Personal Value Exploration: An Experiential Activity
An exercise in clarifying values.
Posted February 7, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
This post offers a step-by-step breakdown of an interactive, value clarification exercise for clinical, non-clinical, and student populations. I have found that this activity can be used when working with individuals, small groups, and larger groups. It can take between 60 to 90 minutes to complete. In terms of demographics, this exercise has been used with emerging adults and “actual” adults from both North American and international contexts. Thus, its utility can span across age ranges and cultural boundaries.
Values clarification is crucial to making choices that lead to adaptive living. This is because one’s values, an individual’s judgment of what is important, useful, and worthy in life, are central mediating processes for behavior at individual and societal levels.
We inherit our values from the culture in which we grew up (and/or currently reside), the type of family from which we came, the transmission of religious, political, or social ideologies, and the way we live through and narrate our experience of this world as unique individuals. Becoming aware of what specifically informs our lives makes it easier for us to more actively choose how we want to be, and how to communicate to those similar to or different than ourselves.
Shealy (2015) writes that when combined with sufficient knowledge about important life experiences and events, belief and value statements often provide (1) a great deal of information about the hypothetical structure and organization of personality or “self"; and (2) a relatively accessible point of entry to issues and phenomena that are significant in a wide range of settings and contexts.
This exercise is unassuming, yet powerful in its unfolding. Individuals dynamically engage in processes of brainstorming, discernment, prioritization, and divergent thinking as they come to learn which values inform their daily lives.
An optional conclusion to this activity (usually for those utilizing it within a clinical environment) includes client-directed goal generation. Participants create specific and informed behavior-oriented objectives for themselves based on the outcome of their value prioritization.
The remainder of this blog post is the exercise itself (as written if utilized in a small group setting), and is broken down into various steps for the sake of clarity.
Materials Needed: Purple, blue, pink, yellow, and green pieces of paper cut into 2” by 3” slips, envelopes, handouts (reviewed in Step 13), a flat surface, and writing utensils.
Step 1: Pitch. Gather your participants as a large group and begin with a reader’s digest version of the first part of this article. A sample introduction might look something like this:
“Values are what we deem important and worthy in life. They inform how we spend our time and energy. We often inherit them from our families of origin, and then add, swap, and/or modify our values based on education and experience as we age.
"Oftentimes, we walk through this world not really knowing what our values are, which can be problematic. If we don’t have a clear understanding of what makes us tick, then we’ll have a hard time trying to change pieces of ourselves (or authentically responding to others in a healthy manner).
"This activity will help us uncover what values mean the most so that we’re able to take a good look to see if those are the values we want impacting our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Awareness first; choice second.”
At this point, you are looking to ground this activity by citing its various uses and purposes.
Step 2: Paper Handout. Pass around the stacks of paper and instruct each person to take four slips of paper from each of the colored piles. Ask participants to spread out their pieces of paper in front of them so that they can see each card (folks usually organize slips of paper into colored rows).
Step 3: Purple Prompt. Now begins the exercise. Ask each individual to write down on their purple cards, a physical object, product, or item they feel they need in order to function on a daily basis. Some people get initially stuck here, so I offer the following examples to help with the brainstorming: cellphone, car, food, medication, water, shelter, laptop, etc.
Other individuals may ask how “concrete” or “real” do they need to be about the items they write on their cards in this step. I usually refrain from making that decision for them, and instead, encourage people to play with the purposeful vagueness of the prompts and engage with the activity in whatever way seems to make sense to them. Once everyone has finished, I usually ask each person to share 1-2 objects that they wrote down.
Step 4: Blue Prompt. Ask each individual to write down on their blue pieces of paper, a geographical location that is especially important to them. It could be their grandparent’s house, the beach (in general), a place to which they have always wanted to travel, or somewhere they worked and/or volunteered. Like before, have each person share 1-2 locations that they wrote down and a brief explanation as to why that place means so much to them.
Step 5: Pink Prompt. Ask each individual to write down on their cards, persons who have made them who they are today. This prompt could have a positive, negative, or mixed valence to it, and I usually name that reality out loud.
Participants can choose how honest they want to be concerning the impact certain individuals have had on them regarding their development. If group members have multiple children, they can write all their kids on one card, but other than that, each card should just have one name. Pets can be included here! Individuals can also write down names of people who are deceased or persons whom they have never met.
I do not ask participants to share during this round because many of the pink cards are reviewed later in the activity. Thus, I try to limit redundancy.
Step 6: Yellow Prompt. Ask each individual to write down on their yellow cards, personal or professional goals that they have for themselves (both short- and long-term timelines are acceptable). Have each person share 1-2 to goals they wrote down and a brief explanation as to why they chose those particular goals.
*If the group facilitator has over an hour with which to work with individuals, I would suggest spending more time discussing people’s yellow cards. I have often found that this particular prompt affords me pointed and clear illustrations of significant desires or wishes as held by participants.
Step 7: Green Prompt. This prompt usually takes people the longest to complete. Ask each individual to write down on their green pieces of paper, four significant memories that they always want to remember.
Like the pink prompt, memories can be positive, negative, or a mixture of the two. Sometimes it is helpful to frame this prompt as thinking of a memory from which participants learned a valuable lesson. Depending on the time, have people share 1-2 to memories. Note that memories are often told in story form and can therefore last longer.
Step 8: Individual Reflection. Once everyone has finished writing, ask participants to take a few moments to look at the cards they have in front of them in silent reflection. Maybe introduce some mindful breathing here! If there are some individuals who were not able to fill out all their cards, that is completely fine. They can simply leave whatever cards they want blank.
Step 9: Card Elimination. When working with clients in a partial hospitalization setting, I have come to realize that a preface to the next part of this activity is necessary, as it can be quite activating for those who are in more vulnerable circumstances. I encourage all participants to follow through with the first two directions. After that, you can share that if the exercise becomes too intense or emotionally laden, people can stop at whatever step feels most comfortable.
My narrative of this step usually goes something like this:
“This part of the activity is centered on value prioritization, and thus, we will be eliminating cards. Remember that this is exercise is representative, symbolic. So what I am going to have you do is take five cards away and put them in a pile off to the side. This action means that the card you removed is no longer a part of your life — you do not have possession of that item, do not know about that place, have never met that person, are not working towards that goal, and do not have that particular memory.”
If group members have blank cards, they are instructed to eliminate those first. Again, if participants want more information concerning the prompt, I encourage them to engage with the activity in whatever way seems to make sense to them at the moment.
Once people have taken away five cards, ask them to remove four more. Pause as appropriate to get a gauge on how the process in unfolding. While this is where the “mandatory” directions end, I do urge participants to continue with the process of elimination if they are able.
Ask each person to take away three more cards. Pause. Two more. Pause. Take one more card away.
This should leave individuals with their “top five” cards. (Facilitators can certainly play with the concluding number of cards and adjust the card elimination steps accordingly.)
Step 10: Sharing. Ask participants to turn to the person next to them and have a conversation about the slips of paper they each have in front of them. This discussion usually takes five minutes. Invite pairs to return to the larger group and share a meaningful piece of their partnered conversation with the larger group. The facilitator may also find it helpful to ask more generally how people experienced this activity. (I.e., Was it hard? Were there any surprises? What emotions came up for you during the process of elimination?)
Step 11: Value Identification. Invite individuals to take any two of the remaining cards (not as a gesture of elimination!) that are particularly salient at the moment and think of one “representative” word that adequately captures what this item, place, person, memory, or goal means to them. Here are examples of words generated by clients with whom I have worked in the past: support, pain, life-giving, burden, love, freedom, darkness, and compulsion. Each person is to write that word on the back of the card with which it is associated.
Step 12: Value Naming. There are a variety of ways in which this step can be executed. What I usually do is have participants name the two representative words that they have written on the backs of their cards out loud to the larger group, moving from one person to another around the circled group two times through.
After everyone has shared their words in this way, I offer that what they have in front of them are current values (a rephrasing of the initial activity prompt can be helpful here). Linking the just-shared words of group members with the notion of values can be especially powerful for some individuals, especially if the word(s) that they named are perceived as being unhealthy, negative, and/or unwanted.
If I have extra time, I usually invite group members to ask one another about each other’s values either in pairs or a large group setting. For most people, much conversation can be had about their finals cards.
*For groups who are not a part of a therapeutic setting, the activity ends here. A concluding large group discussion can take place as a way of processing the experience. I would suggest utilizing the questions below to facilitate a closing conversation:
- What was this exercise like for you?
- What did you learn about yourself?
- What did you learn about your peers?
- Was there anything that was surprising about this activity?
- Do you think the values that you identified are evident in how you live your life?
Step 13: Behavioral Adjustments. For individuals in a setting in which behavior modification is desired, this final step helps to move the awareness gleaned from this exercise to informed and motivated decision-making. Hand each person two of the below prompts:
Is this value “healthy” or “unhealthy?" (Please circle one.)
If you want to either maintain or decrease the presence of this value in your life, please list two concrete ways by which you can do that.
Ask group members to read through this mini-handout and complete it as individuals. Their responses should be guided by the identification of the “healthy” or “unhealthy” values they currently hold.
Again, time permitting, have participants share their sentences with the larger group, offering feedback and/or encouragement, perhaps requesting the same engagement from other group members. There is definitely space here to relate goals identified within this activity to goals within a greater system or program, so I encourage facilitators to help participants make those relevant connections.
I then invite group members to put all their cards and the behavioral adjustment handout in an envelope to keep everything organized. I have had clients share that they wanted to give their “pink person” cards to the individuals about whom they wrote, and several more who indicated that they would like to do the same exercise at a later date to see if their values change over time. This activity is one that many clients within the partial hospitalization program in which I work enjoy as it is interactive, non-pathologizing, and accessible.
Lastly, I would like to note that this activity can be “themed” any which way. I have used this exercise in helping people to prioritize values related to their professional/vocational identities, and various life roles (i.e., parent, spouse, child, sibling, etc.). I believe that the versatility of this experiential learning activity illustrates the power and all-encompassing nature of values and their impact on humanity.
This post was written by Alexis C. Kenny, author of Married in Mission: A Handbook for Couples in Cross-Cultural Service.
Shealy, C.N. (2015). Imagining a world where beliefs and values make sense: Future directions and further reflections. In Craig N. Shealy (Ed.), Making sense of beliefs and values: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 625-667). New York, NY: Springer Publishing.