Values aren’t buses … so what are they good for?*

Values are one of the things my clients find most confusing. Which may well be because coaches use values in a particular way. Namely to suggest that knowing and living your values can help you live a more fulfilled life. So let’s have a look at two things: how to help people who have no idea what their values are. And how to help people who know what their values are and feel conflicted because they think they aren’t living their values.

How to help people who have no idea what their values are.  To be clear, few people will say they have no idea what their values are. Most people – when pushed – will admit to something along what I call the Do your Work Well and Be Kind sort of values. Boy Scout values. Which do matter enormously, but may not help if you are trying to figure out how to make your life better and happier.

One way to mine for values is to look through a list of values and check off the ones that seem to have some sort of resonance for you. As a Coaches Training Institute trained  coach, I ask clients to identify  moments when life was especially rewarding or when they felt particularly alive.  When the client has a specific moment in mind, I ask them “What was happening?” “Who was there and what was going on?” We go for a balance that enquires about peak work experiences, as well as non-work peak experiences and aim to capture the values that are emerge. I prefer this approach – which will also look at how the person feels, how their body feels, when they are remembering – to the more cerebral list, because it feels truer in some ways, and also gives people a sense of what it is that they are wanting to recapture, and re-create in their lives.

Another way in is to look at what – beyond the basics of food, water, shelter – that you absolutely must have in your life if your soul is not to die.  So the question is: what do you absolutely have to have in your life if you are to be fulfilled –  beauty, self-expression, achievement?  As with all coaching, the point is not simply to generate a list of words, it is get a clearer and more urgent sense of what really matters to you. A further coaching task can be to ask: How much are you living that value? If you are currently living that value at around a 5, what can you do to take it to a 6, 7, 8. Generate a list of (achievable) actions and see what impact that has on your life.

How to help people who know what their values are and feel conflicted because they don’t think they aren’t living their values. Many of my clients are living some version of this conflict, particularly around doing well paid work to provide for their family (which honours a value around love and duty) and self expression or some other value. In these cases, there is value in revisiting and examining values (as above). But the values may have become obsessive, a demand rather than a way to express who we are. So, for example, a drive to provide can become a form of martyrdom. If your partner tells you that all you ever think about is your clients or your colleagues, it could be pointing towards a value such as power or leadership that you are taking too far.

A lightbulb coaching moment for me came a few years ago when my coach told me: “You’re either living your values or your are living the life your Inner Critic wants you to live”. This is the conflict I see playing out with clients when they are – as too many of them are – tired from the work, the commute, the politics. They tip over into a values conversation that usually involves a phrase like: “We’re accountants; we’re not saving lives here” and then goes on to berate themselves with their failure to train to be a doctor/take a job with the Red Cross/be a concert pianist. Or in other words: Live in tune with My values – if only I could figure out what they are.

Which is where coaching can help – but as ever, it’s not entirely straightforward. The Values in Action strengths are a good resource. These are 24 ‘signature strengths’ collated by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. They suggest that each of us has a particular way of behaving, thinking and feeling that is authentic, particular to us and energising. Knowing – and using – your signature strengths can help you live a more fulfilling life.

As writer Jennifer Crusie says: “Values aren’t buses… They’re not supposed to get you anywhere. They’re supposed to define who you are.”* That’s never going to be easy, but coaching and tools like ViA strengths can offer a different lens through which to view some of the values conflicts that inevitably come with being human.