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?
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:
- Have a conversation about ending
- Go off the radar and stop responding to emails
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
- How can you honour the client’s learning when there’s only you left?
- What can you do to foster a sense of ending for yourself?
- As a coach, it can be difficult or upsetting to be left – what gets triggered in you when you are left without the opportunity to end well?
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:
- Client is repeatedly late for sessions
- client repeatedly cancels at the last minute
- client turns up to a session under the influence of alcohol
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:
- It’s not common, but sometimes I may feel that I’m not the right practitioner for you.
- If we’re not making progress with your topic it may be that exploring different options might be more useful for you, possibly a therapeutic option.
- Chemistry works both ways – if I feel my style isn’t landing, do I have your permission to bring that up so we can check it out and talk about it?
- Other coaches are more [challenging / practical / directive / emergent / intuitive / creative] than me; I’m wondering if this relationship is giving you all that you need right now?
Questions for coaches to consider
- What does ‘not working for me’ look like for you?
- As a coach, when do you know that you’re done? What are your lines in the sand?
- How do you communicate this, both initially when laying the ground, and then in the moment?
- What are the potential dangers of the coach ending the relationship i.e. repeating patterns of abandonment with a client?
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.
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
- What are the potential advantages of setting up a time bound programme?
- What are the potential disadvantages of setting up a time bound programme?
- Does our marketing influence how the coach/client conceive of the ending?
- How will the coach/client both know they’re done?
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
- Is the client avoiding an ending?
- What are they still seeking?
- What need are you meeting for them?
- Is there stuff, as yet uncovered, that needs honouring or grieving in the ending?
- What is stopping the client from being ready or able to leave?
- Is this a pattern?
- Is the fear around the ending or what will emerge into the space?
- What do new beginnings signify for them?
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
- Might you be willing to work with the clients, even if there is no clarity (yet) over what else they’re seeking from the relationship?
- Are you happy to work with clients as they consolidate their learning, as opposed to surfacing new learning?
- Can you recognise when clients are working to build the container for the next leap in their learning, as opposed to moving through a ‘goal clarification – goal attainment’ energy cycle?
- How do you contract differently if working in an on-going way?
- When would you explore stopping an on-going relationship?
- If working in an on-going way, how would you protect the integrity of the coaching relationship, without it falling into an advisory, therapeutic or friendly relationship?
- Would you keep taking a client’s money indefinitely?
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.
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