Management Consultant Andrew Gibbons
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Why coaching without contracts is a con trick

Professional, competent coaches understand the intrinsic value of continuous contracting. ‘Just getting on with it’ is disingenuous and won’t produce the desired results.

5th May 2020
Management Consultant Andrew Gibbons
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Male Manager Shaking Hands With Female Applicant
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Before I begin to make my argument, I want to analyse exactly what contracting means. I will start this with two definitions from the Oxford English dictionary.

  • Contract: to enter into a formal and legally binding agreement.
  • Con trick: a swindle involving money, goods, etc, in which the swindler wins the victim’s trust.

I will make the case here for continuous contracting within the coaching process. By this I don’t mean an agreement around rates of payment, cancellation arrangements and so on, but much more significantly, the learning contract that initially clarifies roles, responsibilities and other fundamental matters, and then crucially, the repeated summarising of client learning and issues in advance of each coaching session.

In the absence of genuine interest shown in such a contract, I do believe coaching becomes a con trick.

Contracting is not just structural, it should be the process by which the client leads the agenda, and that keeps their issues of most urgent concern at the forefront of all contracts.

Let's put two qualifications on the above definitions. Firstly, is it legally binding? Well, close to – at the very least, it should be a statement of explicit expectations, and if these are not met then the other party has grounds for grievance. Secondly, does not contracting make you a swindler? That depends on the claims and promises made, and what you did to live up to them.

The initial contract

My initial contract is client learner-led (I don’t like the word ‘coachee’, and we are all learners). I invite the prospective client to answer five questions:

  1. What do you want to achieve from the coaching?
  2. What specifically, do you expect from me?
  3. What don’t you want from me?
  4. What can I expect from you?
  5. What else would it help to raise at this stage?

The responses to these simple, concise questions are extremely informative. If you don’t show genuine interest at this critical stage it is, I feel, disrespectful – the sort of thing a swindler would do!

Typically, I get three or four line responses. This very often provides precious, and unexpected information, giving me early insights and cues that are the first parts of a strong platform from which I can help them.

Very soon after I receive the reply to my questions, I craft my own response, directly addressing the specific issues raised. These words are chosen with care. These words form the contract. Without these words, if you rush to ‘get on with it’, coaching becomes a con trick.

The answers to the questions may prompt me to clarify my understanding on an issue, to highlight concerns I may have, and, with care, to qualify expectations if these seem, from the little I know of context, particularly ambitious within the timeframe.

Once my reply is received, and sometimes with further written modifications, we agree that we have a shared view of the key elements of the coaching roles, responsibilities and expectations. This contract, subject to later review and adaptation, is signed off at that point.

This simple, swift process, usually supplemented with phone calls and if appropriate, face to face meetings tell us both if we can establish a clear, credible platform from which to work.

This initial contracting has, more than once, shown one or both of us that it just won’t work, and when better to know that than before you’ve begun?

I also use an ‘all about me’ form, which invites the client to provide contextual information around current and past roles, domestic circumstances and future ambitions.

Many will feel this is unnecessary, and that you should just sign people up and get on with it. I find prospective clients value this unusual and unexpected interest, and that being shown sincere concern is a differentiating coaching practice – so it suits me that many will not do this.

The continuous contract

So, that gets you started. The next challenge is to be informed in advance of each coaching session on progress, and the specific issues that the client wants to work on.

I keep this simple, and a few days in advance of a session, I ask:

  1. What did you learn from our last coaching session?
  2. What specifically have you done or intend to do from that?
  3. What do you want us to focus on when we next work together?

If the client feels all this is a bit of a pain, I challenge them on their commitment to the process. Who is this for? The focus must always be on those we help to learn, and I believe it is ethical to point this out as delicately or directly as is appropriate.

Contracting is not just structural, it should be the process by which the client leads the agenda, and that keeps their issues of most urgent concern at the forefront of all contracts.

The insights and information I gain from asking the three questions are invaluable. These help me gain awareness of what is useful and what is not; the efforts made to apply learning, and allow me to prepare for the next session.

Without a process (it doesn’t have to be mine) to contract continuously, all ‘coaching’ becomes is a series of ‘oh I didn’t expect that’ pseudo therapy sessions where the ‘coach’ is forced to respond in the moment to unanticipated issues and react to matters of significant concern from an unprepared position.

Reaping the rewards

Contracting should be embedded continuously in the practice of professional, competent coaches. It establishes the compatibility and reasonable expectations of both principal parties.

Contracting as a continuous activity involves very little effort and produces huge rewards. It will be seen as a waste of time by swindlers for whom coaching is no more than a con trick.

Interested in this topic? Read The Leadership Contract: developing inspirational leaders through accountability.

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