Values are the foundation of our lives
Why understanding values is important
Values shape our purpose, influence our behaviour and guide our decision making. Our values form the basis of our attraction to certain people, to certain types of work, where we choose to live and how we spend our time. Values are the foundation of our lives.
Understanding our values helps us understand who we are. ‘Without knowing who we are, we tend to have particular trouble coping with either denigration or adulation. If others decide that we are worthless or bad, there will be nothing inside us to prevent us from swallowing their verdicts in their entirety, however wrong-headed, extreme or unkind they may be.’ School of Life
Consideration of our values builds self-awareness. The purposeful act of identifying our values surfaces our feelings, reactions and preferences. When we discuss our values with the people closest to us, we form a greater understanding of why we act the way we do. In a family setting, a conversation about values is a powerful way of understanding each other and the dynamics within the family. This process builds empathy and compassion. When family members take the time to identify and talk about their values, it often re-affirms how much they all have in common.
There are significant benefits from identifying our personal values and triangulating those values with our family. However, the process must navigate some challenges. The challenges we encounter most often are:
- Complexity of our values
- Motherhood and apple pie
- Fear of judgement
Let’s look at these in more detail.
Complexity of our values
Complexity emerges in two ways. First of all, not all values are equal. There are often a handful of values that form our true North. These core values motivate us and guide us. They are the last thing to compromise when we make tough decisions. Some may be higher order values such as serving others. These are aspirational values we believe are important and want to evolve towards. Some values simply bring us joy. The challenge is it is not immediately obvious which values are which. Working it out takes time and reflection. It takes the assistance of those who love us and a guiding hand from those less emotionally involved to draw out examples and help us answer these tricky questions.
Secondly, it’s often challenging to distinguish our personal values from the umbrella values of our family, our peers and the society we live in. We internalise the values our family pass to us. Often parents will communicate values directly (and repetitively) – ‘clean your teeth’, ‘eat your vegetables’ (physical health) – ‘stop fighting with your sibling’ (peace). Values are communicated deeply through the stories parents tell. When they say ‘there are children in the world who don’t have a home to sleep in / food to eat’ they are encouraging their children to demonstrate empathy, gratitude and compassion. Values are inherited through the actions parents take, their habits and routines (exercising, socialising, reading, meditating, praying). Actions reflect our values, because actions don’t lie.
More critical are the things that are rewarded. The celebrations, the praise and punishments cut through to the values that are truly important. Parents are hard-wired to pass on their values to their children. We see this in the way that parents critique:
- religious engagement
- sporting achievement
Children inherently sense which values really matter to their parents. They know what gets rewarded and what gets ignored.
Outside of the family, the societal norms we are exposed to – schools and social peer groups, the generation we belong to, are a strong influence. It is the reason 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants often act differently to their parents and grandparents. It accounts for millennials placing a greater value on acceptance, diversity, nature and sustainability.
More subtly, we are influenced by the cultural backdrop of the place and culture we grow up in. As an example, consider the values that are most commonly associated with Australia:
- Enjoyment of life
- Outdoor recreation
If you grow up in Australia, these values may or may not resonate with you, but in some they will have an influence. These ‘Australian values’ are positive, but society can equally reinforce values that cause life dissatisfaction. Status, appearance, conspicuous consumption may not be the values we want to aspire to, but they are reinforced daily though the media, in advertising and on our social media feeds.
When we consider this myriad of influences, it is challenging to then sit with a blank piece of paper and quickly write down ‘my values’. To land upon the values that makes us unique. It is equally hard to know which values sustain us and where we are reverting to values from an inherited or socialised sense of duty and conformity.
Motherhood and apple pie
Consider the following list of values:
It’s hard to argue with a list like this. It is compelling because love, connection, purpose and acceptance are fundamental human desires. The challenge is that, however true the list might be, it doesn’t give us much to work with in understanding our decision-making processes. We need to know what sets us apart, what makes a family function in a particular way. In our experience, once we start to dig a little deeper, we tend to find that even though there are consistent themes, no individual or family has exactly the same set of values.
Fear of judgement
We want to fit in, to be accepted. So, when it comes to discussing our values, it is sometimes easier to tell people what we think they want to hear. We pick the values that we think represents us well, that makes us look nice, rather than being honest about what is important to us. Our values are so connected to the values of our parents and our friends, we think we know what is important to them. This often can be what gets reflected in our responses.
This is particularly acute where there is a lack of trust or the purpose behind a values discussion is not transparent. When people are defensive, they tend to play it safe. They don’t go high or low on any one cluster of values, so they don’t stick out in the group.
In our experience, there are a few ways to overcome these challenges:
As with most sensitive conversations, it is fundamental to establish ‘why’ we are looking at values at all. What is the purpose? What do we hope to get out of it? How will we use the information? Is it anonymous? This framing needs to come from multiple sources; from any 3rd party facilitation and from family leaders.
Ideally, the identification of values is framed amongst a broader set of objectives. If the process is done well, it should form the centre of family decision making processes. We typically see families use their values to guide philanthropy and investment decisions, governance frameworks and conflict management protocols.
Whilst it is not possible to fully de-construct our values from those of our family, friends and society, it is useful to frame the question about our values from different angles. So, what values do our parents hold? What do we have in common? and where the differences? How do we react to the values attributed to our country?
We need to reflect on what personally makes us happy. What brings us joy may not be the same as what we think is important. Framing the conversation in different ways helps us to approach the topic from different angles.
2. Space and time
When we consider our values, we need to trust our intuition. At the same time, we need to give ourselves some space and set aside time to reflect. We encourage people to clear their minds through meditation, prayer or exercise. It is important to eliminate distractions; phone, email, social media.
As you consider which values resonate, think about how you spend your time and why you prioritise certain things in your life. How you act and what you celebrate will give you the greatest indication of your underlying values. We ask people to reflect on the values of their parents, but also their mentors and role models.
We have found these questions bring greater clarity to the process and form the basis for a richer discussion.
The process of identifying values without discussion and debate becomes an academic exercise. It is the conversation to draw out what our values mean and how they influence us that brings meaning.
The identification of values is therefore simply a starting point for a coaching conversation, a team workshop or a family meeting. The purpose of these conversations is always focused on personal growth and self-awareness. Whilst our values shift over time and adapt to different life situations, it is unrealistic to assume that we can convince our family to adopt or shift their personal values. Our core values are strong. Attempting to influence values, inevitably creates conflict. If we lead the process with care, we can better understand why the members of our family act the way they do. This is a huge benefit that can build significant self-awareness and transform the dynamics within any family.
In summary, values are incredibly powerful and understanding them has huge benefits individually, as a collective family or team. There are some important challenges to be aware of that can de-rail the process. These challenges can be managed effectively with the right intent, a good structure and built around a transparent, supportive conversation.