Why Are Values So Tricky?

If personal values are so crucial to our individual identity, decision-making, and overall satisfaction in life, why do many of us struggle to identify our core values? Moreover, why do we find it challenging to help our clients identify their values as well?

In my previous article, I explored one layer of what makes values clarification complex, which was simply understanding, “What are Values, Anyway?  In this second article of a 3-part series, we’ll take a deeper dive into three additional layers, including how exterior influences can muddy the waters, lack of self-awareness creates blind spots, and ineffective listening and communication skills lead to missed opportunities for clarity.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our experiences and observations as children began to shape our values. In developing our own worldview, we were influenced by the communities around us and by the adults in our lives — possibly including parents, teachers, relatives, or friends.  Both consciously and subconsciously, our perspectives continue to evolve and change over time with each new experience. Because we are not fully conscious of the development and evolution of our perspectives, we are easily susceptible to external pressures — from society, family, tight-knit communities, or peers — to invest our time, energy, and money in ways that are not aligned with our personal values.  Misalignment then results in feeling unhappy, dissatisfied, irritable, resentful, and exhausted.

Lack of clarity can also allow us to more easily fall prey to memetic desire through our exposure to social media, marketing, and entertainment. Memetic desire occurs when an individual observes someone expressing happiness about a purchase or displaying enjoyment of an activity. Then, they automatically and subconsciously assume purchasing that item or engaging in that activity will provide them with the same happiness or joy they observed. Without a clear understanding of what provides them intrinsic reward, they might find themselves disappointed or experiencing buyer’s regret.

Improving your ability to guide clients in reflection, create opportunities for raising self-awareness, and identifying relative qualitative information requires conscious and deliberate effort. Click To Tweet

In addition to the complexities of external influences, in the US, we have, for many decades, been a culture of “doing” as opposed to “being.”  Meaning that we’ve focused much of our attention on achievement, getting ahead, and being productive. Consequently, we have undervalued pausing for reflection, learning from our experiences, and applying this clarity to our planning. In fact, in our society, many believe that once you have identified your values, they generally do not change, so why waste our time revisiting the topic?

Simply conducting a Google search about “changes in personal values during the pandemic” will result in a plethora of studies and articles indicating a massive shift in individuals’ perspectives, priorities, and values in the last four years. Frankly, if you’re a financial planner and you haven’t revisited a values clarification, visioning, and goal-setting process with your client since the pandemic, you are likely in the group of overly confident advisors represented in the graph I shared in my last article.

Let’s be clear, however, it doesn’t require a global event as big as the pandemic to shift an individual’s perspective and values. These shifts can occur with any life transition, experience, observation, or conversation. For this reason, financial planners need to begin to normalize consistent and continuous discussions about values with their clients every year.

This leads us to the final layer that makes values clarification so complex — the communication and listening skills this process requires of the advisor. I’m not going to sugar coat this, these are not easy skills to master for most people. This process not only requires the advisor to be actively listening, find the deeper meaning in client responses to questions, and recognize the connection between past experience and present-day perspectives, but it also requires them to be very self-aware as well. Advisors also need to be able to recognize when their own assumptions or biases are influencing their communication and recommendations. These are not simple skills to master with intuition alone. Improving your ability to guide clients in reflection, create opportunities for raising self-awareness, and identifying relative qualitative information requires conscious and deliberate effort.

Fortunately, there are several tools and resources that advisors can lean on to create practical processes for values clarification with clients, while also working to increase their own self-awareness and improve their own facilitation skills. Tune into my next blog post, “What are Best Practices in Values Clarifications?" where I will be sharing my perspective of the pros and cons of many available approaches.

- Amy Mullen, CFP®