Where does goal setting belong in the coaching process?

Goals are not where you start; they simply are just not.

If you have to start with goals, and I believe that you don’t, at least begin by asking a person how they got to their goals.  You ask something like, what is it that you think these goals will give you if you accomplish them?  What are you looking for these goals to provide for you or for others?  What do you think this goal will do for you?  How will its accomplishment make you feel?  In fact, what is it that you think a sense of accomplishment will do for you?


The second question is to ask if these goals are in any way aligned with a person’s real strengths and talents.  I do not believe that everyone can accomplish anything they choose to and I think when we tell people that we, as coaches, are not being ethical.

We have ways to test people’s strengths and talents that at least give us some indication of where their real abilities might be.  But that is just the start.

Parents can tell their children that they can be anything they choose to be. Teachers can encourage their students to reach for the stars.

But professional coaches had better be more careful in these making these promises, so closely tied to their fees, and inherent in their ethics and values.

Can we tell people to dream and to vision?  Most certainly.   But these dreams and visions come from a process of learning to live in an UpSpiral, and about how flow affects that nature of what we image in our vision.

I know there are exceptions of people accomplishing great things against great odds; there are a lot who don’t.  There are those who reach their impossible dreams only to find out that the dream was impossible in giving them what they expected that it would, and they feel betrayed and as though life is meaningless.

I do think that the process of accomplishing a goal and leaving it behind, gleaning what it has taught, and discovering to what new endeavor it points is valuable. I don’t mean to undermine that as a process of learning.

See your process of accomplishing goals as the “open door” of learning, novelty, insight, and allow that to move you to take the next right step.  If you’re really tuned in, that step is likely somewhere right in front of you, at hand, ready for you to seize upon it and move ahead.

Or not.

What I do mean to assert here is that coaches have an ethical responsibility to educate their clients in the formulation of goals and visions that are sound, achievable, and truly personally fulfilling.  We may be cheer leaders for winning but the pom-poms of superficially understood metaphysicsand neuroscience need to be surrendered for real research in coaching that is both a science and a craft and a skill.

The issue that underlies the formation of goals is meaning-making.  How do we make meaning? These “meanings” are different at different times in our lives, so a knowledge of developmental issues is important.

Oftentimes goals are attempts at making meaning when the absence of meaning has not been squarely faced.

How many times I have had a client simply write down a goal and see it in front of them for them to know it isn’t what they really want to do, it’s just confabulated filler?

Goals are an essential component of the coaching process, but only when they are preceded by the necessary foundational work in the neuroplasticity of the positive mind, which pokes at what’s meaningful, what’s most personally significant, all of which take form in written goals and action steps.

© Dr. William K. Larkin

About the author

Dr. Donald B. Johnson
  • Eddy Macdonald

    This approach is new to me as a coach, but in the short time that I have pivoted with my clients from setting an initial, “Big “A” agenda with them on our first session to exploring their strengths and their wants, I have seen tremendous, positive, deep impact. Often focusing on goals initially leads the coaching in a very prescriptive, technical direction, or we wander. The client may think they know what goal they wan to achieve, but it often is a symptom of an underlying belief or desire that changes the direction when addressed. It’s an exciting, new way to look at coaching!

  • Dr. gloria wright

    Are goals the chicken or the egg? If you set goals that don’t include meaning and enhance
    your happiness, what will they bring you? What do you want as a result of your
    goals? How do you want to feel when you accomplish your goals? What lasting effect will your goals have on your life? What difference will these goals make in your life? These are not just quick check mark answers.
    Pondering what brings your life meaning and purpose and what brings you a sense of joy
    and happiness can lead you to goals that can have a lasting and profound Influence
    on your feelings, well-being and actions. What brings your life meaning can have subtle changes throughout your life and may need to be tweaked. What you desire at 20 is very different at 40 and 60 and so on.
    Building goals out of should’s and oughta’s don’t seem to bring long-lasting happiness
    and satisfaction. They may pay the bills, but not the soul. You can make choices that feed the soul, but not the bills. You can also do both. Knowing what your strengths are and using them to strengthen your goals is a positive beginning. Having a positive foundation of thoughts, feelings and beliefs is a sturdy footing for your goals.
    When you pursue goals that are developed out of a positive framework of your strengths,
    passions and personal desires, they have staying power. When you hit a rough patch of disappointment, you can bounce back and move forward with determination because the goals carry the vision of what you really want. Your goals carry what has meaning for you. The goals fit who you authentically are and are not just for show. Your goals are another of expression of who you truly are.

    • Echo Macdonald

      The phrase you used, “the goals carry the vision of what you really want”, really resonated with me. It reminded me of the picture of amber, considered a valuable gem for jewelry items, a hardened substance from the resins of conifers. Objects from the distant past are frequently found in amber, as perfectly preserved fossils. The encased bird or other object tells its story for all to see, frozen in time. Something like a snapshot- other objects from its environment also gathered together in the crystalline structure. Like the relationship of ideas drawn together from long-lived wants and desires, our goals are like the amber treasures. A snapshot of our wanting, our dreams embodied in a sentence. Valuable, revealing, a treasure that tells a story of what is meaningful in our lives for the moment at hand.

  • Laura M Sparks

    I completely see the value in practicing the emotional gym and being in the UpSpiral, consistently, in order to know your (my) true goals. For me, being in the UpSpiral has showed me that what I want is truly what I want. Practicing the EG has leveraged my UpSpiral and I feel that my goals are more achievable and more in focus during my day to day activities.
    Goal setting is helping me take more meaningful daily actions. No matter how small the action may be, Ifind them to be very fulfilling since they are bringing me closer to my goals.

  • Sheila

    I have worked in the sales industry for most of my career and as such have had a “moniker” of being a very goal focused person…..how different it is, though, to focus in on activities/sales targets to achieve a financial goal for yourself and a company, versus, really looking at the important stuff of “make meaning” in our lives.

    There is no doubt that the focus I have around getting things I want, has to some degree served me well, but, what has also become so very evident is that by being caught up in the minutia of these types of goals has also led to not seeing the bigger picture. The stuff that’s really important in life.

    Certain goals seem to flow more easily to me, health/fitness etc. I know I want to be fit and vital and how to do that…..other areas have not come as easily and I have really had to dig deep to imagine the “make meaning part” and what, in essence, do I want for my life. Turns out it’s pretty straightforward and was right under my nose, I just could not see it…..

    There’s no doubt about it, 20 weeks ago I wasn’t aware of the importance of all of this and if asked to write goals at that point, while some might have been similar, none would have really resonated with me as my goals of today do……somewhere along the line, I got it, had a bit of an “ah ha” moment and realized the power of this process.

    Now, I know what I want; for most, I believe I can have it (an ongoing process) and I know I am open to however these things show up.

    I understand that this works when you are in flow and in an upspiral, but, also that having goals that are “make meaning” also help you be/remain in that upspiral.

    I can see why goals come at the end and why they are so important to the overall process.

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