“The Coaching Contract – what’s in a name?” by Lynne Hindmarch

Most professions have jargon, only fully understood by the initiated.  The coaching profession has jargon too, but has the added misfortune of having two words widely used within the profession which have a rather different meaning elsewhere.  One of these is ‘supervision’ (which has been much debated and I won’t dwell on here), and the other is ‘the contract’ (or ‘contracting’).

I have a problem with the use of both the terms ‘contract’ and ‘contracting’ (but I’ll simplify things by focusing just on the word contract in this piece) and I decided to use this blog as a way of exploring my difficulty with the term by reflecting and writing about it.  In that sense I am using the blog as part of my reflective practice.  I am also interested in other people’s views on the word, if they too have issues with it, and how they address them.


The importance of the process of contracting

I am acutely aware of the importance of the process of contracting in working with a client.  Indeed, when I trained in supervision some years ago, there was a strong emphasis during the course on establishing the contract, both as a supervisor and as a coach, and teaching the importance of the coach/client contract to our supervisees.  There was a good reason for this: often difficulties between supervisors and coaches, and between coaches and clients, arise because of lack of clarity caused by an inadequate contract. 

Certainly, in my own supervision practice I have seen a number of problems that have developed because the coach and client have not fully developed the contract between them.  Often this is to do with boundary issues, when the coach confuses the client (and sometimes themselves) by moving between a coaching approach, a consultancy approach or a counselling approach.  Therefore, I can immediately sense some tension, between my dislike of the term, and the value of the process. 

So, what lies behind my problem with the term?


What do we really understand about ‘the contract’ and ‘contracting’?

When coaches talk to other coaches about ‘the contract’ and ‘contracting’ we understand, within the context of the profession, what we mean.  Our clients, however, don’t, and it is easy to forget that they don’t. 

How contract is generally defined

The Oxford Dictionary defines a contract as: “A written or spoken agreement, especially one concerning employment, sales, or tenancy, that is intended to be enforceable by law.”

A further definition is: “An arrangement for someone to be killed by a hired assassin.”

Hmmm. Perhaps it really is time to review the term. 

For me the word ‘contract’ grates with how the values underlying my coaching practice. This takes a broadly humanistic approach, drawing on Carl Rogers assumptions that for people to grow and develop, they need an environment that provides them with genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), acceptance (being seen with unconditional positive regard), and empathy (being listened to and understood).  Although I run my coaching practice as a business, and of course recognise, and work with, the commercial realities of my clients’ organisational lives, when I’m coaching the more ‘hard-nosed’ aspects of my own business are definitely in the background.

The difficulty I have with the first definition (let’s skip over the Mafia-inspired definition) is the commercial and legal connotations associated with it, which feels at odds with my approach to coaching.  So I considered possible alternatives as part of my practice, such as the word ‘agreement’.  The term ‘agreement’ can also have legal and commercial associations, but it has a broader meaning, such as: “an arrangement as to a course of action: eg reached an agreement as to how to achieve their goal.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary.)

How contract is currently described in coaching

At this stage I decided to explore what various coaching books had to say about contracting.   Interestingly a few of them made no mention of the process.  However, a number did, especially those which focus on coaching supervision.  Nevertheless, none of the books I looked at mentioned outright any difficulty with the term.  In fact, some suggest that the practical discussion around fees and cancellation arrangements can be the start of build up a trusting and empathetic relationship with the client!

Some of the coaching texts I read avoided the term ‘contract’ altogether by referring to it as ‘the working alliance’, for example.  This discussion might cover sharing information about each other, explaining the coach’s approach, training and experience, describing the ethical framework the coach works within.  The benefits of this approach are that it gives the coach the opportunity to begin to develop trust, empathy, respect and genuineness.


Pushing the awareness of, and understanding, of the contract and contracting process

Thinking about this further, I wondered if the contracting process could be split into two parts. 

  • Stage One, the Contract
  • Stage Two, the Agreement.

Stage One, the Contract, as a formal arrangement between the client and the coach (or indeed between the coach and the sponsor or organisation) which may include the more commercial aspects of the coaching arrangement.  This may include:

  • the number of sessions,
  • the length,
  • the fee,
  • missed sessions payment,
  • who is going to be involved,
  • confidentiality,
  • where the sessions will be held etc.   

I would describe these as the ‘pay and rations’ aspects of the coaching programme, where I would find the use of the term contract quite appropriate, containing as it does both commercial and potentially legal obligations, with less likelihood of changes being made. Hawkins and Smith (2006) refer to these as the ‘practicalities’ of the contract. 

This would then be followed by Stage Two, the Agreement. This is a conversation I have with the client once the coaching sessions start. It may have been explored a little in the initial pre-programme discussions, but it is the main focus of the early part of the first coaching session. The agreement is a more fluid arrangement, where the process can be revisited and changed if both parties agree.  Indeed in coaching and supervision I encourage revisiting the agreement to see if it needs updating or revising.  How often one revisits it depends on the individual coach, but I tend to touch on it lightly at least every other session.  It might simply be ‘How do you feel about how we are working together?  Is there anything that you might want to change?’.  It gives the client the opportunity to raise any questions and share what is working well for them and what might need changing. 

Having reached this juncture in my reflection, I decided it would be useful to explore further what might be contained in the Stage Two, the Agreement.


Building in complexities through an agreement: meshing various frameworks of Agreement to meet my practice

1. Some authors, such as Katherine Tulpa (in Passmore J, Ed. 2006), describe the agreement as,

  • covering the psychological contract,
  • defining outcomes, and
  • setting realistic expectations, to create an optimum learning experience.  (I liked the emphasis on learning here.) 

Tulpa suggests that it is useful to explain in advance the purpose of contracting session, perhaps by sending a draft learning agreement beforehand.  This may include aims, business goals, potential development areas, desired outcomes, and previous feedback. 

In my practice, I take this a stage further I would also ask if the client has had any contact with the helping professions before.  This can establish early on if the client has had any therapy or counselling, is on any medication for illnesses such as depression, or has had coaching before.   This initial session may include a meeting between coach, client, boss or sponsor.

2. In their book Whitworth et al (1998) provide a number of intake forms and checklists, including a model coaching agreement.  This may be somewhat too process driven for some, but provides a number of useful frameworks for modifying; for instance questions the coach might ask the client in the first session.  They also suggest different forms of agreement depending on whether working with individual client or corporate client.  

3. O’Neill (2000) describes contracting (developing an agreement) as ‘in many ways…..the most important phase’ (p.92), which reinforces my own view of its position.  For her it is about building a relationship and establishing credibility. 

  • It gives the client the opportunity to ask: Can this coach help me?  
  • It also gives the coach the chance to ask: Is this client open to feedback? 

O’Neill suggests starting to coach right away to give the client a flavour of the work.  (I have done this in the past during the initial ‘chemistry’ meeting with a client.  I found that in doing so I covered so much ground with the client that she said she didn’t need any further coaching. This wasn’t quite what I planned.)  Her chapter goes into much more detail on how the relationship develops, and what questions may be going through the client’s head as well as the coach testing the client’s willingness to focus on their own behaviour and the contribution they might be making to their problems.  O'Neill also includes goal setting and establishing measurable goals. 

4. Flaherty (1999) describes (in what he calls the enrolment process) the importance of the coach and client making explicit what they are committed to accomplishing in the coaching programme.  He emphasises the joint nature of this - the commitment of one member is not sufficient.  He also raises what barriers there may be to a successful coaching programme, such as work commitments, an unsupportive boss, or outcomes that may be only temporarily important.

This is in line with my own approach to the agreement process when working with a client.  We draft it together, typically working under four broad headings:

  1. The purpose of the coaching programme (such as providing a safe and confidential space to discuss their developmental goals);
  2. Practical issues (such as building the coaching sessions into their working day;
  3. Professional issues (such as confidentiality); and
  4. Psychological issues (such as delivering feedback). 

It is explicitly stated that the agreement is likely to evolve during the work we do together.


Reflecting on my contract-agreement approach

  • The exploration I have made in this blog of the term ‘contracting’ has been a useful way to reflect on my own difficulties with the term. Used simply in its narrow and more popularly understood definition, I saw it as giving a formal and misleading tone to what coaching actually is about, which is much more inclusive.
  • Taking the time to review and understand how others have reported or described what the contract/contracting involved from various coaching texts has enabled me to think about splitting the process into two components, the formal Contract, and the more fluid Agreement, which I find more attuned to how I work as a
  • It has also helped me revisit my approach to the process and more consciously think about what I cover, particularly during the conversation around the agreement, as part of how I manage the intake with new and existing clients.   

To connect with Lynne Hindmarch

References:

Tulpa K (2006) Coaching within organizations. In Excellence in Coaching, Ed. Passmore, J, pp 26-43, Kogan Page, London.
Whitworth, L, Kimsey-House, H, Sandhal (1998) Coactive Coaching.  P Palo Alto, CA.
O’Neill M B (2000) Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, pp91-11, Jossey-Bass San Francisco CA.
Flaherty J (1999) Coaching: Evoking excellence in others. Elsevier Burlington MA
Hawkins, P and Smith, N (2006) Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy: Supervision and Development, McGraw-Hill, Maidenhead, Berks