A question that many coaches face as they build their client-base is whether it is OK to coach someone over a long period of time.
One of the main fears coaches have around this is that they might be creating dependency on the part of the client.
Given that a core principle of coaching is to empower clients, they quite rightly have an aversion to the idea that they might be doing the very opposite.
As a result, whilst some coaches do work with the same clients for months or even years, the majority of coaches continue to gravitate to the classic six-session contract of coaching.
But is this the right or best thing to do?
Life coaching, in particular, can often benefit from much longer coaching journeys since clients are frequently working through life goals and personal change that may span many months and even years.
Yet, my own experience, both as a coaching supervisor and a business mentor to many coaches, is that the majority of coaches assume that they should limit coaching to six sessions only. I can even remember a coach wrestling anxiously with her belief that she should refuse to continue coaching a client even though the client wanted to go on.
For some reason, coaching has usually been positioned as a short-term journey, especially compared to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, many forms of which last for years.
That said, and ironically, it seems that the two professions are heading in opposite directions as the imperative for cost-effectiveness in health care is leading to ever more short-term focused therapeutic interventions whilst coaching is liberating itself from the self-imposed shackles of the six-session contract and leaning into longer term journeys of meaning-making.
Nonetheless, the six-session contracts remains a standard within coaching and it holds many coaches back from forging longer (or shorter) term relationships.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
The Six-Session Contract
But why six-session in the first place?
Before I attempt to answer this question in a more meaningful way, stop for a moment and consider where the six-session contract came from.
Do you know?
Is there something magical about the number six that we are missing?
Of course not. The six-session contract is simply one of those conventions that gets adopted in a profession’s early stages and somehow becomes the norm.
Most probably it was considered a reasonable and affordable investment of time and money (the Goldilocks principle of not too long, not too short) by businesses where coaching was most often adopted in the early days. As a result it stuck.
The same is true in many therapies where the idea of the “therapeutic hour” is almost always 50 minutes.
Indeed, this was so much part of the bedrock of psychoanalysis that when Jacques Lacan began providing variable-length sessions in the 1950s, he had to abandon the Société Psychanalytique de Paris to set up the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP). Later, the International Psychoanalytical Association would only accept the SFP as a member organisation if it disavowed its own founder, Lacan! If this reminds you of Life of Brian’s People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front, you’re probably not alone!
And all this over a strict adherence to the 50-minute session.
Of course, there are always reasons to be found for these choices and often they centre around client-safety and psychological boundaries. But you have to think there’s more going on there – issues of power, control, hierarchy, certainty, belonging, order and more.
I believe it is important to critically reflect on the norms of how any profession works and challenge what we take for granted. It is a normal process that like-minded people/professionals seek to enforce standards, norms and ways of behaving that create a collective rather than merely individual way of doing things.
The problem is that, as well as being normal and useful, it can also ossify and limit people’s creativity and effectiveness when taken too far, especially when it’s driven by unconscious psychological forces around parental authority and hierarchy.
Are longer-term coaching relationships beneficial?
Now that we have established the abstract yet important backdrop to the question, we can start to answer it more practically.
Are longer-term coaching relationships beneficial?
Are short-term coaching relationships beneficial?
A better question is “who decides?”
Is it for us, the coach, to determine if it’s beneficial?
Is it for the norms of the profession (which, by the way, unlike the therapeutic hour, are NOT laid down anywhere in a coaching code of conduct)?
Is it for taken-for-granted, habituated patterns of contracting to decide it?
To answer this, let’s think about what coaching is predicated on.
It’s predicated on the belief in the resourcefulness of the client. It’s also predicated on dialogue and respecting the client’s self-efficacy and their ability to decide for themselves what they want and how they will achieve it.
If we are to assume that the client is less able to make a choice to continue coaching after being coached for six-sessions than they were before the coaching, what does that say about the impact of coaching?
It would seem to imply that coaching, far from strengthening a client’s autonomy, slowly and surreptitiously destroys it.
If you’re a coach questioning longer-term coaching relationships, do you believe that’s true?
For a coach to question whether their coaching might create a dependency is to treat coaching as something that disempowers and weakens a client’s ability to make choices and manage their own life.
Now, I’m not saying that it is impossible that coaching might do that but I am saying that it is not the duration that causes that but rather the nature and quality of the coaching that would reduce rather than increase a client’s autonomy.
Either that or the client has a propensity for abdicating their power in which case, again, the duration of the coaching would be a symptom of the client’s patterns rather a result of extended coaching.
How do you establish if a longer-term coaching relationship is beneficial?
From everything I have said so far, I think the answer to this question is probably going to be obvious now.
Ask the client.
If we truly believe in the underlying assumptions of coaching, then we must also believe that an open, truthful and, where needed, challenging conversation is what is needed.
Not industry-standard contracts.
Not assumptions about dependency.
But a conversation.
The client will know if they are getting value. Or, at least, they will be the one to know if they feel they are getting value.
The conversation needs to be separate from the coaching and needs to explore the extent to which the coaching continues to provide value, what the client really wants, what benefit they see in continuing and so on.
If the coach fears dependency, they can ask a question that addresses this.
What would make a longer-term coaching relationship beneficial?
To answer this question, one has to ask what coaching is for and the answer is pretty clear.
Coaching is for evoking self-initiated change.
So what would make a longer-term coaching relationship beneficial is that there is still change to be had, that the client still wants that change, that they still feel that coaching provides part of the solution and that they still think that this particular coach is the right one for now.
We have to learn to trust the client about the choice of coaching as much as we trust them to find the solutions within the coaching.
There is, it seems to me, absolutely no reason why coaching can’t continue for a long time if the client and coach are in a constructive and honest dialogue about the nature and usefulness of their coaching relationship.
I think it’s pretty clear where I stand on this now. There are two autonomous adults who are forging and building a relationship for the ultimate benefit of one of them.
If coaching continues to provide that benefit and if the coaching contributes to the continued growth of autonomy, then coaching can be a powerful long-term process that helps someone navigate, reflect upon and enact change.