Many things have changed over the course of the years around how I coach. I’m hoping that the rabbit-caught-in-headlights look of the early days of client work has dissipated! Similarly, the clumsy advice-as-question ruse has faded away over time. I reach less and less for a model or tool to process a client through. Lots has changed.
But when it comes to tapping into the power of contracting, I’ve been a bit late to the party.
I think contracting and I got off on the wrong foot. It’s a bit like when there’s someone you really fancy and they bring a friend along and you’re left talking to the friend. All the fun and excitement is embodied in the object of your desires, not the dolt of the friend. From the start, I thought of contracting as the boring, functional bit that needed to be done and got out of the way so that the client and I could get on with the good stuff, the fun stuff – the coaching. They felt like qualitatively different conversations. Contracting was transactional and business like: I give you some information, you indicate that you have received and agree to the information. Whereas coaching was a magical, creative, open-ended, relational conversation. There was no sense in my mind that these two experiences connected or overlapped in any way.
Contracting in training
The training seemed to underline this preference. The bulk of time is spent on developing one’s skills and presence as a coach; naturally. A tiny smidge of focus is given over to contracting. Again, naturally. I get it. We only contract once at the start of the relationship so proportionally we only spend a smidge of our time in this part. It makes sense.
Contracting was covered once and with some brevity, underlining somehow that it’s straightforward and easy to grasp. It’s a space to give and get information, and ask and respond to questions. It’s suggested that we:
- discover a little about what the client is seeking from coaching
- tell the client something about our skills and experience
- share a little about our coaching approach how we work
- ask if they’ve had coaching before
- ask what their understanding of coaching is
- gain permission to challenge
- gain permission to bring the coaching back on track
- ask for any questions
- confirm client is happy to proceed
I was trained on further functional aspects to contracting, for example the difference between contracting with an individual and an organisation; three-way contracting; written contracts. This felt like the jobbing end of coaching. All very useful but a bit, you know, meh.
Contracting as a client
My first experience of a coach contracting with me as the client felt very much like being on the jobbing end of someone’s process. It was professional, reassuring and fast. He emailed over some information before our first session and we quickly touched on it at the start of the session – “Any questions on any of that? All look ok?” – and then we were off. This felt fine to me. It was as I’d come to expect the process to be.
I’ve worked with many other coaches since and the experience has always been comparable. I’ve wondered if the coaches were somehow more ‘light touch’ with me because they knew I was a coach, but I suspect that this was simply how they worked. It seemed representative of how it is ‘out there’. Coaches working through a three-step process of, “Here’s some info. You ok with that? Let’s go.”
Contracting as an associate
I started working as an associate quite early into my coaching career and have subsequently worked with a range of organisations as an associate, giving me another insight into the role that contracting is given in the coaching hierarchy.
In my first associate gig, the contract was a printed piece of A4 that was split into two sections: client responsibilities and coach responsibilities. This was talked through at the start of the first session and the coach and client each kept a signed copy for their records. This was fine, really, if brief. But I found I was never quite sure as to the best time to do it – right at the start felt too officious and cold and like it was getting in the way of rapport and relationship building. But if I invited the client to share a little of their story to build rapport then it could feel jarring to put them on pause to go back to the contracting. I struggled to find my Goldilocks ‘just right’ moment.
Other associates had looser setups, often not involving me at all. The parent organisation would email over a contract for the client to sign and return. Or organisations were laissez-faire, inviting me to ‘do what I would usually do.’
The messages all seemed to underscore a sense that contracting was separate from the coaching, the business end, something to be ticked off.
Contracting with private clients
When it came to working with my own clients, I parroted what I’d picked up along the way. The difference from associate work was that I would meet clients for a chemistry session and much of the contracting was done then, but in a by-the-way way, conversationally, not sequentially or purposefully. I would then follow this conversation by emailing over a contract for them to sign, a la “Here’s some info. You ok with that? Let’s go.”
The power of contracting
And then a year ago I started working as an associate for a new organisation and they took contracting really seriously. There was a document as part of the induction that took you through the key points to cover in the contract conversation. It was actually written conversationally. Reading it was a real shock to the system. It was as though all the contracting conversations I’d had up until this point had been done to a techno beat and here I was being introduced to a loungey bossa-nova vibe. Take your time, was the message. Take your time? But the sessions are only 45 minutes long, I thought. This was madness! I’d been entrained to see contracting as separate to the process so the idea that I would spend ten or fifteen minutes out of a 45 minute session on it seemed crazy to me. I worked my way through the list of points but still seemed to have it all done in five minutes.
And then a really glorious thing started to happen. This position came with mandatory monthly group supervision and I noticed that many of the topics that I or others brought to supervision could and would often end up going back to the contracting. If there was a difficulty in the relationship, the energy flow, the expectations of the coach or client, the question always seemed to be, “So what was discussed in the contracting?” Like tugging at a really stubborn, tight knot, something started to give and I found myself following a fascinating breadcrumb trail. Time after time in supervision these small moments of recognition started to build to a bigger picture and, ultimately, the realisation that I’d been missing the point all this time.
Supervision helped me to realise that the power of contracting is in its mutuality. It’s not about giving information transactionally, from the coach to the client. It’s about creating a shared language from the get go. Now, I regularly take 30 minutes of a 45 minute session to have a deep, opening conversation with the client that is simultaneously information giving, rapport building, and collaborative. It is contracting through a coaching lens. This is a revelation. And so rewarding.
The language of the contracting now feels really purposeful and alive. I never know which bit will be the bit that will most capture and intrigue the client – but when they share something back with me, something that felt particularly useful or relieving for them, this gives me great preliminary information that helps me get to know their fears or preferences much earlier than I may have previously found them.
By taking my time, I’m holding space from the get go to paint pictures for and with the client, about what coaching might feel like. I say things like:
- The first session can feel odd, like a lopsided conversation where you do most of the talking! It can feel strange. But it’s not a normal conversation and normal conversational rules do not apply.
- We can be super honest – you might say to me, I’m not getting what I need from this conversation, can we try something else? Or I may interrupt a story you’re telling me to ask you if you’re narrating a story or thinking something through.
- With me, you can practice asking for what you want, saying no, getting your needs met – you don’t have to be polite, I can take it.
- You own the whole process; you set the agenda for what we talk about, you can decide how deep you want to go, what you choose to reveal, or not. I can’t do coaching TO or AT you. I can’t and won’t MAKE you do/feel anything. You own whether there is change, or not.
- I’m here as your collaborator. I’ll contribute by sharing what I’m noticing, what I’m feeling, what I’m imagining, what I’m experiencing in your presence, the impact you’re having on me. I’ll check out, is this me, is this you, is this us? It’s not about things being right or wrong – I’ll offer it, it may be useful or it might not. You don’t have to pick up the things I offer.
- You might leave a session with insight, awareness, a lightbulb moment, a new goal, task clarification, you might simply feel lighter or feel that you’ve been heard. You might feel the benefit straight away, or it might sink in over a few days.
- I take minimal notes that don’t identify you or what we’ve talked about. I may not always remember every detail of our conversation, but I trust that you’re holding anything pertinent and that it will naturally come back into the space if it’s needed.
I am enjoying my contracting conversations more than ever, and see the true value of them for the first time. By making them relational, rather than transactional, they’ve become part of the rapport building process and extend an invitation of equality and co-creation to the client from the start. The tone has changed from a procedural business end part of the process, to a learning zone of gentle intimacy and arrival.
Whether you’re reading this as coach or client, my conclusion would be the same: seek out contracting conversations that are slow. You’ll reap the benefits.
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