Starting With the End in Mind: An Exploration of the Importance and Impact of Endings in Coaching

start with the end in mind blog header

This article starts with a disclaimer: it raises way more questions than it answers.

In fact, the whole piece is written with you in mind (yes, you!), wondering, ‘How is it for other coaches? Are endings easy for them? Consistent? Challenging? Unpredictable?”

This piece is, in fact, something of a provocation. Have you considered endings much? How might it impact on your offer if you did? Would you market yourself differently?

And here we are, already knee-deep in questions. And there will be many more throughout this piece. Hopefully there are questions here that really land for you, maybe some to discuss with a supervisor or other coaches.

Whatever you take from this, the hope is it will deepen your own enquiry around the importance and impact of endings in coaching.

Why do endings matter in coaching anyway?

Endings are happening all the time in our lives. Some are big and hugely significant, such as the ending of a job, relationship or the end of the life of someone important to us. Other endings are less grandiose; ending meetings, phone calls, conversations. Whether they’re large or small, frequent or infrequent, we are likely to have patterns around these endings that we may or may not be aware of. Have you stopped to think about what it means to end a meeting or a phone call? What are your patterns? Do you take a moment? Do you consider if the call went how you thought it would? Do you reflect on how you performed and contributed in a meeting? Or, do you just dive headlong into the next task?

man diving into water

As coaches, patterns are important to us. There is so much data available to our clients through exploring patterns with them. Patterns that show up in the micro may be amplified in the macro; if we are oblivious to smaller endings how might we handle bigger, more significant endings?

In our coaching relationships, how we end therefore becomes a rich source of data in and of itself; and it becomes part of the active ground of practice and experimentation with our clients. If we are explicit about the ending, this provides awareness that our clients can take with them into their lives. Over and above the topic they’re working on, the ending is in the field too, so we can model how to talk about it and invite the client to meet their needs within the ending. All rich stuff. 

how endings in coaching typically happen

1. Client ends the relationship

One very clear way we know that the coaching relationship has come to an end is when the client ends it. We contract for this possibility at the start and it’s really important that the client is clear that they can vote with their feet and leave the relationship at any time. If a client does want to stop the coaching, they tend to do this in one of two ways:

In the first instance, we are invited to be part of the client’s ending process; we can work with them to set out the pace of the ending, tie up any loose ends, consolidate any learning or key action points. We can also reflect with them on how this process feels for them, and what it offers them. We can invite them to reflect on whether this is how other endings have happened in their lives or if it feels new. In short, the act of ending can be additive to the client’s learning experience.

If, however, they simply go off radar, this learning vein isn’t available to them. By making a break in this way, they are likely repeating patterns that they act out in their lives – ‘ostriching’ in the face of a perceived difficult conversation, avoiding perceived conflict, not wanting to cause offence or harm, or lacking the assertiveness to express their doubts or disappointments with the coaching process.

They may be opting out (consciously or unconsciously) as they’re not yet ready, willing or able to go where the coaching appears to be taking them. They may tell themselves they’re too busy, when in fact, they’re too frightened to go down a particular path. 

Questions for coaches to consider

2. Coach ends the relationship

It tends to be less common, but if our coaching relationships are truly built on equality then the coach must also have the option to end the relationship if it is not working for them. As a coach, do you know what ‘not working for you’ looks like? If you don’t, how can you prepare the client for a potential ending without it feeling personal or like a rejection?

There tend to be two areas that might trigger a coach to want to examine or review the relationship. The first relates to behavioural or contractual concerns:

In these instances, falling back on our contracting should allow us to have a frank and honest conversation with the client to ascertain if they want to continue, pause or terminate the contract, and to give ourselves the space to express if we wish to continue, pause or terminate the contract. 

The other area is harder to pinpoint; that sense that the chemistry isn’t quite right, the progress not quite right, that something just isn’t flowing in the relationship. Honesty and transparency are key here. Planting a seed early on can be really helpful, rather than springing it on a client a few sessions in; ideally, this should be discussed in the chemistry session and then backed up in the contracting so the client isn’t caught off guard. How might we bring this into our contracting? Here are some ideas to build on and make your own:

Questions for coaches to consider

3. The contract is complete

“We contracted for six sessions, I delivered six sessions, we’re done!”

This is a more typical ending for most coaches, most of the time. Clarity is a real gift in the coaching relationship, particularly at the start of a new relationship where the client is looking to build a sense of trust in us – as coaches, professionals, people – so it can be really useful for both coach and client to both know exactly the frame they’re working within. Whether it’s 60 mins, six sessions or six months, the point is that an arc has been established, with a clear start and end point. The client’s mind can then organise around the commitment, with a sense of space to open up at the beginning of the arc, and with a change of pace or focus as they approach the completion of the arc. 

image of a rocket creating an arc

This works when it works – but not all clients are neat enough to get the results we promoted in the timeframe offered to them. And this takes careful negotiation. We don’t want the client to feel like they’ve failed (blaming self). We don’t want them to think the coaching has failed (blaming other). Here, the coach needs to have courage and honesty throughout the process to name what they’re experiencing in terms of progress and to offer plenty of opportunity to pivot, re-contract, pause or close the contract early. Just because we’ve agreed a package doesn’t mean that slavishly following it is right for the client.

Questions for coaches to consider

When endings in coaching don’t happen

Sometimes it can feel as though clients don’t want to leave the safe space of the coaching relationship, even if they can’t articulate a particular goal or outcome they want to work on.

They just want to keep working with us. In these instances, it’s important for us to check out with the client whether they have avoidance or continuance on their mind.

If there’s avoidance, this should be surfaced and worked through, modelling for the client what a healthy and fruitful ending can look like.

Questions to consider around avoidance

If the client wants to continue, but doesn’t have a specific new goal or outcome in mind, it is useful for the coach to get clear on the implications of this and to be sure they can adapt expectations – their own and the clients – accordingly. 

Questions to consider around continuance

Whose ending is it anyway?

Animas Founder Nick Bolton, when talking about the TOOLKIT model, reminds us that it;

“offers a journey that can span weeks or even months rather than a model that fits into one session. That takes courage in your ability as a coach to keep the space for self-discovery open. Sometimes coaches are so intent on results that they forget transformation takes time!”

Having explored this topic from many different perspectives, a final one to end on. Of all the coaches, supervisors, therapists or mentors that you’ve worked with, who ended relationships well with you? And who didn’t handle it quite so well? What might you learn from these experiences, of being on the receiving end of someone else’s process? And is there anything you might change in the way you work as a result?

 Now we’ve explored endings in coaching, there’s only one left thing to do now, which is end this article. How do articles end well? Now that’s easy.

 The End.

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