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Barriers to Vision

By Belma Gonzalez
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Originally Published in Coaching for Transformation

On occasion we work with someone who has difficulty dreaming or creating a vision. When we ask empowering questions or attempt to lead them in a visioning exercise, it falls flat.

What can inhibit people from knowing how to dream? When they have no idea what they want for their future, what can we as coaches do to create an environment where dreams and visions can flourish?

First we can raise our awareness and get curious about what prevents people from dreaming or creating a vision. Usually, it’s not because they lack imagination or drive. A few other real examples that have kept people from dreaming:

  • After the death of my husband, I couldn’t envision loving anyone new who could die.
  • After I was sexually assaulted, I wouldn’t let anyone get close to me, even though that’s what I wanted most.
  • During the war, my best friend died in my arms and I felt rage for years, before I could admit what I really wanted: peace.
  • I was living the dream when a hurricane took away everything I owned. It shook me to the core and it was a long time before I could dream again.
  • When I had leukemia, I was very close to death. I could only see myself as sickly, even when I recovered.

Perhaps they want their vision so badly, they don’t dare raise their hopes. To avoid disappointment, they play small.

Personal trauma may leave them feeling too vulnerable to truly explore what they want. The vision process may raise issues of loyalty or feeling diff erent from family members or friends—especially if their dreams threaten to set them apart or change their relationships.

Curiosity is key to creating a space for exploring resistance and creating an opportunity for shifting into new ways to look at possibilities. We can also create space to explore fear, suffering, isolation and whatever else may surface.

For example, the American dream focuses on the success of the individual, not the well-being of all, but it disregards discrimination based on race, religion, gender or national origin. All of these might inhibit people’s ability to dream or achieve their goals. Groups or communities who have experienced systemic oppression may resist visioning to protect themselves from further pain. The historical trauma of slavery, genocide, hate crimes or traffi cking can motivate people to play safe.

By getting curious about institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, etc. we can impact our clients’ ability to create a compelling vision for their future.

As an example, some US federal, state and local governments set explicit intentions to create racially segregated metropolises, or ghettos. The word “ghetto” sometimes implies racist connotations, but a ghetto is actually a part of a city in which members of a minority group live, especially because of social, legal or economic pressure.

How do those pressures impact people’s ability to dream? What can happen to the ability to envision a future when events in our lifetime (or in our parents’, or ancestors’) have limited our access to a just and equitable existence? What happens when policies keep us from improving our lot in life or detrimentally affect our health or life expectancy simply because of the color of our skin, ethnicity, religion, gender or other factors? What happens when dreaming is dangerous or goes against the power structure?

Even if people are of a generation or in a situation where opportunities are available—what happens when they feel the injustice of being the ‘lucky one’ among family and friends, the one who can have more privilege, when others deserve it just as much? For example, what happens when their vision includes a higher education or a change in economic status that separates them from their community and their culture?

Without making assumptions about what is keeping someone from dreaming or visioning we ask curious questions. We can check our assumptions by remembering this poem of Langston Hughes:

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-­

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-­

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

We support clients by listening for their deferred dreams and honoring the anger or hurt that forced their dreams into hiding. By getting curious, we give them plenty of space to experience heartache and suffering. They may have very good reasons for feeling numb, frozen or immobilized. They may feel completely stuck, unable to access their creativity or imagination. Even when they can’t remember their childhood dreams, underneath, their dreams are longing for expression. Listening without judgment, we create space for dreams to re-emerge and evolve.


Excerpt from the book Coaching for Transformation: Pathways to Ignite Personal & Social Change by Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg, Richard Michaels and Sharon Brown. As faculty at Leadership that Works, they certify coaches who offer personal, organization and community transformation. Check out the free Power of Coaching teleclass.

Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

Leadership that Works

Transforming the world.
One heart at a time.

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