Identifying and Clarifying Values

Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey

Personal leadership is the process of keeping your vision and values before you and aligning your life to be congruent with them. (Stephen Covey)

So far in this series about values, we have covered:

In this article I explain how to go about identifying or eliciting and clarifying personal values.

Whitworth, Kimsey-House and Sandahl (Whitworth, Kimsey-House, Kimsey-House, & Sandahl, 2007) recommend identifying one’s values by exploring our life experience. When we are presented with a list of values to choose from, we tend to “go shopping” for the most popular or desirable values and exclude those values that we believe society does not admire, like personal power and recognition. In this post I will share with you two methods that I use to elicit clients’ values.

The first method involves exploring a client’s life experience through a structured set of conversations. I have listed the topics for some of these conversations below. The client’s initial responses to these topics do not always lead directly to their values, so exploring their answers at a deeper level is necessary. By “deeper” I do not mean “more detailed.” The answers a coach is looking for do not lie in the detail of their client’s stories. To surface values it is necessary to explore the client’s responses to situations, their thoughts, feelings, emotions and psychological drivers. The topics listed below are simply catalysts for the ensuing and necessary conversations.

  • Peak moments in the client’s life
  • Low moments in the client’s life
  • The things the client feels they must have in their lives (beyond physical things)
  • Behaviors the client cannot tolerate
  • The client’s obsessive behaviors and desires
  • What the clients would do if they won a lot of money
  • What is missing in the client’s life or what would make their life more fulfilling
  • The client’s relationship with a higher power, or lack thereof
  • What the client is most proud of
  • What the client is most disappointed about
  • The compliment the client receives most often
  • Words that describe the client at their best
  • Words that describe the client when they are at less than their best

The other method I use involves visualizations focused on specific perspectives or lenses on a client’s life. I have the client select five different contexts, one of which must be a their present work situation, the second must be a desired work situation, and the other three must be enjoyable or favorite activities. Using placeholders spread out on the floor, I have them move through these different contexts in order to identify with and experience their state in each context. Whilst in each state I facilitate a conversation about their experiences in that state, again deepening the conversation to identify their values. I use theses contexts and the states that they create for the client in a number of ways to create multiple perspectives. For example, they talk to their experience of being in a context, but they also speak to their experience of seeing other states from a current state.

Only once we have completed these two exercises do I offer them a list of values from which they may pick any we have not yet identified. The three approaches combined usually generate a list comprising dozens of values, many of which are related or similar. However, having a list made up of dozens of values is too wieldy to be practical, so we need shorten it. I feel that five values is a practical number with which to work and to base our choices on. That is not to say that the others are invalid or discarded. The objective is to identify the client’s five most important values.

We go about reducing the long list of values by clustering similar words, which usually necessitates further conversations about the meaning of some of the words and the similarities and differences between them. Once we have clustered the words, we select the five most important clusters and name them. What is important in naming the clusters is that the names (often phrases) are meaningful to the client. This exercise is not about language or grammar. Once we have five clusters of values named to the client’s satisfaction, we move on to clarifying the five values.

During the process of eliminating non-core values we look for self-centered values like “self respect” or “recognition” because they can drive us into making arrogant choices and developing utilitarian relationships with others. Stephen Covey (Covey, 1999) suggests that we develop core values that are more holistic and anchored in the fundamental realities of nature and healthy social relationships (in his terms, “the law of the farm”). Following Clemmer’s advice (Clemmer, 1995) we also want to get to the core value, in other words an end value, not a value that is a means to some other end. For example, wealth is seldom a value in itself. It is usually the means to status, power, security, recognition, freedom, accomplishment, pleasure, helping others, or some other end value.

Clarifying values involves a conversation about each of the top five values aimed at defining the value in the client’s words so that they know what it means to honor or dishonor the value. Then we explore ways in which the values are showing up in the client’s life. We do this by discussing how each value serves them, how they are honoring the value, what gets in the way of them honoring it, and what the cost to them is of not honoring the value. We explore which values they sometimes neglect and why, and which values they will not compromise. We also rank rank the values – see Values Dilemmas for an explanation of why this is important. Lastly, we calibrate each value so that we can track progress towards more fully honoring the value.

Most authors on the topic of values agree that identifying and clarifying values can take several months of work. This is because we are trying to identify those deep seated values that drive us, rather than the external “I should” values that have been ingrained in us. As Clemmer puts it, a lifetime of conditioning by our parents, teachers, religious leaders, friends, bosses, colleagues, and culture have left us honoring other peoples’ value systems rather than our own. Eliciting and clarifying our values is about changing that. It is about us taking charge of our lives so that we can make resonant and fulfilling choices rather than following in the shadows of other people.

Share with us some of the values you are honoring because you “should” rather than because you really want to, and how you plan to go about changing that.

If you enjoyed this article, please pass it on to others. Share it on Facebook, ReTweet it on Twitter, or email it to a friend. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter.


Clemmer, J. (1995). Pathways to performance: a guide to transforming yourself, your team, and your organization. Macmillan Canada,[2004].
Covey, S. R. (1999). First Things First. Simon & Schuster.
Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, K., Kimsey-House, H., & Sandahl, P. (2007). Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and, Life. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

About kingpincoach

An ICF accredited team and executive coach, and coach supervisor, I specialise in building successful careers, inspirational leaders and high-performing teams.
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One Response to Identifying and Clarifying Values

  1. Pingback: Live the life YOU really want « Theattitudequeen's Blog

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