Values-Based Conversations

This exercise was developed by Alan Yarborough, the Reverend Shannon Kelly and Wendy Johnson as part of the Episcopal Church's Curriculum on Civil Discourse.  The exercise here is the one described on pages 17-20 of the full curriculum, used during Week 3 of their five-week Civil Discourse series.  Although originally done in a religious setting, this exercise, along with the other ones in this curriculum are much more widely applicable than that. 

I (Heidi Burgess) learned about this Values exercise from Alan when he wrote about it in a paper he prepared from my course at George Mason University. I liked it so much that I asked if we might publish it on BI, adapting it for a secular audience.  He agreed, asking only that we acknowledge where we got the original exercise from. So this version was adapted by me, Heidi Burgess, but it draws very heavily from theirs.  Thanks, Alan!



This exercise helps people examine their values and the degree to which they align with others' values--both those in their "own group," and those in "other groups.  When Alan has used this in the Episcopal setting (which includes about equal numbers of the liberal/conservative divide in the U.S.) he reports that typically participants find greater similarities between themselves and "the others" than they expected, and at the same time they find greater differences between those whom they viewed as "on their side" than they expected.  This opens the door collaborative work and reconciliation that remains closed when people just operate on the basis of their preconceived stereotypes.

Time Required: 

30-60 minutes: This can be squeezed into a half hour if necessary, but an hour--or even 90 minutes-- is better.  Alan reports that he usually does this exercise in 30 minutes because that's all he has, but the participants feel rushed, he says, and he isn't able to follow the full protocol suggested below.  He agrees that protocol is better if you have time.

Materials Needed: 

Name tags (the authors suggest this, even if people know each other; particularly if they do not), copies of the handout for each person, large paper, markers and/or pens. 


The facilitator of the exercise should explain the exercise along the following lines:

This exercise focuses on civil discourse as it applies to policy advocacy, the development of legislation and new policies, and civic engagement. Too often, we can find ourselves jumping into partisan debates over solutions without first acknowledging the values we hold individually, and the values we share with others. This division is fueled by national and public conversations, by the nature of social media, and by our own personal flaws to “be right” in debates. Our disagreements on solutions do not mean we are enemies in pursuit of different goals.


Today, we will explore what it means to begin discourse with values.


We should always begin from a place of values. This means starting conversations on political issues by recognizing our values before jumping into solutions or partisan ideas. Values-driven conversation helps us see that we share more in common than the surface of differing political opinion may reveal. By recognizing shared values, we can often diffuse initial tensions in relationships knowing that we are pursuing the same goals—we just may disagree on how to get there.


In addition, values-based conversations help us to hold sacred the creative space for disagreement.  Values-based conversations can help us find shared hopes for our country and produce outcomes in policy and legislation that have the most informed impact. As we seek solutions to the challenges of our time, we should aim to do so in a way that is always loving, liberating, and lifegiving, even through disagreement. 

The facilitator then hands out a list of values (see below)  and asks participants to put a star to the left of all the values that they, as individuals, hold dear.

Once most people seem done (maybe after 3-5 minutes), ask them to put a check mark to the right of all the values that they think their important identity groups hold dear.  Here the facilitator could refer to the organization that he/she was working with--asking people to reflect on the important values for that group--or he/she could explain that "important identity groups" might be Republicans or Democrats, racial groupings, religious groupings, gender--their choice--anyone whom they would identify as "like me" or "on my side."  (The Episcopal version asks people to circle each value they think the church holds dear, I am trying to create a secular version of that question.)

Lastly, once people are done, ask them to go through the list once more and circle values that they think their country holds dear. (Note: To do this exercise in 30 minutes, Alan has participants mark all three categories at once, going through the list only one time instead of three.) Doing three runs through the list probably yields better results, Alan agrees. 

He also notes that when considering categories 2 and 3 (identity groups and country) people often come around to the question of values we hold vs. values we aspire to hold. He prefers this not being explicit in the exercise, and for folks to decide that on their own. "Sometimes conversation has focused more on that point than on the values themselves but that's okay," Alan says.  Both ways get people thinking about values and how they influence their choices. 

After people have gone through the values list three times, the facilitator should ask people to take a couple of minutes to look over their values list and make notes to themselves.

  • Where did you find that you marked similar things for two or three categories?
  • Where did you see differences between the categories?  
  • What do you typically do when your values are different from those around you?

Then separate people into groups of 4-6, ideally, grouping people who one might expect to have different viewpoints.  (Try to discourage, for instance, all the Republicans from grouping together with themselves, and all the Democrats doing the same thing.)  This might be accomplished by counting off 1,2,3,4,5, and 6, and having all the ones be one group, all the twos be a second group, etc.  Have the groups discuss their answers to those questions.  Also ask them to explore the degree of similarity and difference in their assessments. Give people 20-30 minutes to do this.

Then reconvene the whole group and ask people to report back about surprises--things they found out that were different from what they expected.  

Then ask them what this says about our relationships and our values?  (Ideally, we hope people will discover we have more similarities than we expect and these value similarities can help bind us together and help us work together to solve common problems.)

And then ask what we can do with our shared values to pursue them more effectively than we are doing now.  Here the "we" can be the individuals in the group, or it can be wider circles: their organization, their community, their nation.

The original (Episcopal) Version of this exercise also included the following commentary, which the facilitator can use or not, as they see fit.  (Alan reports that some facilitators like "their part" all spelled out; while others (perhaps the more experienced ones) just "wing it" and respond to the participants' discussion in ways that deepens it and explores all the important ideas relating to shared and disparate values and what to do about each. For those who want guidance, this is the commentary the original version includes.

The Values Around Us

The patriotic elements of our society are steeped in the values set before our country at its founding. Historically, we as a nation have fallen far short of fulfilling those values, yet that makes them no less worthy of pursuing.


Take, for example, the Preamble of our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This defines the democratic nature of our country, the pursuit of improvement, justice as a central element of our society, peace at home, protection from external threats, caring for our fellow citizens and environment, and caring for future generations.


These values should not be taken for granted, overlooked, ignored, nor discarded as unattainable. Instead, these values should be defended and not forgotten, starting in our daily conversations. We may disagree on policies and laws on how to ensure these values are upheld and followed, but ultimately, they should guide our pursuit to address the challenges before us.


Like those in the Preamble, the values Jesus challenges us to uphold include love and caring for our fellow citizens (as each is made in the image of God), the pursuit of peace and avoidance of violence, care and protection of the environment, and honesty and fairness in seeking justice.


We are connected to one another through these values—we’re connected as Christians, we’re connected as Americans, and we’re connected as citizens of the world. To have more successful civil discourse, we must keep these values in mind when engaging our fellow brother or sister.


We do acknowledge we may face situations where our values differ from those we are speaking with. What to do when faced with someone whose values are different from ours? Do we sit and talk with those whose values we do not share? Yes—if possible.


That does not mean that discussion with someone who holds negative or harmful values is always appropriate, nor does it mean that civil discourse is the only or proper form of engagement. It also does not mean, for the sake of civil discourse, that we should place ourselves in a physically or emotionally unsafe space.


Civil discourse is about enhanced understanding—it is not about giving credibility or merit, or accepting differing viewpoints as our own, or suppressing conviction or passion. Though some may disagree on this point, it is important to understand what alternative values may guide others’ views of the world, where those values come from, and how they guide someone’s opinions and actions.


Just like when we have shared values, enhancing our understanding through civil discourse with those who have values different than our own leads to an improved ability to describe the world around us with greater accuracy, deeper truth, and more potential. Differences in values Page 20 are often deeper and harder to overcome than disagreements in opinions or perspectives that are rooted in the same values.


As a final point for reflection, civil discourse across disagreement but with shared values is typically easier than civil discourse with someone who has different values. The vast majority of conversations around policy and legislation involve disagreement in the how of fulfilling values not in what the values are. 


Values List Handout



  1. Put a star next to each value you, personally, hold dear.
  2. Next, put a check mark next to each value your identity group(s) hold dear.
  3. Lastly, circle the values your country holds dear.


Values List



Metagraphic photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash