What Are Best Practices in Values Clarification?

In order to choose the values clarification methods that would work best in your client experience, its important that you first understand the various types of values that are relevant to uncover and what obstacles you might face that make this process difficult.  Once you have this foundational information, it will be easier to evaluate which combination of methods would be ideal for you and how you might best facilitate this important discovery process for your clients.

No two values clarification methods are alike, each focusing on uncovering certain types of values. In this article, I will discuss the pros and cons of several different frameworks. My hope is that you, the financial professional or educator, will identify a combination of methods to use with your client that will create an engaging and enjoyable experience while also bringing clarity to a wide array of core values.

List of Core Values Exercise

The first method we will analyze is the simple but very widely used “List of Core Values.”  This exercise is typically presented as a long list of single words representing common values on a sheet of paper or as a deck of cards with one value listed on each card.  The instructions are to first circle or select a certain number of the values that the individual feels are highest priority to them personally. Next, they are instructed to whittle the total number of selected values down to only a few they feel are the most important. These selected few represent the individual’s “core values”.

I believe this method has been the biggest “go-to” method for values clarification because it’s quick, easy, and requires little to no in-depth thinking or discussion to get to the results. All the values that are believed to be relevant are provided, and the participant typically makes selections based on gut feelings. However, despite the fact that this method has been used in countless studies and has been proven to be a useful tool in therapy, coaching, education, and a variety of work environments, it also comes with its limitations.

In addition to enforcing a maximum number of core values, this exercise is also limited in the types of values it presents as relevant. You will commonly see values that I would categorize as  “principles and standards,” “what you hold most dear,” and “intangible things that motivate.” However, what you’re not likely to find are values that would fit under the “issues and causes” category, the “personal preferences” category, or the “tangible activities, people, places, and things” category.  Frankly, without understanding things that are important to them in those final three categories, how well would you know that individual? (See my full list of values categories and examples)

Another downside to this method is the opportunity for externally felt pressures to influence the participant’s answers. For example, if a financial professional or educator is the facilitator of the exercise, the participant might feel compelled to select values that would impress that individual or match what they believe is expected. Or, if a couple were each completing the exercise to provide clarity when planning for their future or making decisions, they may select certain values to please or “keep the peace” within their relationship. In any case, these external influences will result in values that have little to no emotional attachment for that individual and, therefore, little to no drive or conviction to take action.

“What’s important about that to you?” X 1,000

Another successfully used method was made quite popular in the financial planning arena by a financial planner turned speaker, trainer, and educator, Bill Bachrach, CSP, CPAE.  Bachrach suggested that the financial planner facilitate a conversation starting with the initial question “What’s important about money to you?” Next, continue the path of questioning by asking, “And, what’s important about [insert previous answer] to you?”  The idea is that you continue with this line of questioning until you get down to a core driving force (usually when no additional answers can be articulated) that motivates their money management perspective, decisions, and behaviors.

This line of questioning could also be used to understand the underlying value that is motivating them to pursue a particular goal.  For example, the client could share that they have a desire to purchase a yacht.  With this line of questioning the client and the advisor could gain more clarity that the underlying desire is to spend quality time in nature with their kids during the summer months without screens, learning to use grandpa’s special fishing rods, and strengthening family relationships. Although removing everyday distractions, teaching their children about the value nature brings, and passing along family heirlooms are important values, having a strong family bond was at the heart of this goal. If the yacht is not financially feasible at this time, this deeper awareness can help to expand their perspective of the options that could match this underlying desire.

The purpose of this method is to strip away extrinsic aspirations (purchases) and drill down to a single intrinsic core value (something that provides a sense of fulfillment). The trick is in the facilitation. When done well, this can be incredibly enlightening and assist individuals in focusing on intrinsic aspirations that increase life satisfaction. When the facilitator is not as skilled or intuitive, it can come off sounding like a scripted sales tactic or feeling like an interrogation rather than a genuine interest in what’s important to the client.

Regardless of your facilitation skills, the method is still going to be fairly limited in scope in terms of type and number of values you uncover.  Likely you’ll be focused on the categories of “things you hold most dear” and “intangible things that motivate” but you may miss important values from the other four categories.

My hope is that you will identify a combination of methods to use with your client that will create an engaging and enjoyable experience while also bringing clarity to a wide array of core values. Click To Tweet

The Smart Phone Exercise

In 2017, I attended a one-day workshop with Dr. Ted Klontz, associate professor of Practice and Financial Psychology at Creighton University, author, and speaker, and Rick Kahler, MS, CFP®, CFT-I™, CeFT®, financial planner, author, and podcaster, that focused on understanding client behavior and how to best engage and motivate them to take action in their financial lives.  To demonstrate how values can be deciphered from almost any interaction you have, they had us experience an exercise using our smartphones.

The instructions were to choose a partner in the workshop we had never met before, pull out our smartphones, and each share our answers to the following questions:

  • What is your favorite thing either in or on your phone? Why?
  • What is an app that you thought you would use but don’t use often or at all? Why?
  • What is an app that you use the most? Why?

The person who is listening to the answer is allowed to ask follow-up questions out of curiosity or for clarification, but not share any thoughts or opinions in return.  Once the sharing was completed, each were asked to spend five minutes writing about what they learned about their partners values and then share those thoughts with each other. Everyone seemed astounded by how much their partner gleaned from this short exchange. It really opened up our perspectives of just how much we can “read between the lines” and learn about someone if we are actively listening. Try it!  You’ll be surprised by what your partner learns about you!

This method will likely provide you some insights into values within the categories of “personal preferences” and “tangible activities, people, places, and things” and possibly into others, but it will be completely reliant on the facilitator to translate the answers into potential values.  This is a skill that will require practice for most. But, guess what?? You don’t need to ask people to pull out their smartphones; you can practice identifying values in just about every conversation you have. Simply mirror back what values you believe were revealed in your conversation and ask about the accuracy of your perception!

Open-Ended Questions about Positive Feelings

For a method that helps to strip away external influences while also uncovering more intrinsic type aspiration, you’ll need to spend some time crafting well-constructed open-ended questions. These should be questions that guide the client in looking inward and thinking about what provides positive feelings. Here are a few examples:

  • What activities or endeavors have brought you a sense of fulfillment or intrinsic reward?
  • Who are you with, where are you, and what are you doing when you feel joy and happiness?
  • When have you felt the most content and what were the circumstances that helped you to feel that way?

These types of questions can help you to uncover a large array of values that have a strong emotional connection for the client.  When the clients vision and goals are aligned with or include these intrinsic connections, they will feel more commitment to the plan and be eager to follow through on the financial strategies to get there. The difficulty with this method is in the crafting of the questions and facilitation of the conversation.

Sequence of Discovery Tools

If you’re a Money Quotient Partner, then you’re already aware that we’ve got you covered when it comes to values clarification. Through an engaging and enjoyable sequence of tools that slowly guides the client into deeper thinking and increased self-awareness, we combine a few different methods to ensure we uncover as many types of values as possible.

Our discovery tools guide clients in exploring their biography and how past experiences and observations have shaped their current perspectives, preferences, values, and passions. We help them focus on several different facets of life — from family to community, productive activities to leisure, health to learning, and more — in order to identify what’s most important to them and design a well-balanced vision of an ideal future. No need to “recreate the wheel,” we’ve been crafting, testing, and refining effective questions for 30+ years.

One of the biggest benefits of using a well-documented discovery process is that you can revisit many of these discovery tools in the years to come to track how perspectives, values, goals, and objectives change from year to year.  You may feel you’ve learned everything there is to know about your client in the initial discovery process, but when you meet with them annually, what you don’t know is the experiences, observations, or conversations they’ve had over the last year that have changed their thoughts and feelings about their life. It is important to revisit values clarification conversations often to avoid being one of the overly confident advisors that were revealed in our 2021 study discussed in my previous article.

Whichever combination of methods you choose, be sure to spend time understanding the benefits and pitfalls in order to facilitate the conversation in a way to get the best results.  The only way to improve on your ability to identify values is through practice. Try mirroring back the values you hear in conversations with your friends and family. Not only will you be training your brain to focus on qualitative information, but you’ll likely strengthen your close relationships in the process.

- Amy Mullen, CFP®