Research into the ways in which individuals talk about their personal and business goals

A Discursive Analysis of how narrative is constitutive of Attitudes, Intentions and Behaviour in individuals when setting, and carrying out, personal and professional goals


This study aims to discover how people use narrative to talk about their attitudes, intentions and behaviours, regarding setting and carrying out goals. It uses the Critical Discursive perspective to analyse two interviews, conducted with two women individually, in the form of a semi-structured interview. The study found the narrative people use, has a direct and indirect impact on their perceived ability to carry out goals.


The current research was designed with a specific issue in mind, related to an area of my professional work around ‘intention’ or ‘goal’ setting. Individuals attend a ‘Resilience Building’ programme which is based on the Human Givens approach (Griffin & Tyrell: 2013). This approach is centred around the organising idea that we have certain emotional needs that need to be met in order to survive and thrive. It also identifies that we have innate, biological resources that enable us to get these needs met, if and when we are able to deploy them effectively. Our model has been created in order to aid the progression from feeling ‘stuck’ to being fully resourceful and therefore resilient (Abrahams: 2016)

I frequently meet people who come for Counselling and Coaching, who are ready to make changes. However, they often find ‘something’ happens in the space between setting an intention and taking action. In looking at the interpretive repertoires and ideological dilemmas within each individual’s lexicon, we can begin to identify the extent to which a person’s narrative has a bearing on their behaviour with regards to following through on intentions.

Individuals come to the programme in order to work on the ‘things’ which may be preventing them from enacting positive change within their lives. This comprises looking at their personal attitudes, intentions and behaviours. Ajzen’s models of the Theories of Reasoned Action (TRA) and Behaviour (TRB) (Ajzen:1988) provide an ideal basis from which to pursue this line of enquiry.

Ajzen’s models, and most of the subsequent studies on attitudes and intention, are based in the Social Cognitive approach and have mostly been quantitative studies. These studies often take as a starting point, the original basis of Ajzen’s TRB  (1988), which focuses on : Attitude towards the behaviour in question; Subjective norms (ie social pressure); Perceived Behavioural Control (PBC). The studies then base their research questions around how these aspects may affect the intention to carry out the behaviour.

Further studies have taken into account factors such as the amount of effort required to carry out the behaviour (see Bagozzi, Youjae & Baumgartner, 1990); PBC, looking at factors such as Self-efficacy and past behaviour (see Bay and Daniel, 2003).

Within the research I wanted to focus on both personal and professional goals and discovered that there has been quite a wide application of TRB in the business context. Fini, et al (2010) look at the ways in which an individual’s personal characteristics and environmental context impacts on the formation of intention creation and Hayton & Cholakova (2011) propose a framework for a potential study taking affect into consideration. This is pertinent to the current research which identifies some of the emotional reasons for people’s inability to follow through in their behaviour, from their intentions.

As I am taking a Critical Discursive Psychological perspective I wanted to find an existing piece of research which was related. In ‘”I tried so many diets, now I want to do it differently” – A Single case study on coaching for weight loss’ (Stelter: 2015) Stelter carries out a narrative analysis of a single case study and takes a post-structuralist stance, derived from Foucauldian theory which sees discourse as playing a pivotal role in the production of identity.

The situated knowledges and perceived subject position of the interviewees therefore play a significant role in the ways in which they construct their attitude towards their intentions and behaviour. The place in which we position ourselves within discourse in relation to others, also has a bearing on how we construct that narrative and therefore, to our perception and achievement of our aims in life and work.

The rationale behind this study was to transcend the limitations of the quantitative research related to TRB. The qualitative study enables a more fluid and subjective investigation that takes into consideration factors such as the cultural and discursive processes which are at play, and thus relevant to a Critical Discursive approach. This then adds to and broadens the scope of the previous research.

The overriding research question is around storytelling. I wanted to discover how people, who wish to make positive changes within their lives, talk about it? And how their personal narrative constructs, and therefore affects, their ability to carry out these intentions?

My questioning was informed by the TRB and subsequent research, and so keeping in mind throughout the interviews and analysis, for example, the notions of attitude, intention, behaviour, social pressure, volitional control.


Participants were drawn from my existing professional client base, specifically those whom have attended the Resilience Building programme that I have been running since January 2016. They were familiar with the concept of personal development and the notion of setting goals and intentions with the view of taking action and moving forwards within their lives.

The participants were both women, one (AB) aged 50 and the other (CD) in her early thirties. AB has been self-employed as a mortgage broker for a number of years and CD is a Project Manager, contracted to work for a major pharmaceutical company. AB is British, and CD is Polish and came to live in England in her late teens. I used a semi-structured interview.

AB was interviewed in my rented office and CD was interviewed separately, in my office at my home address, which is a building that is detached from my actual home. I used the Microsoft audio recording software which came pre-installed with my laptop. I used an external microphone which was plugged into the jack socket in my laptop. Taking account of ethical considerations, I had a discussion with both participants prior to the interview, explaining an overview of my OU research project and a brief description of what it was about. I gained written consent. I informed both participants of their right to withdraw from the research before, during and after the study. Both participants were over the age of 18 and had no mental or emotional health conditions which would prevent them from participating, or affect their health in an adverse way. I informed them that any information they disclosed would remain confidential and that the data would be anonymised in order to prevent them from being identified. They were also assured that the recordings of the interviews would be destroyed once the research is complete. Both participants were fully debriefed following the interview.

I have been interested in the reasons why people, who have a desire to make changes within their lives, are sometimes unable to enact these intentions in their behaviour. I have also been interested in personal narrative and work with storytelling as a means of helping people, particularly those affected by trauma, to move from a place of disempowerment to empowerment. Whilst many people are able to reframe and retell their past stories in a more empowering light, some find themselves on the edge of a precipice when projecting that forwards into a fulfilling future. At times, even when they have intellectually reframed old stories, they appear to become ‘stuck’ again when envisioning a change, or their life in the future. I wanted to understand what is happening in the language, at that point and to take into account the findings from previous research and build on them.

My initial planned questions were as follows: i) What would you say are your main priorities or goals both in your life and your work right now?; ii) Do you believe, or have a sense that you are able to achieve these goals?; iii) To what extent do you feel that there are external influences that may, or do, hinder or support your intentions coming into fruition?; iv) How do your personal characteristics hinder or help?; v) How easy have you found it to achieve your goals/ intentions in the past? ; vi) How has your attitude towards your personal/ work goals changed over time? What do you think has influenced this perception?; vii) How do you follow through or act on your intentions?

Questions were modified or added to during the process in order to achieve clarity or to take into account the interviewee’s train of thought and conversation.

I have used the Critical Discursive Psychology approach in my analysis paying particular attention to the ways in which the individual constructs a story or narrative around the specific topic of setting and achieving goals in order to make positive changes within their lives. I have taken into consideration the interpretive repertoires which have been used and identified ideological dilemmas that arise in the narrative. In line with the more Foucauldian perspective, I have looked at the ways in which the individual creates an identity, and positions themselves as a subject in relation to themselves and / or others.


Interpretive Repertoires

Taking the term Interpretive Repertoire to mean, the ways in which we make use of language in a ‘commonsense’ way to talk about ourselves, our lives and our experiences. I was looking for the use of terminology and ‘stock’ or ‘cliched’ phrases used by the participants, from already existing forms of language. I was looking for language that may have been used to build a sense of self and in an attempt to explain certain behaviours or attitudes .

Given the small sample and short length of the interviews, a fairly large number of repertoires were identified and I will only be able to deal with a few of them here. I will focus on the notions brought up across both, relating to 1) Fear, Risk , Barriers & Change; 2) Time, Effort & energy; 3) Emotional experience, Self-worth & Confidence; 4) Passion & Comfort Zone related to motivation; 5) Achievement

When talking about change, related to taking action on goals, both participants touch on the idea that change brings about fear.


AB “(line 36) … they have been goals really … and for me not to struggle withsome of the limiting beliefs and the … perceived barriers that I’ve put in front of myself …(47) with any change there is an element of fear …”

CD “(141) sometimes it’s just feeling just fear I guess …. Like it’s too much of a hurdle  … whether it’s fear of success or whether it’s fear that we might not be good enough”

AB talks about her own ‘struggles’ using  terminology such as ‘limiting beliefs’ of the type commonly found  in popular psychology and self-help texts, these have been referenced by AB as an explanation of why goals may not be achieved. Also, the use of the word ‘barrier’ connotes something that completely obscures the path whereas, CD uses the word ‘hurdle’ which connotes something that can be more easily overcome.

The notion of time and effort expended on achieving goals emerged quite frequently in both. However, it seemed that time was a more important factor for the older of the two women whereas effort and energy expended was more important for the younger:

AB “(190) I think some of it is, some of it’s feeling that. Of time …(193) Longevity                  of life …”

CD “(52) to action them needs a lot of energy … you need to find the time find the energy (54) they generally involve effort”

There was an overriding sense that expending time, energy and effort could be a risk factor, and potentially wasted, if plans did not work out.

Both women talk about the emotional factors around goal setting, as has already been spoken of with regards to fear. However there were also allusions, as well as direct reference, to self-doubt and lack of confidence as factors which might impede progress. When AB is talking of her ability to achieve her business goals she says

AB “(60) … obviously I’ve been trained to do financial services so I know it’ssomething I can do. It’s a kind of comfort zone that I can work within”

There is a sense within her language throughout the interview that her feeling of ‘stuckness’ and fear of changing career paths comes from a sense that she is unable to see, with certainty, a robust ‘framework’ or ‘support structure’ (line 78) within which the new avenue resides and this prevents her from moving into it. CD’s language is slightly different in that she talks of a specific characteristic of ‘shyness’ (102) which she finds challenging when trying to enact her goal of meeting new people.  She later refers to past ‘baggage’ (197) potentially affecting your ‘self-worth and your confidence’ though talks about the awareness of it and the need for continuous self-development.

CD uses the words ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’ repeatedly throughout the interview as a driving force which overrides all obstacles to progress and achieving goals.

Ideological Dilemmas

Ideological Dilemmas are the contradictions or paradoxes that can be found within the Interpretive Repertoires. Within the personal narrative and discourse we may discover inconsistencies whilst people are negotiating their way through language and constructing their identities. Within this framework I have discovered some of the ways in which the participants exposed contradictory attitudes towards their intentions and behaviours. This can shed some light on how they may be both construing and constructing the ‘stuckness’ which they perceive within their personal narrative.

I found that Ideological Dilemmas were particularly apparent with AB’s narrative throughout the interview. Within her talk, contradictions occurred sometimes within the same sentence, for example

AB ” (23) Once you reach a … certain age as well in your life, not necessarily …(92) as an entrepreneur….and I don’t necessarily consider myself to be an entrepreneur(111) I feel like I achieved even though on one level I failed, on another level I still achieved(128) one is a leap of faith …. Just literally jumping into it … but the other, ….it’s good planning, research … making things a little bit solid, not completely”

It is also evident in other places that earlier admissions of fear, for example, were countered in another part of the interview whereby AB said (97) ‘I don’t see myself as… zoned into a box where … I’m overly fearful or overly scared’. The dilemmas were often accompanied by consideration, and use of ‘um’. Alternatively, there was a statement, followed by a retraction of the statement using terms such as ‘not necessarily’ or ‘not completely’. It would appear that these served to reveal uncertainty or a consideration of things that, intellectually, AB felt that perhaps she ‘shouldn’t’ be thinking or feeling based on the knowledge that she has within her career or personal development experience. The language was used as a device to demonstrate understanding of something that is known, though not necessarily wholly felt, absorbed and integrated. A ‘becoming’ of an identity or a concept that is not quite in place or fully absorbed as yet. There is a sense of a search for an ‘essential’ or core identity or sense of self.

Within CD’s interview the dilemmas were far less apparent and the narrative demonstrated a developed level of self-awareness and a more smooth progression along her path of personal and career development. She does identify the difference between achieving goals from a place of ‘passion’ and drive, and so a more global dilemma may be around the paradox of easily achieving some goals where she is very driven, and less easily those which require more effort.

Subject positions

Our subject positions are the categories we choose for ourselves and which situate us within discourse in order to take up our ‘position’ within society. In the current research, I was interested to explore the subject positions within which the participants placed themselves, and the impact this had on their attitudes, intentions and behaviour as constructed within their personal narratives.

It would appear from the narrative that both participants took up a position with relation to age. As mentioned earlier, AB says very early on (23) ‘once you reach a … certain age’. She also talks about time quite frequently, especially regarding the time that might be wasted

AB “(161) I don’t want to waste time …. I don’t want to make mistakes …. I’m fed up of making … mistakes … a waste of time”

Although CD does talk about time and alludes to the difference between attitudes from childhood into maturity, she refers more to effort rather than time. The language does not seem as pressured around the passage of time and the age difference between the two women becomes apparent, when one considers the element of time as a factor when considering whether or not to take ‘risks’ regarding goal setting and the other regards effort as a greater consideration.

Both women talk about responsibility though there is also a difference in the type of responsibilities of each. AB positions herself as a divorced, single mother who has had the responsibility of children and, until recently, for her mother, though she has relinquished some of that responsibility to other family members. CD, who is a single woman without children,  finds responsibility a factor when following through on intentions, though relates responsibility to household bills and also the fact that she had to become ‘very responsible very quickly’(105)  when she left Poland to move abroad.

Overall, there are also references to the idea of an identity of the ‘self’. AB talks about working through her ‘barriers’ ‘so they don’t stop me from… being myself’ (38). However, there is a sense that she is uncomfortable that she is not sure exactly what or who that self is, in a clearly defined way

“(52) I am still trying to identify what it is that I bring to the table”

She often refers to, what she calls ‘feedback’ from others regarding her characteristics and skills

“(164) … the most important thing for me….is to start getting some reallyconstructive, honest feedback from people that know me …..(320) getting positive feedback about the things that I do … feeling appreciated … by whatever means to receive some feedback”

The narrative is pointed outwards towards others as a means of validation of a clear and fixed identity. Within the post-structuralist paradigm, we consider that identity is fluid and changes over time and within different contexts.

CD refers to her personal characteristics and recognises how they may help or hinder her. In contrast to AB, she has a sense that people grow, develop and therefore change over time and within different environments. She says ‘change changes everybody’s environment’ (152) she seems quite accepting of the way in which her identity has shifted over time, for example with regard to how we might be more aware of the consequences of our actions as we age (163). She also speaks quite freely about an image of herself that she has in ten years’ time and how she wants to feel and behave, and recognises how her identity will likely be different to how it is now, following further personal development efforts (lines 182 to 188)


 In this study I wanted to analyse the ways in which narrative is constitutive of attitudes, intentions and behaviour. I have found that the ways in which the individual talks about and therefore makes sense of her experience has a direct relationship to her perception of her ability to carry out her goals. I have also found that the narrative both mediates and constructs attitudes and intentions in a process of continuous negotiation. This then impacts on behaviour in the sense of individuals literally ‘talking themselves into, or out of’ taking action. The ‘story’ is used as an explanation or to create an understanding of the reasons, in particular when it is related to reasons for goals being, or nor being, achieved.

In light of the TRB, I believe that the current research supports the notion that attitude has an impact on behaviour and this can be clearly seen especially in CD’s assertions, for example, (130) that an attitude of being passionate about something enables her to carry out a goal without thinking about it. It also shows that PBC has a significant impact as is demonstrated by AB’s recognition that the things within her ‘comfort zone’ present her with few challenges when carrying them out, thus supporting the notion that the level of effort required, together with past experience are also important factors. I would say that there is not so much evidence from these two interviews that social norms play a large role in the form of peer or family opinions on life or work decisions. However, there is a relation to social pressures with regards to the subject positions and roles of the individuals impacting on behaviour, for example, with AB and her role as single mother which influenced her decisions for many years.

In relation to professional goals, the research supports the findings of Fini et al (2010) as exemplified by both women in relation to their work environment and their personal characteristics.

Hayton and Cholakova’s (2015) assumption that affect may have an impact on intention, would be well supported by the current research. It is clear from both interviews that the emotional landscape of the individual has had a significant effect on their ability to move forwards in certain areas within  their lives.

I knew both participants quite well as they are both clients of mine so I was familiar with parts of their personal narrative. I work within a field where I listen to people’s stories every day and so I am very aware of the vast array of experiences that people have. I am not triggered by other people’s stories and am able to maintain an impartial stance. In addition, my own life experiences have been quite extreme in their nature and this lends itself to an attitude of non-judgement of others. I did find that I had to keep reminding myself that this was an academic study rather than a counselling or coaching session and ensure that I stayed on track with my questioning, in that regard.

I found that, though the length of the interviews was relatively short, the yield of data from them exceeded my expectations. I would go so far as to say that the major limitation of this study is that I was unable to analyse the talk, in as much depth as I would have liked, due to the practical issue of the length of the report. I feel that an extended version of this study would be extremely useful to add to the current literature, especially due to the fact that there is little similar research into attitudes and behaviour that utilises the qualitative approach in relation to this particular field of setting intentions and carrying out goals. I believe that this limitation affected the quality of the knowledge that was produced and I would like to explore it further.

The Critical Discursive perspective was the approach best suited to the subject of personal narrative and, in a future and more extensive study, I would draw more widely on the Foucauldian post-structuralist theories. The approach worked extremely well and I was able to identify numerous examples of the analytic concepts in use throughout the interviews. In particular, the use of Interpretive Repertoires and Ideological Dilemmas could be identified frequently and quite easily. I would have liked to have explored subject positions in a more thorough way, drilling down to the implied and inherent positions that were perhaps underpinning each participant’s identities, which may demonstrate the more subtle, hegemonic nature of subjectivity.

From the perspective of my profession, a closer analysis of the talk has enabled me to create an intervention which has already helped one of the clients whom I have seen since her interview. Looking at the narratives and gaining an understanding of how the talk impacts making practical changes in our behaviour, it seems there are solutions based in narrative. I have also created a group exercise extrapolated from the findings and so the practical applications potentially derived from this type of research for counselling and coaching practitioners is invaluable. With regards to further research, therefore, I would consider that Critical Discursive studies looking at personal narrative as a means of creating understanding and then solution orientated interventions would be particularly useful and I would consider using a larger sample of participants as well as a more detailed analysis. Equally, from a coaching perspective, a case study such as that by Stelter (2011) could also be a useful way of both exploring the discourse in great depth, developing interventions, and testing their effectiveness, simultaneously and over a longer timeframe.

By Emma Jaynes –


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