Two tabby kittens play fighting.

Working with your values in conflict

Many forms of psychotherapy suggest that people work with their own values to build a fulfilling life. Both Acceptance and Commitment therapy and Existential psychotherapy are particularly built around the idea that your own core values form an important foundation to creating a life worth living. Despite having a lot of time for these approaches, I’ve been suspicious about working with values in the past.  They have often seemed to me to be a little ‘airy fairy’ and not especially connected to anything concrete. Nevertheless, when looking at an acceptance and commitment therapy approach to working with couples I decided to give values another chance, and was thoroughly surprised by how helpful doing deep and detailed work on them was for me. It helped me to think about how my values inform the way I do friendship, family, romance, work and travel. More to the point, it has helped me to work out how to make my values central to my daily life.

While values are helpful in lots of parts of my life, I’ve been very surprised by how much they have changed how I do conflict. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to work with values in conflict, but it is the first time I have managed to really connect with the ideas and overcome the barriers I had. Like many of the pieces in my blog, this series is something I wish I had come across a few years ago to help me with taking valued actions.  If you are interested in seeing how you can incorporate your values into how you engage with conflict, I hope the ideas in this series will help.

Today’s exercise is simple, and probably obvious. Unsurprisingly, the first step to incorporating values into your life is working out the values that you have. A value is something that is foundationally important to how you live. It isn’t a goal or ambition, it is just something that is a real underlying priority in your life. You can start with a blank page and reflect on the times that you have been most happy, proud or fulfilled. When thinking about those times it is helpful to reflect on who was there, what you were doing, and what factors contributed to the experience. Alternatively, you can start with a list. I have made a powerpoint presentation with some values, or you can look at much longer lists like this one or this one. It is best if you are ruthless and try to get your list down to around six core values. You might find that a few of the ones that you choose are really similar. For example, curious and inquisitive might both be words that you feel a connection to. Group similar words together and brainstorm others that are related – maybe even rope in a thesaurus. Then work out which word really gets to the heart of what you mean in that area and get rid of the others.

I’ve done this before, and made several mistakes. Sometimes I have been aspirational in choosing my values. I have picked the ones I *wanted* to value, rather than the ones I actually did.  Sometimes I have not narrowed down sufficiently and have come up with a really long list of values, some of which were quite similar to each other. The last time I did the exercise I knew it was going to be about managing conflict, and I chose three that were really about avoidance and withdrawal rather than things I actually valued. So, try not to do that. Really think about what you value across different parts of your life, thinking about those times you felt most happy, proud and fulfilled, and what contributed to those moments. Perhaps it was a sense of achievement, or feeling like you’d been on a wonderful adventure. Maybe you felt really connected to someone or like you’d really mastered doing something difficult. Values are really individual, so finding yours is really all about working out those things that are deeply important to you.

That’s it for today. The next 6 posts will all be about working with values. I’m going to be talking about:

Do your values open you up or close you down?
Take stock of where you are now in relation to values
What is your go-to coping behaviour in conflict?
What value-based actions would you like to be able to take in conflict?
What fears must I face to take value-based actions rather than coping behaviours?
Planning breaks in conflict to make space for value-based action.