Why contract in coaching?

In a previous post I discussed the five basic skills any coach needs to master if he or she wants to be effective. I said then I’d be discussing each of these in further posts, so here I’ll be looking into the first skill on that list by checking out the rationale for and characteristics of effective contracting.

man signing contractEffective contracting is crucial to the success of coaching relationships. Why? Well, the origins of any problems that occur as the relationships develop can usually be traced back to the contracting stage.

The term ‘contracting’ can refer to two things:

  1. the ongoing process whereby the coach helps the coachee define, refine and redefine clear outcomes for the coaching sessions;
  2. the negotiations and resulting document setting out the parameters of the relationship between coach, coachee and any other stakeholders with an interest in the coaching intervention.

I’ll be taking a look at both of these under the following headings:

  • Contracting in the coaching process
  • Contracting the coaching relationship

Contracting in the Coaching Process

Contracting is an important part of the success of any coaching session. It ensures clarity for coach and coachee regarding the session’s aims and direction. However, it’s not always clear at the start what the ‘real’ issue is. Don’t let that phase you. Agreeing and contracting for even a notional outcome for the session can make that session focused and forward moving – whilst leaving room for carrying on the contracting process throughout the session until the ‘real’ issue emerges and the ‘real’ desirable outcome becomes clear. This can take a good deal of exploration, time and patience, but it’s crucial to the success of the intervention.

face plus question marksRemember, though, it’s for the coachee to identify the theme and destination of the session, not the coach, so the coach’s desire to achieve good contracting should not interfere with the coachee’s need for time and space to explore. But once the ‘real’ issue has emerged, defining and contracting for a clear outcome is a crucial part of achieving that outcome, and part of good contracting is the agreeing of SMART* goals the coachee is confident of achieving.

The key concept to remember here is that this is a process whereby the coach helps the coachee define, refine and redefine clear goals and outcomes for the sessions. And this process may continue throughout each session of the intervention…

Contracting the Coaching Relationship

Contracting the coaching relationship can be a complicated process. Particularly where there are numerous stakeholders with interests in the coaching intervention, it’s crucial the coach is thorough in taking time to ensure everyone is on the same page. There are four aspects of contracting that need to be borne in mind, and it’s these I’ll look into here.

1. Why contract?     It’s important to be clear on why contracting is necessary so that the process can be used optimally:

  • good contracting right at the start can avoid problems down the line, and this protects all parties from disappointment, misunderstanding, disagreement, loss of faith, and (potentially) litigation if things do go wrong;
  • during contracting, ground rules and expectations can be discussed and agreed amongst all parties (including coach and coachee, as well as where applicable the coachee’s manager, an HR partner, and the sponsor of the coaching). Here it’s crucial to make sure that a full exploration is made of each stakeholder’s vision of what a ‘successful outcome’ would look like. These visions need to be brought into alignment, and a common vision needs to be agreed. Otherwise ‘success’ will not be recognised and acknowledged if and when it occurs, and needless disagreement will ensue;
  • the tone of the coaching relationship can be set during discussions, which can lead to agreement on such matters as standards of mutual respect, non-judgmentalism, willingness to give and receive feedback, honesty within the relationship, and preparedness to be challenged.

2. What is good contracting?     This includes a number of key aspects:Group discussing

  • explaining what coaching is and is not, thus helping to set realistic expectations;
  • giving opportunity for coach and coachee (as well as other stakeholders where applicable) to agree a brief description of the coaching issue, thus clarifying preliminary objectives;
  • making clear from the start the obligations, rights and responsibilities of coach and coachee – for example, the coachee’s duty to work on action points as agreed between sessions, and willingness to both give and receive feedback; the coach’s obligation to maintain confidentiality, as well as a non-judgmental stance vis-a-vis the client; shared commitment to honesty in the relationship;
  • where there are additional stakeholders, negotiating and agreeing issues such as feedback and assessment procedures; confidentiality of coach/coachee relationship; preparedness of the other stakeholders to support the coachee through the coaching process, including modification of their own behaviour where necessary; outcomes that are measurable and clearly attributable to the coaching programme.

3. When to contract?     Contracting should ideally commence during the engagement process, even before any coaching relationship has been agreed. Issues should be raised and ironed out right from the start, and contracting should be revisited regularly during the coaching relationship to check progress and determine whether the direction needs changing. A practical procedure would be to:

  • draw up an information sheet detailing what the coachee and any other stakeholders can expect, and how the coaching relationship will work. This has the benefit of providing material to forward to all parties for consideration before any initial exploratory meeting so that understandings and expectations can be clarified and questions raised right at the beginning;
  • have exploratory meetings to find out more about the coachee, the issue and (where appropriate) the organisational stakeholders. In a two-party arrangement, probably only one meeting is necessary, giving coach and coachee the opportunity to decide whether or not to work together and to iron out any outstanding points. A formal written contract can be introduced either in the meeting or forwarded afterwards so that each party signs their commitment to work together as agreed. head with shaking handsHowever, where there are more stakeholders a more elaborate strategy may need to be taken. As well as speaking to each stakeholder separately, the coach might organise a meeting to bring together all stakeholders (including the coachee) to enable full and open exploration of issues, leading to unanimity on what is agreed. It’s generally best also to organise a separate meeting later with the coachee. Several things may need to be gauged, including the genuineness of her or his commitment to the coaching process, and whether in reality the coaching intervention is being used as a ‘last chance’ for someone that has already been written off by the organisation. You as the coach may decide not to take on the assignment if this is the case. But supposing everything is positive, as with two-party arrangements, a formal written contract can be introduced and signed by the relevant parties which signals their commitment to work together as agreed;
  • during the coaching sessions, keep in mind the possible need to re-contract if significant modification of the issue or planned outcomes seems likely. Use agreed feedback procedures to inform all stakeholders of the change.

4. What should the contract cover?     There is no definitive list on this. However, consider the following:

  • who the coachee is, and a brief description of the issue;
  • whether this is a two or three-party contract (including a sponsor, the coachee’s manager, or an HR partner). If it is the latter, detail how that is to be managed, particularly the reporting back – which for confidentiality reasons is usually best left to the coachee, with the coach undertaking only to give brief benchmark details at regular intervals of progress towards agreed goals;
  • the desired outcomes for the programme and how ‘success’ is to be measured, including provision for a feedback loop to the manager or sponsor (where applicable) for the coach to flag up further coachee issues or support needs if necessary;
  • confidentiality undertakings concerning the keeping and storage of records; who may see the records (for example, a coach supervisor); potential disclosure of information to third parties (for example, if evidence emerges of illegal activity, contravention of organisational rules, or potential harm to the coachee or third parties);
  • the mode of the coaching – face-to-face, phone, skype, email;
  • where the coaching will take place and how often;
  • the length of the contract (which should be time limited rather than open ended);
  • the costs, including a schedule of payments;
  • the ground rules on how the relationship is to be conducted, including roles and responsibilities of all parties, plus details of the ethical framework (for example, the Code of Ethics of the Association for Coaching);
  • conditions for termination.

So, contracting is very important. Paying due attention to it can mean the difference between a successful coaching relationship and one that is fraught with difficulty and misunderstanding.

* SMART goals are usually defined as being Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and to be undertaken within an agreed Time frame

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