up for the time I was overcharged” and you do it anyway.
And although it would be easy to condemn this option, I think it’s fair to say that we do it more than we would like, often in small ways, especially those of us who like to avoid conflict.
It’s true that it can feel easier and simpler just to do the thing that’s being asked of us, but there is always a price to pay when we compromise our values.
Either our values start to erode, until the point where we no longer recognise ourselves, or we struggle to look at ourselves in the mirror because we are ashamed of our actions.
At the end of the day, it’s a choice you have to make, whether to go against what is most important to you, or to stand up for what you believe in.
6. Stand up for your values
Once we have decided that our values are still 100% true and important to us, and that we’re not willing to change or compromise them, our only option is to stand up for them.
We can do this in a number of different ways, all of which require courage, strength and discipline.
Speak up and take action
We can speak up about our feelings, and explain why we don’t feel comfortable doing what is being asked or expected of us.
Or in the case where our values represent something that is being ignored or dismissed, we can take active steps to demonstrate how important this issue is to us.
We can also simply refuse to comply with a request, and do what feels right to us, regardless of what anyone else says.
For example, you might decide to attend a protest to express your opposition to a current injustice, or explain to your boss that you’re not comfortable lying to their spouse about where they are.
Or we can just refuse to steal that candy bar, no matter how much our friends encourage us to.
“What if you were going to act on your values—what would you say and do?”
According to Mary Gentile, a very effective way to be able to speak up about your values is to practice explaining the reasoning behind your values in advance (called “pre-scripting”) and thinking about the impact of your choices on others so you can address their priorities in your explanations.
Find a creative solution
Another way to resolve a situation where your values are being challenged is to get creative and find a way around the problem.
The idea here is to open up to other possibilities, and see if you can find a course of action that meets the needs of everyone in the situation.
That way, you don’t have to compromise your values, and the other party also gets what they want, and no harm is done to either of you.
For example, if your health is really important to you, and your girlfriend wants to spend an evening on the couch eating ice-cream to grieve her recent breakup, you can suggest alternatives, like going for a spa treatment, making pure-fruit ice cream together or going dancing to help her forget.
You get a healthier evening with your friend, and she gets to feel better as well.
Walk away from the situation
If we feel that our words and actions are falling on deaf ears, and that we can’t find a way to work around the issue, then our final option is to walk away from the situation.
That may involve taking big actions such as quitting a unsatisfying job or leaving an unhappy relationship, but it may also entail a much smaller act, such as leaving the room or going home early from a night out with friends.
If we can get ourselves out of the situation temporarily, there is a chance that the issue will blow over, and we can go on as if it never came up in the first place.
If that doesn’t work, and the challenge to our values persists, we may have to remove ourselves from the situation permanently.
At the end of the day, you’re the only one who has to live with your decisions, so it’s important that you do what’s right for you.
And if you feel that you are in physical danger or being threatened in any way, leave immediately and seek help from an appropriate authority.
How do you know your values are being challenged?
When your values are being challenged, you will generally feel dissatisfied, uncomfortable, and even distressed.
Something will seem wrong about the situation, even if you’re not entirely clear on what it is. You’ll be unwilling to act and may want to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.
If you are aware of your values, this will make it easier to see when they are being challenged, as you realise that something that’s very important to you is being questioned or compromised.
But even without specific awareness of your values, you may simply feel that this is “just not right” or “they shouldn’t do that” or “I don’t like what’s going on”.
Once you realise that your values are clashing with your current situation, you can use the above strategies to help you resolve it.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, and your values become your destiny.”
In what ways are our values challenged?
Our values are challenged every day with the decisions we have to make.
Almost every decision usually involves contrasting two or more things that are important to us, and deciding which one is most important, which helps us to constantly refine our values and beliefs.
Values can also be challenged when someone asks us to do something that is not aligned with our values, such as lying, cheating or stealing.
It can also be more subtle than that, with expectations or requests that would require us to be less healthy, entertain complaining or disrespect ourselves or others.
And when we act in accordance with our values, such as refusing to make fun of someone or talking to the “outsider” in our group, then that can also be quite challenging to our values.
We don’t want to feel shame or be disconnected from our friends, but we want to do what feels right to us, and stand up for what’s most important.
Examples of personal values
Identifying your most important values can help you recognise and respond more effectively when your values are being challenged.
Personal values can include things like:
but keep in mind that they are also very personal and unique to you.
My top values are:
- Integrity / Honesty
- Learning / Personal growth
I uncovered these using an exercise on Think Simple Now and they guide my choices every day.
Here are some other resources that might help you identify your personal core values:
- The Values Factor (Amazon affiliate link) by John F Demartini
- How to identify your personal core values at Life Sherpa
- 7 steps to discover your personal core values at CEO Sage
- How to life with purpose: Identifying your core values at Melli Obrien
Ready to handle your values being challenged?
You now know that when your values are challenged, you need to first examine your values and then decide how to respond.
To start with, you can embrace the experience, discuss it with anyone else who’s involved and then reflect on your values.
Then it’s time to take action and choose between changing your values, compromising your values or standing up for what’s most important to you.
Do these things and you’ll be better equipped to handle yourself the next time your values are challenged.
And let me know in the comments below about a time when your values were challenged and what you did to resolve the situation.
These resources are also included in the article above and will help you explore the topic in more depth:
- Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Amazon affiliate link) by Marshall Rosenberg
- When moral identity harms: The impact of perceived differences in core values on helping and hurting, Gotoweic 2019
- Why values matter by Jan Stassen (TED talk)
- Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (Amazon affiliate link) by Mary Gentile
- Life purpose exercise at Think Simple Now
Some of the ideas and information in this article came from the following sources: