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Should You Talk About Dreams at Work?

Yes, but you have to be careful about it.

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

Let’s say you just had a vivid dream about something at work. The dream was really intense, and you can’t get it out of your mind. Would it be appropriate to tell other people at work about the dream?

I’m guessing that most human resources professionals would say no, it would not be appropriate to talk about a dream at work, for several reasons. Such conversations could easily lead people to reveal personal life details, either intentionally or unintentionally, that make other co-workers uncomfortable. There is no established model for interpreting dreams, so the discussion is likely to become confusing and divisive. Especially if the dreams lead into bizarre, taboo territory around sex and/or aggression, they have no business being discussed in the workplace. At a time when people are losing their jobs because of inadvertently offensive comments to others, talking about dreams at work seems like an unacceptably risky thing to do.

And yet…People who work closely together are in fact dreaming of their jobs and each other, sometimes with great frequency. Psychologists have found that dreams are like a mirror of the mind, accurately reflecting our emotional concerns in waking life. For many people today, their jobs are a source of great emotional concern.

Psychologists have also found that dreams can be a powerful engine of new creative insights. Particularly when people feel confused or stuck in their waking lives, their dreaming minds bring forth new possibilities and alternative perspectives that can help us respond more adaptively to the challenges of the current situation.

So this is where we stand: We know that people dream frequently about work, and we know that some of those dreams offer potentially innovative insights about work-related challenges. Yet none of this can be acknowledged in the workplace as it currently exists.

I sympathize with the worries of HR managers. But it’s important to recognize that if a way could be found to safely share dreams in the workplace, it would be enormously helpful for both employees and their companies.

The path from here to there has many obstacles, but none are insurmountable. A few basic principles, agreed upon by all, can set the stage for safe and effective dream-sharing in the workplace.

The key is to focus only on dreams with direct relevance to a work-related issue. Bracket out the personal details as much as possible, and consider only what the dreams might be saying about a challenge or problem at work. The goal is to stimulate new thinking and new ideas for collective problem-solving. This can lead in a variety of different and not always compatible directions, and that’s fine. The discussion does not need to produce a single definitive interpretation of the dream in order to serve the valuable function of expanding and energizing people’s creative efforts.

For the process to flow smoothly, everyone must respect the dreamer and avoid imposing external interpretations on the dreams. The truth is, we can never know for sure what another person’s dream means; we only have direct access to our own dreams. However, if invited to do so, we can offer suggestions from our perspective about the possible meanings in a co-worker’s dream. In the ensuing conversation everyone can gain a deeper, more nuanced view of the work-related situation.

Of course, all of this depends on a high degree of mutual trust and shared confidentiality among employees. That might sound impossible in the world of modern commerce, but many companies have mission statements and principles of conduct that emphasize similar virtues, so it should not require extraordinary measures to enable dream discussions. Just people agreeing to treat each other with respect and decency.

How would this look in actual practice? Informal conversations among friends are the most common setting for sharing dreams about work; those conversations should be allowed and encouraged. Mentioning a dream during a meeting may, or may not, be helpful; it’s probably a bad idea unless you have given advance notice to the other participants. I don’t think I would ever put anything in writing about my dreams in a business setting; all of this should remain within the realm of verbal discussions among colleagues.

The ideal setting for sharing dreams at work would be during retreats and brainstorming sessions, when employees gather to venture outside the box, think up new ideas, generate innovative solutions to current challenges, and imagine better visions of the future. These are precisely the kinds of things the dreaming mind is doing every night. It should not be such a daunting prospect to include discussions of dreaming in work sessions devoted to open-ended planning, visioning, and problem-solving.

(Fun fact: during dreams in the REM phase of sleep, the brain is generating as much or more neuro-electrical energy as it does when we are wide awake. Brainstorming indeed!)

Dreams are an incredibly fertile source for creative thought, for trying to go beyond what is to imagine what might be. Any company, institution, or enterprise that aspires to grow and expand into the future should consider finding appropriate ways to make use of this free and natural resource, which truly represents a profound expression of the collective intelligence of the work force.