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Re-introducing values clarification to the helping professions

By Howard Kirschenbaum, Ed.D.


In the 1960s, about the same time that Albert Ellis was developing his original cognitive-behavioral therapy approach and William Glasser was developing his reality therapy (a cognitive behavior approach that evolved into Choice Theory), an educator named Louis Raths was developing a new affective-cognitive-behavioral counseling approach that eventually came to be called “values clarification.”

Raths noticed that young people who seemed apathetic, flighty, over-conforming, or over-dissenting in their behavior could become more purposeful, consistent, and zestful in their lives if they were asked to reflect upon their goals, purposes, and behaviors. He and his students Sidney Simon and Merrill Harmin refined and developed many ways that teachers and counselors could ask students “value-clarifying questions” and “values clarification strategies” to encourage them to reflect on what they prized and cherished, affirm their values with others, consider alternatives and their consequences, make freer choices about their lives, and act on their goals and beliefs in a consistent manner.

While developments and research on cognitive-behavioral therapies proceeded steadily over the decades, in the 1970s and 80s the focus of the values clarification movement stayed mostly on teaching, values education, and character education with youth. Although many of the methods and strategies of values clarification—such as voting, ranking, continuums, inventories, unfinished sentences, and the like—became staples in the repertoire of counselors and therapists, the utility of values clarification as a distinctive counseling approach was lost to one or two generations of new helping professionals.

In the 1980s and 90s, newer counseling and therapy approaches began to emerge on the scene, many of them utilizing concepts and methods of values clarification. Solution-focused therapy relies heavily on questions to help clients identify preferred goals, view their situation from an alternative perspective, consider alternative solutions, and evaluate coping strategies and solutions. Motivational interviewing, which has proven especially effective in alcohol and substance abuse counseling, uses clarifying questions and strategies to build on the client’s intrinsic motivation to change. Appreciative inquiry relies primarily on clarifying questions to help the client identify and capitalize on their strengths, vitalities, aspirations, possibilities, and core values as they set and achieve life and career goals. Acceptance and commitment therapy explicitly includes values clarification as a major component in their research-tested integration of western and eastern “behavior technologies.” Positive psychology recognizes that living according to one’s values is an essential element of life satisfaction.

I can’t help but be pleased that the importance of values clarification seems increasingly to be recognized as an important component in many different therapeutic approaches. Helping clients identify goals and priorities, make good decisions among competing choices, and take positive actions to achieve their goals and priorities—in a word, values clarification—is inevitably an important part of recovery, marriage and family therapy, career counseling, school counseling, pastoral counseling, financial counseling, and many other counseling and therapy foci. While values clarification is not a mental health counseling approach per se, it can be an important tool in psychotherapy when clients are ready to work on their recovery, set goals, and move forward in their lives.

So the question arises for me: Is it sufficient that values clarification seems frequently to be incorporated into many different therapy approaches and venues, or does it deserve its own renewed attention as a distinct counseling modality?

A partial answer to this question came to me in 2000, when I became chair of the Counseling Program at the Warner Graduate School of Education at the University of Rochester. I included the values clarification approach in my methods courses with both Masters students who were new to counseling and doctoral students who often had more counseling experience in certain areas than I did. Many or most of them loved values clarification: “It’s so practical.” “It’s so applicable to my work.” “Whether in individual or group settings, values clarification questions and activities make it so easy for individuals to respond and participate, even the quiet ones.”

So I became convinced that counselors, psychotherapists, psychologists, social workers, and similar helping professionals could benefit by being introduced or re-introduced to values clarification theory and practice, including:

  • the focus on prizing (affective), choosing (cognitive), and acting (behavior)
  • the seven criteria or valuing processes that fall within those three realms
  • the difference between value indicators and values
  • how to ask good clarifying questions
  • using the “clarifying interview” in individual counseling
  • the scores of practical values clarification strategies for individual and group work
  • specific applications of values clarification to different counseling topics and settings
  • the overall values clarification hypothesis and research
  • the appropriateness of values clarification for multicultural populations and issues
  • handling value and moral conflicts with clients


In the end, values clarification can be, and often is, used by itself or integrated with almost any other counseling or therapeutic modality. Better that helping professionals use it awarely and to its greatest effectiveness.

Howard Kirschenbaum, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Development, Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester. He is the author of Values Clarification in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Practical Strategies for Individual and Group Settings by Oxford University Press and is the author or co-author of additional books on psychology, education, and history, including Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies, Readings in Values Clarification, and Advanced Value Clarification. He has given workshops and presentations on the values clarification approach to counseling, psychotherapy and education throughout North America and around the world.

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Image credit: Excluded sad girl is looking the group talking. Photo by SimmiSimons, iStockphoto.

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One Response to “Re-introducing values clarification to the helping professions”
  1. James Edward Kelley says:

    This is a message to Dr. Kirschenbaum (sp?) and those others who believe in values clarification and theories involving said. This is, indeed, a great advancement in psychology and therapy in its practicality and ease of use and, if you may excuse me for saying so, clarification. There is one problem you and your colleagues, may not realize for whatever reason: the only way an individual is going to be able to achieve his or her goals is if everyone around him or her cooperates with the individual and if there is no roadblocks or adversity put in his or her way. The theories discussed in this article do not tackle the issues of how easy it is for an individual to come to the conclusion that his or her values, goals, etc. are worthless or not worth pursuing if their paths to achieving them are blocked too frequently with too many obstacles as well. The despondency I am addressing here also comes when there are too many people who do not support the individual in his or her values or goals. This lack of support weakens the individual’s ability to stand tall in achieving his or goals and values. I know. I have lived in a group home for the past two years two months where I have been treated like I am an ignoramus and an irrational nutbag despite of all of the unusual achievements I have had in the past and abilities I do have now. Just the psychodynamics of this place make me feel utterly worthless. I am a member of Mensa, for example, and yet I have been treated like I am retarded by certain professionals outside of the home once they realized where I live. I’m going to be moving into my own apartment and living on my own soon, however. I was placed here because I suffered a nervous breakdown due to a separation/divorce. Anyway, if you would like to get back to me, Dr., that would be wonderful, but you don’t have to as I’m sure you are quite busy, but I wanted to let you in on a concern I had regarding this piece. Yours truly, James Edward Kelley “IQ over EQ”

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