Hand holding a stick stirring a camp fire. Credit: Dominik Lange.

When values collide

From conqueror to curiosity mindset through a pot of coffee

I just spent 5 days at Newkind Festival, a transformational gathering in Tasmania, Australia. Filled with all sorts of people with strong opinions, convictions, and ideals. Coming together because they believe that our current way of living on this planet is not the best it could be. They want to create new ways, ‘better ways’.

I felt value aligned with everyone I met, although no one (except for the event organisers) explicitly spelled out their values to me. By the fact that we were all at that space I assumed some sort of alignment. But what does it actually mean to be “value aligned”? That question helped me add extra dimensions to my thoughts about values and beliefs.

To share these personal reflections, first I’ll explain what I mean by “values”. Then I’ll tell a short story from people meeting around the festival campfire, and try to uncover the belief stories driving those interactions. Then I will describe the “conqueror mindset”, as one set of values tries to overtake the other. Finally, I end with some questions for self-reflection: how can I move from conqueror to curious?

Everything I express here is meant as a personal reflection, an observation of actions, reactions and thought processes that passed through my mind. In no way this is meant as The Truth, or your truth. I’m not claiming to be right, or to say that you should think like me. I’m thinking out loud, sharing ideas with you.

Spelling it out

When I say “values”, I think about a list of characteristics and ideals that are important to me. Ways of being that I try to embody or grow into.

So when I think about being “values-aligned” with you, I assume that your list of values is similar to mine. But it’s not just the items on the list that matter, it’s also the order in which we prioritise them.

For example, let’s say that my values — in order of importance — are:

  1. Respect
  2. Integrity
  3. Care
  4. Honesty
  5. Autonomy

And yours are:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Freedom
  3. Enjoyment
  4. Care
  5. Integrity

According to that list we share many of the same values. But the fact that we each place them with different importance in our list, will make us act in different ways.

At Newkind Festival I observed those differences creating areas for values and beliefs to collide.

Big and small cooking pots on top of the campfire at Newkind Festival.

One pot of coffee on the fire

The festival happened on farmland outside of Hobart. We were all camping. The weather was hard on us. Rain, cold, wind…

There was an outdoor kitchen with amazing volunteers cooking meals for everyone, so we were discouraged from bringing our own camp stoves. So, outside the kitchen a main fire was always burning, with a big pot on top heating water for anyone to make tea. There was also a smaller pot at times brewing ‘cowboy’ coffee. No one was in charge. We had to self-organise and share. Around that pot of coffee the values collision got real.

Caffeine is addictive. Many of us believe there is a “right way” to make good coffee. Every day we would gather around that campfire, looking for our caffeine fix, or looking for a shot to get us through the next workshop of the day. I saw many different attitudes around the coffee pot; I’ll share two to illustrate the point.

First you have the people who value the quality of a cup of coffee properly brewed (AKA the right ratio of coffee grinds to water, that reached the appropriate temperature of 100 degrees at least once, with a nice crema on top, with the coffee grinds all settled to the bottom). It seemed to me that these people also placed patience high on their values list.

Then there were also the people that just wanted a coffee kick: a proper brew was not important to them, they where in a rush to go somewhere. Perhaps they value punctuality over patience: they wanted to arrive at the next session on time, out of respect for the presenters.

The tension between these two characters was evident when we were waiting (or not waiting) for the coffee to be ready. Their values where not opposite to each other, but the circumstances made them prioritise one value over the other.

Another contributing factor: scarcity. There was only one coffee pot, holding enough for maybe 30 cups. The festival had around 400 participants. The more people that came to get a cup of coffee, the less coffee will be left. So if you waited till it was (from your perspective) done, you risked not having any for yourself.

So, the patience- and quality-prioritisers will sit by the pot, feeding the fire and waiting. They kept on informing the people arriving to the pot, ‘the coffee is not ready’. So the other people who equally valued patience will hang around and wait… But the punctuality-prioritisers, the ones for whom a proper brew was not an issue, will just pour themselves a cup and go on their way. Much to the surprise of the patience-driven folks.

This doesn’t seems to be a big issue right? Not for someone like me, who values autonomy and respect higher on my list. But I could see the patient coffee brewers will get a bit more angry every time a new lukewarm, half-brewed coffee cup was poured. ‘How could others not wait? Or strive to develop patience?’

Then frustration translated into preaching. According to their truth, there’s a right way for coffee to be brewed! And a right way for everyone to be… patient.

Values collided. Through the assumption that others should not only have patience on their values list, but they should also rank it with equal priority.

Their belief story: ‘everyone should cultivate patience’, made the interactions turn into a brewing frustration, instead of a space for exchange.

Values expressed through a belief story

When I talk about beliefs I think about the stories I tell myself, stories about who I am, what the world is, and how it should be. They are subjective, built by my past experiences and collective stories passed down to me from my family or community. Belief stories encapsulate my vision of the ideal self I want to become.

Those stories not only inform the things I value. They are like lenses I use to see the world through, to judge the experiences I have, and the people I meet.

So, for example if I observe the situation around the coffee with one lens that tells me ‘It’s important to develop patience because waiting will bring me a better reward’. And maybe you experience the situation with other lenses: ‘It’s important to be punctual to the workshop to show good character and respect the person running it’. This doesn’t mean that you don’t value patience and I don’t value respect, it’s just that right now your beliefs place respect on top of your priority list, while I’m seeing your actions through my patience lens.

The problem seems to arise when I forget I’m wearing lenses at all, confusing my view of reality for reality itself. Forgetting that my beliefs are subjective, that our lenses are probably different, and that none of us is right or wrong: we just have different stories.

People sitting around a campfire.

Conqueror mindset

If I’m not aware of my values, the priority I put on each one, and the subjectivity of the belief stories I carry, I will probably look at your actions judging them with foggy lenses, trying to assess if you are right or wrong.

By unconsciously believing that my way is the right one, and that you should have the same values I have, I may try to convince you to be like me.

I saw another example of this mindset at Newkind (and in many other conferences) when people presented their ideas on stage. I heard so many speakers talk from their (likely unconscious) belief stories, presenting them as the absolute truth. As if their way is the right and only way.

It seems to me that these people like me who hold strongly to their beliefs, have integrity high on their value priority list. We want to change the world, bringing a lot of passion, energy and purpose to the work.

I honour their passion and commitment, that they found a vision and a way that works for them, and that they found their truth and are willing to share it with others. Although, the way they communicate that truth, beliefs, values and ideals to me, many times makes me feel uncomfortable, wronged, defensive, and patronised.

I’m sure they don’t consciously intend to assume that I should have the same values, with the same priority attached to the same beliefs. But the lack of acknowledgement of their subjectivity diminishes my subjective truth, leaving no space to discover our common ground, or creating spaces for exchange, mutual learning and growth.

In contrast, I love to listen to a speaker when they present their ideas as an invitation into a shared inquiry. It’s much easier for me to listen when the speaker owns their subjectivity, being clear that they have just one of many perspectives, that no individual can hold the whole truth.

Different metal teapots on a campfire. Credit: Soroush Karimi.

Wrapping up

Of course these thoughts make me reflect on my own behaviour first. How many times have I tried to force my truth on to others? How can I communicate in a different way?

How can I share my values and ideas with you in a way that expresses the subjectivity of my experiences, without undermining yours? How can I clean my belief lenses? How can I see other’s actions not from judgement, but through an open mind filled with curiosity?

How can I honour our diversity and create spaces for exchange? How can I look for understanding and cooperation next time our values collide on a stage, or around a coffee pot?