Values conflicts? Is that a thing?

I love values. People tend to know that about me and so I often get presented with values questions from colleagues or friends. And one of the most common questions that seems to come up has to do with what to do with supposed values conflicts.

While I usually try to approach these questions with openness and curiosity, I’m going to be totally honest here. These questions about “values conflicts” confuse me. It’s like the feeling I had once when I saw an advertisement for a medication to help with the “problem” of “inadequate” eyelashes (true story!). My response was, “Wait, that’s a problem? I didn’t know that was a thing to worry about? Maybe I have that problem and don’t know it!?!” This is how I feel about values conflicts.

Values conflicts just really aren’t something that come up for me in my work or in my life. While I’d love to say that this is because I’m some values Yoda and I’ve got it all figured out, I am 100% certain that is NOT the case. And yet, I keep hearing over and over, on listservs, in supervision, in consult groups about these “values conflicts” that people are struggling to know how to deal with. Am I missing something?

Then, I was recently sitting in a workshop on values at the most recent ACBS World Conference in Montreal and it struck me– the problem is one of terminology. When people are talking about values conflicts they are usually talking about conflicts between values domains NOT conflicts between what I typically mean when I use the word “values.” Basically, they are dealing with what I would call time management problems between various valued domains. These are often struggles a person is experiencing as they try to find balance between various areas of their life that they value that have competing needs, such as their professional life and their family life. This often gets translated as a conflict between one’s work-related values and one’s family-related values. But I would maintain that it’s more workable to approach this as a time management conflict rather than a values conflict.

From an ACT perspective, we stand in the place that valued living is always immediately available to us. That means, that regardless of circumstance, I can always choose to live a life that is in accordance with my values. At any moment, in any context, I am able to choose actions that help move me in direction of my values. Saying that valued living in one domain is in conflict with or is incompatible with valued living in another domain seems to go against this whole notion that I can ALWAYS be living out my values. From this perspective, there are no circumstances that stand in the way of me or anyone else getting to be the person they most want to be (i.e. live in line with their values). That’s why I don’t think it’s useful to approach these difficulties as “values conflicts.”

There are, of course, competing life demands. Most people have to spend significant portions of their day at a job, for example. And putting time or resources into one domain likely does mean you are not putting that time into another domain. When I am at work seeing clients, I am not at home caring well for my family. When I am at the gym attending to my health, I cannot simultaneously also be spending that time attending a community garbage pick-up event. So I would maintain that there are of course time conflicts and we may need to work with our clients (or ourselves!) around things like work-life balance. But posing these as values conflicts does not seem to me to be a workable position to take.

If the aim is to live a life that is guided by values, then it may be more useful to address these struggles is to look at the values congruence across the domains, rather than approaching them as a conflict between competing values. For example, when it comes down to your core values, what is most dear to you, is the person you want to be with your friends and family really incompatible with the person you want to be with your colleagues and clients? I’m guessing not. Sure, I act somewhat different at work than I do with my family, but in both cases some of my core values are things like compassionately caring for others and being warm and kind in my relationships. By focusing on the values congruence across domains I am able to simultaneously be moving towards being the warm and loving person I want to be to my partner even while I am being that warm and loving person to my clients. I am simply being more of the Jenna I want to be across all areas of my life regardless of whether I am at work or home or at the gym. Conflict resolved! Now if I could just clone myself so I could be in more places at once, then that would take care of the whole time management issue.

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