Back in October, I wrote a blog regarding counseling and valuation, and the kind of work that transpires with clients who pursue goals of valuation. In that blog I focused on clientele who are fairly certain of what their core beliefs and values are, but they have come to realize that they are not really living their lives in alignment with their purported values. That blog focused specifically on helping clients establish the means by which they pursue their valued ends. Many times clients have clear ideas as to the values they hold, but they are not sure of the means by which to live out those values. I called that type of valuation work Level I because the counseling process does not delve into the search for clients’ values. Level I work is important work for counseling and most likely fits the needs for the majority of clients entering counseling for life transition work.
Counseling and valuation, however, can involve another level of work, a type of work that is more difficult and time consuming than Level I work. Counseling and valuation, Level II work, entails working with clients who simply are unclear as to what their core values in fact are. It’s tantamount to being in a fog regarding to where life is heading. Individuals are so unsure as to what their core values might be, they need some in-depth clarification work. What this type of counseling work will look like will be highly diversified, depending on each client. Counselors may hear clients say such things as: I’m not sure what I believe about important decisions in my life. I’m at a loss as to what my core beliefs and values are. I’ve never truly considered what my core values are and how to live out my life according to what they are. I have a difficult time making major decisions in my life because I simply do not know what it is that I believe. I know I want to do something meaningful with my life, but I’m just not sure what that is.
Unlike Level I work in valuation, Level II work cannot begin with exploring the means by which to pursue and accomplish valued ends. Rather this level of work must begin with exploration of what in fact an individual’s valued ends might be. Level II valuation work in counseling is what is typically designated as values clarification. Before clients can engage means to pursue the ends they value, they must first clarify the ends they hope to accomplish with their lives.
A Quick Review: Level I Work – Means and Ends
In the blog, Counseling as the Science of Human Action, I wrote about the use of means and ends in working with clients. Many times clients enter counseling with a fair to clear idea of the ends they hope to accomplish in life, but they are unclear as to the means to accomplish their desired ends. Counseling with such clients involves anything from behavioral plans to assessing what they have already tried, focusing on what things worked and what didn’t. Helping clients establish means to accomplish their valued goals also entails helping them look at how risk aversive they might be, and assessing what level of risks they would be willing to undergo. Clients can know what it actually takes to make changes in their lives, but they may balk at taking the risks to make the necessary changes that can propel them onto more fulfilling lives. Counseling can help them establish action plans that they can engage at a pace that is comfortable for them individually. Then the counseling work involves troubleshooting any obstacles that continue to prevent clients from making desired changes. The use of the language means and ends helps clients distinguish between their valued goals (ends) and the actions (means) they embrace to reach those goals. Once an individual begins working towards certain ends, he or she can begin to make any nuanced changes along the way in terms of both means and ends. When clients hit a wall in their pursuits, therapists may need to assess whether the issue is not only means that clients are utilizing to make changes in their lives, but also may entail making changes in the ends clients are pursuing. In other words, clients may be unclear and unsure as to the valued ends they truly want to pursue. At that point, counseling work has shifted from Level I to Level II work.
Valuation Counseling: Level II
There are no easy formulas or step-by-step cookbook approaches that seamlessly guide counselors in working with clients who need to engage in Level II work of values clarification. This kind of counseling work is truly a pure form of exploratory work. This work is foundational in the sense that what clients discover at this stage provides the ground on which Level I work will build. Level II work involves clients’ radical acceptance that they are at a starting point on a journey that at the moment has an uncertain finish. Clients who truly accept that they are unsure of their core values must place everything on hold for the purpose of critical inquiry. All clients believe something by which they are making their way through life. It may be that they simply have not clarified what that something is. That is a starting point for values clarification. Individuals do not like to admit that they are uncertain as to what their core values are. It’s a difficult thing to admit about oneself. Like any other work in counseling, clients need to feel safe and not judged when admitting such truths about themselves. Clients have to perceive the counseling setting as a safe place to open up to certain truths they perhaps would not admit to most people they know.
One of the first things to take place in Level II valuation work in counseling is that clients agree with and establish a commitment to take on such work. Clients must be honest with themselves that they need to engage the counseling process involved in clarification of values. In respect to time commitment, although no time limit can be set for Level II work, it will most likely take at least a few weeks and possibly longer. The counseling process will be replete with inroads into clarity, setbacks into lack of clarity, rethinking ground covered, and reassessing what clients believe they have accomplished. It is that feeling of taking three steps forward and one or two steps back. Value clarification can be a slow process, while simultaneously can involve punctuated accelerated gains that come with insights that clients gain along the way. Patience is indeed a virtue for this kind of work, for therapists as well as clients. More than once, therapists and clients will have to discuss whether or not all the effort is worth the outcome hoped for.
The Card Sort
William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick in their work, Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, provide a list of 100 values along with definitions of what each value entails. Although using card sorts can feel mechanical I think the approach Miller and Rollnick provide is highly useful, and it at least establishes a beginning point for clients to engage value clarification. More importantly, it provides a way that therapists and clients can begin a discussion and exploration about values, what they mean, and how they inform people as to how they should live. Clients read through the list of 100 values and sort them along a Likert-like scale of five ratings ranging from Very Important to Not Important [Very Important – Most Important – Important – Somewhat Important – Not Important]. Exploratory discussions in counseling begin with what clients rate as Very Important. Many times this exploratory process allows clients to compare, rethink, and reevaluate among those values they rated in the top three categories. Clients find it difficult to distinguish these levels of importance at times. They will tend to move back and forth, placing and replacing various values into their card sorts. This process is important work for clients, helping them become aware of how difficult and important it is for them to nuance their decisions.
If clients place a large number of the values listed into the first two categories, then the next step in this process is to ask clients to rate their top five or ten values, leaving the others aside for the moment. Once clients establish their top five or ten values, then their choices become the focus of exploration in counseling.
Alignment of Thought and Action
Card sorts and lists are fine tools that therapists and clients can utilize that help them delve into important discussions around clarifying values. However, they are just that, a tool. The nitty-gritty work in this exploratory process are the discussions in which therapists and clients engage. Therapeutic discussions help clients nuance, refine, and clarify the tough decision points they face as they seek to determine their core values.
Talking about values clarification during the session is one thing. Acting on decisions about values is another thing all together. Although people can choose from a list of values the ones they think represent their core beliefs, unless they act on those beliefs, they remain stagnate instead of moving forward. At this point, important discussions around taking risks emerge. Clients have to try things that perhaps they’ve never tried before. After all, they are searching out their core values. If for example they claim Art as one of their core values, described by Miller and Rollnick as to appreciate or express myself in art, then clients must seek out ways to live out this value. For many clients that would most likely mean studying, creating, and producing art in some form. If they claim to possess such a value but don’t act on it, then their purported beliefs do not align with their actions. This misalignment of beliefs and actions becomes the focus of discussion in counseling. The old adage where the rubber meets the road is supreme here. Clients not acting on purported values must confront that they in fact do not value what they claim to value. Even if the lack of action is due to fear of failure or aversion to risks, clients who do not act on stated values must face the reality that they do not in fact value what they claim. Such discussions can be the most challenging, fearful, and even painful ones that clients engage.
Another adage, talk is cheap reigns supreme here as well. If I say I believe something at my core, that I truly value it beyond all other beliefs I might hold, but my life shows no evidence that I in fact value what I claim, then something is off. I may have fears I need to overcome. I perhaps need to explore risks assessment, helping me understand what level of risk I’m willing to take on. I might fear what others would think of me if I lived truly in alignment with what I believe. Or, it may be that I don’t truly value what I claim. If the case is the latter, then it’s back to the drawing board of values clarification. These are the reasons that when dealing with values clarification actions must become the focus in counseling or it’s all mere talk. Actions help clients clarify and nuance what they claim to believe and value. There’s nothing more powerful than taking an action based on a purported belief and letting the consequences of that action provide a feedback loop regarding that belief. When the rubber meets the road, the road can be a hard and harsh teacher. It also helps clients clarify and nuance what they purport to believe. Without action, words about values are just that, mere words.
Clients engage Level II work of values clarification when they lack certainty about what they truly value at their core. The process of this work will involve movements back and forth between stated values and testing those values with action. Moreover actions help clients nuance their choices so as to better refine them so that they indeed become clearer guides to a better way of living, which is a goal we all seek on one level or another.
Speaking of nuance, future blog articles will delve more into the process of values clarification in terms of the major themes I’ve written about in other blog articles, which include meaning, thought/action, humility/finitude, and worldview.
John V. Jones, Jr, Ph.D, LPC-S/January 14th, 2020