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Dreaming, Goals, and Coaching

2021-08-22 — Michael Haupt

In a recent leadership training, the trainer recommended the book Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen.

It's not strictly a necessary and important read, unless you have a very specific interest, and even then, the value is limited. Here's why. The book's gist, put very bluntly, is that, in order to realise your dreams, you have to be realistic about the obstacles and make plans for working around those. Well, go figure - that's about as common sense as it gets. Snark aside, the book is happily not one of those wordy self-help tomes, but provides an overview of all the empirical research the author has conducted to prove what looks like a truism true. That's good: the psychological effects of imagining obstacles and thinking them through are a thing, and they spawn more determination. Oettingen then also introduces a small but powerful framework called WOOP (wish, outcome, obstacle, plan) that can be used to do the mental exercise, and gives examples of its application.

So, while its gist can be summarised in a paragraph, the book extensively describes the numerous studies and thinking journey. This is the value a reader can take from it: if you're interested in empirical study design, it's a treasure trove. The value is limited, though, as the book stays at the storytelling level and doesn't describe the study setups with the statistical rigour that would be needed to unleash full social sciences thinking.

The book did have some unexpected value that emerged when I processed it, post-reading, in the context of goal setting and career development conversations. In fact, something bigger may yet emerge from that (stay tuned).

Reproducing an idea from the book, dreaming is a substitute for doing, from which short-term happiness ensues, but no action and no change, and consequently less energy and momentum to realise the dream. This reminded me of the importance of the "accountability exercise" in coaching - i.e., the part where the coach works with the client to define and commit to actions and check-ins. In other words, generating an insight is not enough: what actions follow from it is important.

I have since applied Oettingen's WOOP framework in coaching, using it right there, or proposing it to clients as a mental tool for getting more clarity about goal setting. This had a good impact both in the sessions and during the periods until the next check-ins and follow-ups. In the greater context of goal setting and career development, it can be a valuable tool to work towards better goals with more clarity, probably even towards structured approaches like SMART goals and longer-term vision manifestos like V2MOM documents.

Dreaming is good. Taking the obstacles into account helps devising and implementing the plan. What's not to like?

Tags: books, coaching, work