Balancing Between Dreams and Reality: Practical Suggestions Originating from Motivational Interviewing

By Shékina Rochat

“Younes” (not his real name) is a young adolescent who finished compulsory school and who must now find an apprenticeship position. During the career counseling sessions, he has expressed his desire to become a veterinary assistant. However, his grades in school are poor and the profession requires good academic achievements. Moreover, there are very few apprenticeship positions available for this occupation.

What is to be done in such a situation? Should the career counselor encourage the counselee to pursue his dreams or should he or she break them on behalf of the reality’s constraints? This “dreams versus reality” dilemma can be encountered by many counselors whose work it is to accompany those who need to make an initial career choice or to change their career path, for example due to health or migration issues.

Risks of the Career Compromise Process
In a previous article (Rochat, 2015), I focused on my interest in the benefits and limitations of encouraging the counselee’s career dreams and concluded that in most cases it would be necessary for the counselee to compromise (Gottfredson, 1981). However, the compromise process can be difficult and painful, both for the counselee and for the career counselor.

Having to tell a counselee that his or her goal is inaccessible can jeopardize the working relationship between the counselor and the counselee, and having to compromise can alter the counselee’s motivation to pursue a satisfying career path. For example, Younes might start to see the counselor as a “dream breaker” and lose interest in the career decision-making process after realizing that his professional goals are so difficult to reach.

Guiding in the Discovery of Possible Obstacles
In the above-mentioned article, I proposed to use the principles of motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2013) in order to achieve a balance between the counselee’s dreams and reality. Firstly, the evocative stance required by this approach can allow the counselee to find out for him or herself the obstacles to the career plans.

So rather than telling Younes “Be careful, there are few veterinary apprenticeship positions for this occupation and you need to have outstanding grades to have a chance to get one of those,” the counselor may ask him, “What do you know about the number of existing apprenticeship positions in this domain?” and then reflect his response and follow up with another open question, “Uh-huh, so there are very few apprenticeship positions. And what do you know about the admissions requirements for this job?” And so on.

Such an evocative approach can thus help protect the relationship between the counselee and the counselor by allowing the latter to become the one who accompanies the counselee in the discovery of the obstacles to his or her dreams (and possibly the ways to surmount them) instead of being the one who breaks them.

Guiding in the Discovery of Suitable Alternatives
Secondly, adopting an evocative stance can contribute to preserving the counselee’s motivation in helping him or her find a meaningful alternative. By asking open questions, the counselor can seek to identify the core reasons (in terms of needs and values) that underlie the counselee’s unrealistic aspiration, and thereby help him or her to find a satisfactory alternative.

For example, rather than telling Younes, “A possible alternative for working with animals could be to find an apprenticeship position in farming,” the counselor may ask him, “Why is it so important for you to become a veterinary assistant?” and then pursue the exploration with subsequent reflections and questions such as, “Uh-huh, so this is a job that will allow you to make your parents proud of you, as well as to work indoors — as opposed to your father, who works on construction sites. What other occupations do you know that could also meet these criteria?” And then “OK, so you do not see many other options. Would you allow me to give you additional information about some existing opportunities?”

Achieving the Balance
By abandoning an “expert” stance in favor of an evocative approach, the career counselor can thus help the counselee identify for himself an alternative that best satisfies his strongest motives. In conclusion, being aware of the reality is important, but adopting an approach that will guide the counselee in discovering any obstacles and what truly matters to him or her could constitute a promising way to balance between dreams and reality.

Gottfredson, L. S. (1981). Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 28, 545–579.

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Rochat, S. (2015). Encourager le rêve ou confronter à la réalité ? Le dilemme des psychologues conseillers en orientation [Encouraging dream or confronting with reality? The career counselor’s dilemma]. L’Orientation Scolaire et Professionnelle, 44(4), 477-492.


Shékina RochatShékina Rochat is a career counselor psychologist completing a PhD in psychology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. Her research interests include integrating motivational interviewing and positive psychology in career counseling. She can be reached at shekina.rochat@unil.ch


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DSain, PhD   on Wednesday 03/01/2017 at 07:49 PM

Thank you so much for writing this article. I had taken continuing education credits in Motivational Interviewing in the hope of applying this process to my career counseling clients. Even though I work mainly with adults with outplacement contracts and not college students, I have a better idea how you applied Miller and Rollnick's MI approach in a career counseling session. If your dissertation is integrating MI and positive psychology in career counseling, I do hope I can read it one day to get more ideas to apply the MI principles in the career counseling setting.

Cledor Ndiaye   on Thursday 03/02/2017 at 06:08 AM

I liked the analysis about Motivational interviewing. M.O is indeed a great tool when it comes to helping clients (job seekers) Recenter themselves. I have used it a lot and found it very effective. Indeed there is sometimes a gap between a client's dream and the reality (Skills, job market..) Great article!!!!

Brian Montalvo, NCDA Trustee (2015 - 17) for Higher Education Career Counselors and Specialists   on Thursday 03/02/2017 at 08:28 AM

Shekina - Thank you for your contribution to our field! I truly enjoyed this article. I especially liked the "Risks of the Career Compromise Process" and "Guiding in the Discovery of Possible Obstacles" sections. Well done!


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