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The Problem With Setting Goals

Aug 23, 2022

Dr. David Drake believes that (1) goals are over-used and over-rated; and (2) there are better ways of supporting growth.

That is why he has developed a number of tools and resources to help practitioners work in the present moment with what is emerging. The focus is on the readiness of the client and the potential in the here and now, NOT the process of the coach and a prescription for what to do later.

David has found that by refraining from setting goals, clients are freer to BE in the present with candor and compassion and also freer to move based on what they discover rather than along a path set in advance.

Goal setting assumes that you can know the path to take and where you will end up ahead of time. Instead, the practitioners The Moment Institute has trained, focus on developing the person, their capacities, and their outcomes at the same time.

When you release the need for goal setting, you’re freed to focus on where your clients are in their journey and where they truly want to go. This enables you to work with more humility and agility with your clients and their stories as they each unfold in front of you.

By focusing on their self-awareness and sense of agency, your clients can achieve more sustainable and valuable outcomes. Where they can go and who they become as a result of their work with you are better than any goal could predict.

At this point, you may be wondering, what does my role look like without goal setting?

Keep reading to discover:

  • Why goals often make your work less effective
  • How goals paradoxically get in the way clients’ growth
  • What to do instead of setting goals to achieve outcomes

A Note From David

When I started coaching and teaching coaching 25 years ago, there was very little literature on coaching. While coaching borrowed a lot from other established work, we were in many ways inventing it as we went. As a result, I found myself earnestly working hard to bring this work to life with my clients.

I often felt both energized and exhausted by the work. It was not until I compared coaching to my background as a grief counselor that I understood why. Grief is not a problem you can solve. It is a process you accompany. I started to realize that early models such as GROW that were dependent on setting goals didn’t match how I observed most people lived or changed.

I went back to the drawing board to reinvent how I coached and saw coaching. I reframed it from a process I was guiding my clients through to a process I was using to notice where my clients were on their journey and what they might need next. I focused my attention to the stories as they were being told as the foundation of a much more natural process.

Not only did my coaching become less effortful; it also became more powerful. I was getting better, more sustainable results, in less time because I was walking alongside the clients rather than trying to lead them.

Why Goals Often Make Your Work Less Effective

Having observed thousands of coaches in action, most recently in his role working with Ovida, David has seen how focusing on goals often ends up in a coaching experience that is overly driven by the coach and overly oriented on actions before there is enough awareness.

It is often the case as well where the process is overly rational and cognitive. This is less effective because there is little space for clients to identify their deeper needs, for example, those that are emotional, somatic, and spiritual in nature. As a result, any plans they make are less grounded in their whole self and less likely to be successful.

In other words, clients may not be able to see what they actually need to work on — let alone what they most want to do about it.

How Goals Get in the Way of Client Growth

Setting goals can impact client growth in a number of ways:

1. Goals attempt to “fix” a problem

If we move beyond seeing clients’ issues or situations as problems, research and our experience at The Moment Institute is that people need new experiences (and new stories about them) more than they need more explanations.

Experiences require clients to slow down and be present with themselves. From there, they will start to see what is going on differently. For example, the client who comes in complaining about their boss (the stated ‘problem’), comes to realize that the work to be done is on themselves (the available opportunity).

2. Goals live in the future

Clients can only see as far as their current stories will take them. So, rather than asking clients to set goals now, we invite them to pay much closer attention to what is true now. We look at their change journey as a rite of passage that starts where they are now.

As they move through their process, they discover the shifts they want to make to move closer to what they are aspiring to achieve. They create a new future along the way. For example, the client discovers what they wish were different in communicating with their boss and is given opportunities to experience what that would be like by their coach.

3. Goals assume a linear path

Most of our growth unfolds in ways that we can’t define ahead of time. The path is often filled with unexpected events, wrong turns, pieces of the puzzle, clarifying insights, and more. The destination often changes, sometimes significantly, as we move forward.

So, why would we want to set a goal before we have even begun? Instead, we offer our clients structures for success as they are called for. For example, the client creates a Narrative Pivot between their old and new story to guide them in key moments.

What Does Your Role Look Like without Setting Goals?

The measure of success in coaching is not how well the clients did in the session or liked what you did with them, but who they were and what they did after they left. If they rely too much on you and your process:

1. They won’t take up the baton to run their own race (or be able to run it well even if they did).

2. You will often end up feeling exhausted by carrying the baton for them.

That’s why we have inverted the standard approach to coaching (as well as training and consulting). Instead of driving your clients toward outcomes, what if you walked alongside the process your clients are already in? What if you engaged them in the stories they’re already trying to tell?

This is why we don’t use goals very often in Narrative Coaching or Integrative Development. David’s research and experience has consistently shown that there are better ways of facilitating growth and development. This includes the focus on the maturation of the client so they are more able to see who they are becoming and what is called for.

It starts with your presence with yourself and your clients. Paradoxically, in not setting goals, you create a greater possibility for change. When clients don’t have to defend themselves in the face of goals, they can be exactly as they are.

This allows a dawning self-awareness to unfold for the client. They begin to recognize how they contribute to their own problems. And you’re able to use this awareness as a catalyst for meaningful growth.

Would You Like to Work More Like This?

If you would like to hang out with peers who work this way, please join the conversation in The Threshold Lab. We offer a free Open House on the last Monday of each month. Join our next open house here.