Understanding Dreams: A New Tool for the Executive Coach? - Ideas for Leaders
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Understanding Dreams: A New Tool for the Executive Coach?

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Dreams can provide powerful clues to someone’s mental and emotional state. They can also be a ‘path’ to conflict resolution and problem-solving, helping people confront deep-seated fears and concerns. Dream recall can, therefore, be an important part of executive and leadership coaching.


Everybody dreams. Phantasmagoric ‘night journeys’ are part of life. It’s estimated that by the age of 60 most of us will have dreamed 197,100 dreams over 87,000 hours. The reasons why we dream, however, remain unclear. Oneirology, the study of dreams, has failed to produce a consensus. Some people argue that dreams are random firings of neurons in the brain, others that they have an evolutionary purpose — for example, to allow us to rehearse self-defensive behaviours in the ‘safety’ of our beds or to ‘declutter’ the brain of meaningless data — and that they can be a way of ‘processing’ traumatic events.

Whatever the explanation, few people would deny that dreams can be powerful stuff. The ‘emotional content’ of a dream can colour the entire day.

The emotional/psychological impact and importance of dreams means, of course, that they’ve long fascinated ‘students of the human mind’. For Freud and Jung, dreams shed light on repressed fears and desires and, in Jung’s case, represented universal archetypes, symbols of the collective consciousness. 

You do not, however, have to be a Freudian or Jungian analyst or a psychotherapist to find dreams useful in your work. Dream recall can be an important ‘tool’ in many kinds of counselling — including executive and leadership coaching.

An executive coach can use dream imagery and ideas to make sense of their clients’ waking experiences. (There’s often no need for the kind of more abstruse analysis associated with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. ‘Classic’ anxiety or ‘universal’ dreams, such as dreaming of falling or being chased, are easy to ‘decode’. Recurring dreams, meanwhile, might — however opaque — suggest unresolved issues or ongoing fears.)

Put simply, dreams can be a good ‘way in’ to someone’s ‘inner theatre’ or emotional life. Clients uncomfortable talking about their feelings directly might be willing to talk about what they’ve ‘experienced’ in their dreams — and a skilled coach will be able to help them draw out connections to their daily lives.

The right approach will vary by client, but it will, inevitably, involve asking open-ended questions such as, “How does the way you felt in this dream resonate in your waking life?” and, “In what kinds of situations have you felt similar emotions?”

There are caveats for ‘working with’ dreams, though. Coaches will need to ensure they don’t impose their own, subjective, interpretations on the dreamer. One of the tenets of dream work is that each individual has their own dream ‘language’. Symbols can mean different things to different people. (Thus, a bear might connote a soft toy to a child, a hunter or the hunted to an adult.) The client will always come first — and understanding the client will always be critical.

What does the coach do if the client is one of those people who never remember dreams the next day? Certain techniques can be used. A dream diary is one. If the client keeps a pen and paper beside their bed (or a recorder) they can help retain what they’ve dreamt.


It is, of course, impossible to quantify the business benefits of ‘working with’ someone’s dreams. Experience and common sense, however, suggest it’s conducive to good mental health — and, therefore, better performance. It might even act as a ‘pre-emptive strike’: efforts at sense-making can help solve internal conflicts before they emerge in someone’s life as physical realities.

Above all else, perhaps, ‘dream therapy’ is a way to help leaders and other executives release the pressure of working life. It can usefully be integrated into executive and leadership coaching as part of an organization’s employee health and well-being ‘agenda’.



Dream Journeys: New Territory for Executive Coaching. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries. INSEAD Working Paper No. 2014/14/EFE (February 2014).

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Idea conceived

February 1, 2014

Idea posted

May 2014
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