The Non Verbal Nature of Values

Values are really important with clients who want to make any kind of change.  That’s because values operate like a form of compass, which can help us navigate uncertain or new territory.

I have worked with organisational and personal values for many years, but for a long time  my work with clients in the area of values produced results like this:

  • I value my family, for the love and support they offer me.
  • I value my work, because I love to feel part of a team.
  • I value coming up with new ideas to problems.

Now, these are all incredibly worthwhile.  Yet, somehow they also lack depth or resonance.  My own value of ‘meaning’ in work can sometimes feel like a commodity, a word which begins to lose its meaning over time.

At the last ACT World Conference, Kelly Wilson showed me how limited this verbal view of values was.  Values must be described verbally, but that is only because words are all we have to articulate to others what we are experiencing.

Wilson brought this idea to life by asking us to identify someone in our lives who we really value. He asked us to write a couple of lines that describe what we value in them.  Mine was my Mum, and the description went something like this:

I value my Mum because she has always supported me, and been there for me in difficult times.  Despite struggling with her own problems, she has always given everything to me, and she is kind, human and a real Christian.

This describes well some of the things I really value about my Mum.  Yet, the words strangely lack impact.  They are commodities, well-worn grooves in my mind, like a pre-rehearsed package of sounds.

Then Wilson asked us to think of a specific moment that encapsulates what we value about that person, and then to recall that moment through our senses.

Mine related to a time when my Mum was a single parent and I would hate the time when it came for her to leave to go to work.  I wrote:

I recall the days when you would leave for work early in the morning and I would feel a rising sense of dread as you prepared to leave.  Then, at the moment you came to leave, terror that you might never come back.  Even writing now, I feel it with a beating heart and clammy hands.  You used to sing ‘Save all your kisses for me’ to me, but I can see myself now, a tiny figure consumed by worry that you, like my Father, may simply walk out of my life and never return.

But you always did return.

And when you did, I remember the hug you would give me; deep and long and cold as your winter coat pressed on my hot cheek.  I remember how you smelt of fresh air and the outdoors, and I would breathe it all in with long gulps.  And I would know, I was safe and I was wanted, and it was going to be OK.

Do you see a difference? Values – the things we value in life – need words to describe them but words cannot describe them.  Not fully.

Our human experience is primarily sensual, but over time it becomes more verbal. In some ways we need to de-learn our verbal impulse to experience life at first hand. We need to clear words out of the way to allow life to happen in its rawest, most vigorous and vital sense.

And that’s what values connect us with – not things we think are important, but things we feel as important.  A small but powerful difference.

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