How to Uncover Your Values

At dinner recently, my husband asked about a workshop I’d facilitated, which led my daughter to ask about the specifics of what we’d talked about that day. My twins are now past the age where I can get away with a one-liner response they don’t understand. In true Elizabeth Warren fashion, “She persisted.” What exactly did we do in the workshop?

I shared that we were working with participants to uncover their values, and then capture them in the stories they tell about themselves. Stories she understood. Values, not so much. My daughter’s questions made me realize just how abstract personal values can be.

What really are values? And how do you figure out what yours are?

Webster says values are: “a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.” While I didn’t use this exact definition, my own got a similarly blank stare. I realized that examples of values and how to uncover them would be far more meaningful. In retrospect, I recognized that it’s not just ten year olds who are unclear about what values really are, or how to figure out what they are but boy do they matter.

There are a number of good resources on the topic, including this one by life coach RonaLynn  – and I particularly like her point: “Our most significant conflicts exist when we haven’t identified our priority values and aligned them with our decisions and choices.” Truer words have rarely been spoken.

Most of the time, though, our values are a bit beneath the surface and take some effort to uncover (and in our our workshops we do some fun exercises to do just that).

Here are five questions you can ask yourself to consider what really resonates for you:

  • When was a time when you were one of the only people who felt really mad – way more angry than those around you – about something that happened? Now think:- what value was being trampled, misused, or missing?
  • What’s a cause that you can’t help but get involved in? Then consider – what is it about what this cause or what it represents that really speaks to me? What’s the value tied to it?
  • When did you see someone do something for someone else you didn’t know – and seeing it gave you goosebumps? Then think about – what was it about that gesture that hit so close to home? What value was at play?
  • What is a movie scene you can’t forget that always warms your heart? What’s happening in the scene that sticks with you? What’s the underlying value?
  • Think about the type of people who you just can’t get along with. What value appears to be missing in them? Does that value feel like it’s an important one for you in other parts of your life?

If you need some further thought-starters, here’s a solid list. But here’s one thing to bear in mind: Values don’t involve “should.” You might see a value and think, “That SHOULD be a value for me, based on x, y & z.”

Forget “should.” When something is really valuable to you, the idea of living without it is virtually impossible to imagine.

Personally, the idea of living without fairness, authenticity or recognition would simply not be OK for me. While I didn’t realize it at the time, the absence of those values was the reason why I left some of my past jobs.

Figuring out your values can feel a bit abstract at first. But here’s what I know now: If I’d taken the time to uncover them before taking some of my past jobs, I would have saved myself a lot of frustration along the way. What about you?

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