Love changes the way we see ourselves and others.  We feel beautiful when we are loved, and to evoke an awareness of beauty in another is to give them a precious gift they will never lose.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Everyone is striving for something. We all have a purpose for being on this Earth. Figuring out that purpose might be the project of our lives.

How do we get there? How do we figure that out?

We need a general direction. Somebody or something needs to point our way. If you are religious, your minister can’t carry you to the promised land. You still have to walk there on your own two feet. The minister is there to point a direction and guide you.

If you aren’t religious, then you need to find something else to believe in. Something to point a direction and guide you. You could be your own minister, but you still need strong outside influences. And you need a way to go.

We all believe in values. For the most part, these values are similar across geography and cultures (Haidt and Joseph, 2008). Often situations arise that pit one set of values against another. How do we choose which is more important? Should there be one all-important value under which all the others exist?

This Article Contains:

Apex values – What is most important?
Three candidates for apex values: Love, happiness, and balance
Understanding – the solution to each conflict
Understanding – Could it be its own virtue?
In resolving conflicts, what determines success?
How does understanding resolve conflict?
How does understand relate to control?
What’s it like to have understanding as our primary end-goal?
How is understanding both a process and a goal?

Apex values – What is most important?

To resolve conflict, we have to have some way of determining what is most important. We need some kind of value hierarchy. For instance, if a person is called in to work extra hours on the evening of their daughter’s orchestra concert, which value drives the decision: loyalty to her job or love of her family?

So, what value sits at the very top?

There must be some kind of value at the top of our moral pyramid. We need something under which all the other values exist.

This apex value would serve as our end-goal. It provides us with a needed direction. With that direction, the value also gives us a set of rules to help us to get there. For instance, one of those rules might be that evening time is reserved as family time and shouldn’t be encroached upon by workplace duties. Ideally the rules we would come up with would be simple and straightforward (no loopholes).

We will call this preeminent value the apex value. It sits at the very top. All other values defer to it.

Even for religious individuals, we still need an apex moral (or apex value) sitting at the top. God becomes the person directing individuals towards that moral. For instance, consider love: God directs us to love God and love each other. Or consider happiness: God wants us to achieve true happiness.

So then, what value (or moral) should sit at the top? What should our direction be? Do we each pick our own direction, or should we all agree on something similar?

Because we are human beings living in groups (rather than living alone in the woods somewhere), let’s say that we agree to work together and focus on one goal. What should it be?

If we could set our sights on one goal–one goal only–what should we aim for in life? In other words, which virtue should take precedence over all others? When push-comes-to-shove, when our values come into conflict, which value wins out?

Happiness? Justice? Truth? Serenity? Peace and calm? Balance? Purpose? Beauty? Goodness? Connection? Respect? Love?

Three candidates for apex values: Love, happiness, and balance

What about love?

Many people would answer love. Love beats all.

But there are problems with that common answer. Love has the duality of being both a feeling and an act. Because it is a feeling, love is out of our direct control. We cannot will ourselves to love someone. We can act in loving ways, but we cannot force ourselves to feel love.

Love has other problems. Most people struggle to define it. Without a clear definition, we can’t understand it. Even when we feel in love, we struggle to understand how we got there. And so, we cannot create a reproducible blueprint or even a set of clear principles for others to follow. What if the relationship ends? Can we do the same thing in the next relationship?

What about all those other important relationships in our lives that exist without a feeling as strong as love? Do those relationships exist solely to serve the relationships where there is love? For example, would you break an important meeting with your boss (who you respect, but don’t love) on a whim because your spouse asked you to go play tennis instead? Should everything really defer to love and depend upon it?

What about if someone is abusing you. Are you expected to love them, or should you first work to protect yourself from the abuse? Maybe you will learn to love and forgive them in the future. But what if you decide never to see them again? You may be loving yourself, but you certainly aren’t loving the other person by cutting them off.

Does self-love always trump loving others? Certainly not. One could easily imagine countless scenarios where we love others at our own personal expense. Consider parenting and the self-sacrifices that come with. Consider spouses who often put the other person first to their own peril.

And so, love has it many contradictions and problems. For each contradiction, we would need a great deal of understanding to come up with a solution. Without understanding love, we might instead come up with a complex set of rules for it. The greater the complexity of those rules, the more disagreement and conflict.

What about happiness?

Some people might say that happiness is the penultimate goal of life.

Yet happiness has all the same problems as love. Happiness is a feeling, and again we don’t have direct control over our feelings. We can’t make ourselves happy. We can certainly do things that are likely to make us happy. But often many of the things that we would do come at some other’s expense. We might make ourselves happy by stealing from other people. We might create happiness at the expense of our future selves: borrow money, forgo working out, drink too much, etc.

Clearly with all of these issues, happiness needs some type of stabilizing force. We need to make sure one person’s happiness doesn’t come at the expense of others. Happiness needs balance. How do we achieve that balance?

What about balance?

So, what about balance? Should we strive for that? Maybe that’s the thing we should aim for in life? Put balance as our apex value?

We could balance the importance of different relationships. We could balance our love life, family life, and work life. We could balance present-self happiness vs future-self happiness. We could balance our happiness versus other virtues like respect and not stealing.

Clearly, balance has a lot of merits.

The problem with balance

What’s the problem with balance?

Everybody has different goals in life. One persons’ balance may not work for another.

What if you could take all the pieces of a good life (happiness, justice, truth, peace, purpose, beauty, goodness, connection, love, etc.) and assemble them together like the ingredients of a cake. Could we mix them together and create the perfect existence? Or at least create an existence that we should all strive for?

There are many problems with this cake-ingredients approach. Not only will people disagree about the proportions of each ingredient, it’s also likely they will disagree about what ingredients belong in the first place. One person’s essential value might be completely unpalatable to another. Religion is only one example. What about yoga, music, high-intensity exercise, reading, higher learning, fishing, golf, following the news, social media, etc. How many of these things would be high up on one person’s list and nonexistent on another’s?

Balance has other problems. Each relationship in our lives will require its own balance. With each one would come a set of rules for achieving balance. Consider rules for family, spouses, friendship, the workplace, parenting, etc. Each of these relationships is radically different. The rules for balance would all need to be different.

What other values could we put at the apex?

Justice? Truth? Serenity? Peace and calm? Purpose? Beauty? Goodness? Connection? Respect?

For these other proposed virtues, one could imagine many common situations where those values don’t work. Is there beauty in warfare? Should we remain calm and serene while being attacked? What about connection? Should we expect to maintain connection with someone who persists in hurting us? Because they often don’t work, they’d be absurd sitting at the top.

Some of these values carry such wide ranges of interpretation, it would be impossible to see it at the top. Justice and truth are two examples. One person’s justice is another person’s abuse. One person’s truth can be another’s mistruth.

How do we resolve the conflict when two people’s perspectives clash? How do we understand the problems with each of these virtues?

Understanding – the solution to each conflict

Each of these contradictions, absurdities, and conflicts calls for resolution. With some imagination, we can wiggle our way out of the traps. In each case, the missing piece, it seems, is understanding.

For the lover who expects you to disrespect your boss on a whim, rather than give in to satisfy her, what if you could make her understand how important your job is to you?

Consider the person you are connected to who is harming you. What if we could help them understand the harm they were causing? Even if they refuse to change their behavior, what if we could understand our own contributions to their behavior, so that we might better protect ourselves and create appropriate space–safe space that protects us from abuse.

What about when two people have perspectives that are at-odds? How do we determine what is truth? Rather than getting locked in a battle of sorting out who is “right”–an exercise that is likely to backfire–what if we get get the two people to understand each other? What if, through the process of mutual understanding, a “third story” were to emerge in their collective imagination. Could this “third story” wrap together each of their individual stories into a greater pattern of behavior, one that doesn’t negate or dismiss any aspects of either individual’s story. Could this “third story,” this greater perspective, be what “truth” actually is?

We may be able to love our enemies, but we cannot only love our enemies.  We have to stand up to them also and be prepared to protect ourselves.  Love is a type of bridge.  To work, love requires an effective boundary supporting it.  Love requires a companion virtue.  Because love is incomplete, it cannot sit at the apex of our value pyramid.  Understanding how to make love work together with an effective boundary appears to be the critical step. 

Love cannot exist in isolation.  Neither can happiness, respect, balance, etc.  None of these fits at the apex of our value pyramid.  Most of these virtues require a second virtue to become balanced.  It takes a process of understanding to fit the virtues together. 

Also consider values taken to the extreme. Love, taken to the extreme, becomes problematic. If you love your enemies too much, love becomes weakness in their eyes, and they will take advantage of you. Most other values work the same way. Taken to the extreme, they become absurd. What about understanding? Can you every understand something too well?

Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul.

John O’Donohue Anam Cara

Understanding – Could it be its own virtue?

With each contradiction and absurdity, understanding appears to be the way out. Mutual understanding allows different values to work in concert.

What if we put understanding at the apex of the value pyramid?  Could understanding be a virtue?

Think about recent conflicts that you have had with family, friends, your spouse, or coworkers.  If you were able to effectively resolve the conflict, how did that resolution happen?  Assuming that all sides were satisfied with the resolution, what worked and what didn’t?

Conflict resolution typically occurs when two sides of an argument are able to talk things out effectively.  Generally, people are not satisfied until they feel heard and understood. 

Resolution does not mean that everyone agrees on every point.  Sometimes resolution involves two sides walking away if the fit is not right.  Sometimes there is an agreement to work together on some points and not engage on others.  However, in each of these cases, when all sides feel heard and understood, everyone can leave satisfied that the best possible outcome was achieved.  There should be no hard feelings or regrets afterwards. 

What happens when two sides fail to resolve their conflict?  In this case, at least one party is left not feeling heard and understood.  When this occurs, there remains a host of bad feelings such as anger, regret, sadness, contempt, disgust, cynicism, etc.  These negative feelings indicate that there is much more work to be done here.  The conflict will go unresolved.  Anyone who is believing otherwise is fooling themselves.

In resolving conflicts, what determines success?

Much of conflict resolution involves setting appropriate expectations for success.  We cannot expect to always be happy after every encounter.  Happiness would be a strong positive emotion.  After all, we can’t expect to befriend or marry a store clerk we’ve just met.  But we can expect to be treated with respect. 

In conflict resolution, while we should not expect to always be made happy, we can expect to have resolution of most, if not all, of our negative emotions.  This can leave us feeling satisfied that nothing was left on the table. 

For instance, if you’re feeling sad, expressing that sadness and having the other person respond with empathy will leave a person feeling heard and understood.  This doesn’t mean that the breakup won’t still occur.  But after feeling heard and understood, we can then trust that the change in our relationship won’t leave us feeling so isolated afterwards.  Some mutual trust persists even as the relationship transitions to something new. The new relationship that emerges will still be one based upon mutual trust. For instance, the other person may still be there for us as a friend and won’t be likely to betray our confidence afterwards.

And so, mutual understanding–feeling heard and understood– is one key indicator of successful resolution.

What if mutual understanding doesn’t appear possible? What if the other person isn’t cooperative? They don’t want to understand our side of things.

At this point, we have a choice.  We can extend another bridge in their direction.  We can try to communicate our desire for mutual understanding in a different way.  We can use other bridging emotions, like appreciation or curiosity, to reach out to them. 

Alternatively, we can reinforce our own personal boundaries.  We can create space between ourselves and the other person.  We can use anger to show that our boundaries have been crossed.  Or we can look inward towards shoring up own blind spots or increasing our own independence.  Reinforcing personal boundaries is especially necessary if we seem to be failing at extending bridges. 

Reinforcing personal boundaries is also a type of communication. We communicate that we need more respect from the other person. If we are effective, they will demonstrate signs of respect, like backing off. This may be another key indicator of success. Eventually, when sufficient respect is built up, the other may extend their own bridges in our direction.

All of these—extending bridges and reinforcing boundaries—are steps that increase understanding.  If we are effective at extending bridges, this creates mutual understanding when both sides begin to listen to each other.  If we are effective at reinforcing personal boundaries, this also leads to understanding.  We understand ourselves better.  The other person understands us also when they hit up against the strong brick wall that is our now-solidified personal character.  They understand it’s now time to back off. They may not be able to see over the wall. Instead, they can see exactly what we want them to see, which may be very little.  We force them to treat us with respect.  In each case, we communicate, and they respond. Our behavior influences theirs.

How does understanding resolve conflict?

Whenever two sides disagree, each side has its own set of feelings, values, and story.  When two feelings are at-odds, it is understanding that helps bring resolution.  We understand that we can disarm anger with compassion, calm, or creating safe spaces. 

When two stories clash, understanding each one leads to the organic blossoming of the “third story,”—the story that encompasses both other stories and more. 

With each contradiction, understanding appears to be the way out.  When one value is brought to absurd excess, we understand which complementary value fits best to balance the situation. For instance, too much love (aka compassion) requires some demand for respect. Too much demand for respect requires some love (aka compassion).

Anytime we have clashing feelings, values, or stories, it is understanding that leads to resolution.  Both sides need to understand each other.  Building towards understanding helps to resolve negative emotions over time.  As we continue building towards understanding, new possibilities may open up. 

We can never have too much understanding. Keep in mind, understanding is not analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis is really just talking things over, too much, absence of feeling. In analysis paralysis, we analyze things logically to the extreme. It becomes robotic. We become a room of accountants and lawyers–too much talk and too little listening. We forget that most of understanding is actually feeling. It is less communication by words and more nonverbal communication. We feel heard and understood.

This is another reason why we say feelings have purpose.  Feelings guide us toward understanding.  For this to work, we must learn to listen to feelings belonging to ourselves and others.  And forget reading people–thinking you know what they’re feeling. You’re better off just asking.

How does understand relate to control?

Another reason why understanding belongs at the apex of our value pyramid is the issue of control vs lack of control.  In life, there are things within our control and things outside our control.  We cannot make someone fall in love with us, but we can extend loving bridges in their direction and also force them to respect our boundaries. 

At its core, understanding is all about separating out the controllables from the un-controllables.  We control which bridges we build and which boundaries we reinforce. 

We learn to understand how our own behavior affects others.  While we cannot control another person’s behavior, we can influence their behavior to a tremendous degree through our own.  Our actions affect their feelings, which ultimately drives their behavior.  We understand through experimentation and listening how this influence occurs. 

Another way of looking at this is to remember that feelings are outside our control. We don’t control what we feel. We control how we respond to those feelings. If we respond appropriately, more than likely the feeling will improve over time. Respond inappropriately, and the feeling will worsen. Anxiety becomes paralysis. Sadness becomes hopelessness. Compassion becomes helplessness.

Putting understanding at the apex gives us clarity of purpose. Understanding allows everything else to settle into place along well-define lines of control. We learn how to respond to our feelings. We channel those feelings into an energy we can use rather than allowing them to overwhelm us.

What’s it like to have understanding as our primary end-goal?

In any social interaction, there is an end-goal.  That goal could be any number of things.  We enter into a relationship with the goal of finding love.  We start a new career with the goal of realizing our purpose.  We work things out with someone with the goal of achieving reconciliation and/or forgiveness.  We parent with the goal of raising independent, happy adults.  We start a family with the goal of creating belonging. 

What if, in each of these cases, we set understanding as the primary goal?  Can we still achieve the same ends?  What does this look like?

  • We enter into a relationship with the goal of understanding the other person and being understood ourselves.  If the fit is good, the relationship may progress to greater connection and/or love.
  • We start a new career with the goal of understanding ourselves, our abilities, and our potential.  If the fit is good, we may progress and ultimately realize our purpose. 
  • We work things out with someone with the goal of understanding them better and being understood.  As mutual understanding progresses, we both feel that we are achieving reconciliation and/or forgiveness. 
  • We parent our children with the goal of understanding how to do so.  With many successes and failures, we grow as people.  Our children grow with us and push us to be mature, capable parents.  We all struggle on the road towards becoming independent, happy adults.  
  • We start a family with the goal of learning and understanding how to do so.  Through our struggles, we grow together to achieve mutual understanding and belonging. 
  • We attend religious services with the goal of understanding our connection to God and to the broader community. We learn to understand God’s purpose for putting us on this Earth.
  • After hurting each other, we work things out by sharing our stories. As we understand each other’s feelings, thoughts, and intentions, we achieve mutual understanding and forgiveness.

Another way of looking at this is that trying to achieve love without understanding is a type of cheating.  It can’t be done.  We may feel like we’ve achieved it, for a time.  But without mutual understanding, reality will come back to bite us one day.  We will learn the hard way that mutual understanding is a prerequisite to love. 

In each of these cases, we grow through understanding.  We learn to understand the why, the how, and the what of each endeavor.  Along the way, we determine the fit and course-correct when necessary.  We can alter our expectations or abandon the endeavor once we understand the fit. 

How is understanding both a process and a goal?

We can set our sights on fully understanding any situation.  This makes understanding a primary outcome—a goal.  By working towards that goal, we open up possibilities of achieving other secondary goals like purpose, love, belonging, or reconciliation.  When we don’t succeed in these secondary goals, our feelings remain unhurt because we understand those goals weren’t possible.  The fit wasn’t right. 

Understanding is also a process.  As a process, understanding brings its own set of rules and guidelines.  These rules include things like listening, caring, curiosity, communicating your story, and reinforcing boundaries.  The nice thing about these rules is that they are not situational.  They don’t need to be changed or reshuffled depending on what type of conflict they are being applied to.  Once you start to see how they work, they become intuitive.

You may need to make minor adaptations to each rule for different situations.  For instance, listening to a baby, a small child, a teenager, an adult, someone who speaks a different language, an adult with dementia, a nonverbal child, etc. all require additional skills and experience to accomplish.  But the core concept of listening is still the same.  

The rules of understanding are simple and elegant. The beauty here is that you already know them.  They are common sense and intuitive.  We don’t need a complex formula or advanced degree.  We don’t need definitions to memorize.  We don’t need to parse out similar sounding words, phrases, or definitions. Everything is simple.  We learned it all in elementary school. 

We all learned how to listen, how to care, how to be kind, and how to be respectful.  We learned how to stand up for ourselves on the playground.  We learned how to do hard work.  All of these are kindergarten values.  You don’t have to be skilled or highly educated to get them.  They’re incredibly basic. 

Each one of these kindergarten values represents a potential pathway towards our end-goal.  In certain situations, some pathways may be more efficient, more effective, or more convenient than others. 

If it really was that simple, why is there so much conflict in the adult world?

There are two primary reasons why adults struggle with understanding and its very basic rules.  The first reason is that most adult conflicts involve two competing values (or two competing rules).  Each side wields their value (or rule) against the other.  Look closely at arguments you’ve witnessed or been involved in.  It doesn’t take much listening or curiosity to realize that each side has its own kindergarten value that it’s using to make their case.  Compassion vs respect. Loyalty vs freedom. Belonging vs responsibility. These are common competing values.

The second reason adults struggle is that working towards understanding is difficult.  It is hard work.  It is often inconvenient. 

When people have a choice between two competing kindergarten values, they often will choose the one that’s most convenient to them.  Convenience is key here. Convenience often wins out. It doesn’t necessarily mean that convenient value, the one they chose, is the correct one.  

Finally, if the issue isn’t a matter of direct convenience, then adults choose the value that they know best. For instance, a person really might identify with loyalty or respect. When it comes to voting, they choose the candidate that embodies those values most directly. Even in this situation, we’re still really talking about convenience. Doing this is pure laziness on the part of the voter. Picking the value you like best does not necessarily mean it is the correct one for the situation, just like picking the candidate who embodies that value doesn’t necessarily make them the right person for the job.

The Identities-Values-Reflection (IVR) Project is a process that can help adults determine the correct course of action over time to solve social issues. IVR is a process for determining the correct values to use at the right time. IVR is not slanted to any particular religion, philosophy, political leaning, etc. Instead, it is most closely aligned with other projects in the fields of spirituality, moral psychology, healing and conflict resolution. Achieving mutual understanding is the goal.

Why understanding leads to love

The process of building towards understanding is a process that leads to all those other things we strive for: Happiness, Justice, Truth, Serenity, Peace, Balance, Purpose, Beauty, Goodness, Connection, Respect, and Love.

Consider that two people feel in love only when they both feel understood by the other person. Now it has to be a deep type of emotional understanding. The fit for this has to be right for love. We can also feel understood by a colleague at work, and then the highest level of connection becomes deep mutual respect (not love). Here we see that understanding produces the highest level of connection for the situation, based upon fit. The highest level of connection will be what it turns out to be: truth, justice, happiness, love, respect, etc. Two people cannot be expected to fall in love if their fit isn’t right (if their values don’t line up). When things don’t work out for love, respect or peace might end up being their highest level of connection.

Understanding can also be a restorative process of healing. Understanding can lead to reconciliation, forgiveness, and reconnection. Consider two people that hurt each other deeply in the past. They may now be willing to forgive each other. It doesn’t matter how much they wish it to be so. You cannot choose forgiveness. Even if they say, “I forgive you,” it is a insincere because they do not yet feel forgiveness. They would, in essence, be lying to themselves. To feel forgiveness, they must understand each other stories and past intentions. They must feel each other’s hurts. They must walk in each other’s shoes. This takes a lot of work and additional pain. Only then, when both feel heard and understood, can they finally rest in genuine forgiveness.

Through understanding, we obtain all of these things. We do this through the process of positive cycling. Positive cycling is a process of working towards understanding. Positive cycling puts together all the pieces of Identity-Values-Reflection (IVR). Instead of being complicated, it is actually intuitive. But it does require hard work and it is often inconvenient. These requirements explain why people so often get tripped up.

Positive cycling directs us towards our highest level of connection, based upon fit. Positive cycling is not a quick, linear process. Instead, it is a cycle. It requires repetition. We do the work day-after-day. Over time, understanding broadens. The formula is simple:

time + hard work + understanding = happiness, love, respect, balance, etc.

Happiness, love, respect, balance, and all those other good things come. First, we need a direction. Understanding is that direction. Understanding is our goal.

Unfortunately, though, understanding is a moving target. We must work to understand ourselves, understand others, and be understood. This helps explain why working towards understanding requires cyclical thinking, rather than simple linear thinking. Cyclical thinking requires a person to be flexible, imaginative and curious.

Next: Guide to Positive Cycling


Johnathan Haidt and Craig Joseph. (2008). ’19 The Moral Mind: How Five Sets of Innate Intuitions Guide the Development of Many Culture-Specific Virtues, and Perhaps Even Modules. In Peter Carruthers, and Stephen Laurence. The Innate Mind, Volume 3: Foundations and the Future (New York, 2008; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Jan. 2008. Download article.