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Notes from workshop given to the London NLP Practice Group in 1992

The Value of Values

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

There are three parts to these notes:

1. An overview of the concepts
2. The steps of the procedure
3. A values elicitation format for you to complete

Values are words which embody what is important to us. They are complex and intangible higher-level functions and are intimately linked to our beliefs about what is good and bad, right and wrong.  Our values guide our every decision and the satisfaction or violation of them can produce strong emotional reactions. They can be defined as:

“Values are stable constructs from which belief systems are generated. The rule of thumb is values can be expressed in 1 to 3 words. Beliefs need a full sentence.  Attitudes tend to need a paragraph.” Douglas Pride

We can have moving towards values which, when satisfied, bring us pleasure and moving away from values which attempt to keep us from feeling pain.


Not Failing                                         Being Successful
Ill-health                                           Good Health
Too Much Change                               Security
Not Feeling Trapped                            Freedom of Choice

When we are operating out of our highest values we experience congruence and a sense of satisfaction.  We like people who share our values and often have strong reactions to people who don’t.

When we experience conflicting values it creates a dilemma and incongruence.  Values can conflict at the same time (ie. simultaneously “should I do this or should I do that”) or over time (ie. sequentially “I know I really shouldn’t have done it”).  Arguments and disagreements are almost always associated with people having conflicting values.

While our values are usually out of our awareness we constantly express them through our language and indicating which are the most important through our behaviour.  The simplest way to discover someone's values is to ask:

    •    What is important to you about [topic]?
    •    What do you want in/out of [topic]?
    •    What would having [topic] do for you?

When someone expresses an important value, that word will represent a whole set of experiences and emotions. Therefore it is important that you honour that person’s experience by using their exact value words. If they say ‘honesty’ then be respectful by using their word ‘honesty’ rather than ‘openness’ or ‘trustworthy’ even if it means the same thing to you.

Our values can change when we commit to new outcomes, make decisions to live to a higher standard, and when we change our self-image.

Who Rules the Roost?

While values have an intangible quality to them, the rules* by which they get satisfied or violated are often very tangible! If you want ‘reliability’ in a postal service, does that mean that if just one letter goes astray they are unreliable or if the odd letter goes missing who cares?

“Rules are your beliefs about what has to happen in order
 for you to feel good (or bad) about an experience”    Anthony Robbins

Rules are not about ‘reality’, they are about our experience of reality - and everyone’s experience is different. This is why you cannot assume you know what will satisfy someone else’s values.  You may think staying late shows dedication, they may think dedication is getting their work done by five o’clock.

You can identify your own rules (or someone else’s) by asking:

•    What has to happen for you to experience/feel [value word]?
•    How do you know when [value word] is satisfied?
•    How would you decide if X were [value word]?

Rules are not necessarily logical, they are emotional!

Therefore they are not to be argued with. Rather than attempt to change them by rational persuasion it more productive to influence a person’s rules by changing what they mean. This is called Reframing.

Rules can either disempower or empower us. Here’s how:

DISEMPOWERING                            EMPOWERING   
RULES ARE:                                    RULES ARE:

• Impossible to achieve                    • Achievable
• Complex                                      • Simple
• Dependent on many things            • Independent of other rules
• Outside our control                       • Within our power/remit
• Place/time/people dependent         • Can happen anywhere, anytime, with anyone
e.g.    I’ll feel job satisfaction:

When I’m promoted and have a            Whenever I achieve a daily goal   
pay rise and I’m employee of the          or I get positive feedback or I learn
year and my ‘in-tray’ is empty and ...    something new or ...


* Rules were originally known as 'behavioural or complex equivalents' in NLP.

Much of this article was adapted from Anthony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within (Simon & Schuster, 1992)

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – first registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy in 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. James has also written (with Marian Way) the first book dedicated to Clean Space: Insights in Space. Between them Penny and James have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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