“Values Card Sort, Sweet Spot, Bull’s-Eye. I know them all. But my values work still seems to fall flat.” Sound familiar? You’re not alone. While many therapists feel they know a lot about what values are, and even know several values exercises, they struggle knowing how to bring values conversations to life. A common problem is therapists often focus primarily on values identification (that is, helping clients name their values) rather than values exploration (that is, helping clients contact values experientially).
While it may be helpful for clients to put words to values (e.g., “I value compassion”), that’s not where the heart of values work lies. Values aren’t words; they are ways of living that create a sense of meaning and purpose. We need to move beyond the words to help our clients explore what those valued ways of living feel and look like. It’s the difference between saying the words “Grand Canyon” versus standing on the edge of the North Rim, actually experiencing the Grand Canyon. When working with values, our job is to help our clients experience standing on that “North Rim” of their version of valued living. This experiential process is what brings values conversations to life.
One way to move from intellectual identification to experiential exploration is to focus on the quality, rather than the content, of your values conversations. As a starting place, four key qualities to be on the lookout for in your values conversation are vitality, present focus, willing vulnerability, and choice. Values exploration is a bit like hunting for truffles; you need to know the scent of truffles to know where to dig. These four qualities are what I think of as the scent of effective values conversation. So, be on the lookout for these qualities in your client’s tone of voice, nonverbals like eye movements and facial expressions, and even their breathing. These are your guide to bringing values to life in the therapy room.
Jenna LeJeune, PhD, is cofounder and president of Portland Psychotherapy Clinic, Research, and Training Center in Portland, OR. As a clinical psychologist, she is interested in helping people live lives of meaning and purpose even in the midst of suffering. In her clinical practice, Jenna specializes in working with clients struggling with relationship difficulties, including problems with intimacy and sexuality, trauma-related relationship challenges, and struggles people have in their relationship with their own bodies. She is also a peer-reviewed trainer in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and provides trainings for professionals around the world.