From Contract to Contact - Part I: The Transformation by Claire Sheldon

Mark Dion, The Library for the Birds of London (detail), Whitechapel Gallery 2018 @TheWhitechapel

Mark Dion, The Library for the Birds of London (detail), Whitechapel Gallery 2018 @TheWhitechapel

For as long as I can remember – and I’ve been coaching a long time – I’ve disliked what I’ve labelled contracting. I’ve dealt with my discomfort by shrugging and saying: I don’t do contracting well. And I’ve got away with it. Or rather, I’ve got away with it until now…

My time’s up…

I’ve enrolled on a coaching supervision diploma. Excuses won’t wash. I need to reflect deeply on my practice, to remember what I already know and what I’ve forgotten. I need to unpack what I want to ignore. I need, in short, to unpack my resistance to ‘doing contracting’ and get my house in order…

This blog charts the journey that’s transformed how I experience contracting. It deconstructs my assumptions; shares the reflective conversations I have about the process; and set out the ‘true and liberating alternative’ (p163, Breene, 2010) to which I’ve committed. A coda seals the transformative deal.


Resistance

I’d thought the oh-so-English aversion to talking money lay behind my distaste for contracting conversations. That and my inability to see beyond the shoulds and oughts. Packaged anyway you like – contract, learning alliance, coaching agreement – it seemed contracting had to be done ‘to minimize the potential issues that may arise and that result in ethical dilemmas’ (p14, Hodge, 2013) or because ‘difficulties between supervisors and coaches, and between coaches and clients, arise because of lack of clarity caused by an inadequate contract’ (Hindmarsh, 2017).

But the real reason for my resistance?  Not far below the surface I’d a memory of a long-ago contracting conversation with a supervisor. Or rather, I’d a clear memory of how I felt during that conversation. I felt talked at, bored, disengaged and infantalised. And resentful of spending time and money on administrative whats and whens and how muchs and ifs yous. My response set the relationship’s deeply unhelpful tone: I did a bunk before completing our agreed programme of sessions…


The conversations

Wanting to find out more, I started to talk contracting. Of my conversations with colleagues and clients, four stood out. Dissecting them, I found they echoed the four levels of reflection and supervision outlined by Carroll (2011), reflections that lead to a transformation in practice. Here’s what happened…

The canal: Solving my problem

Walking the towpath in Oxford, I talked about revamping my approach to contracting. I described for my colleague how I start with one-to-one calls to sponsor and client to get a feel for the work and the organisation, to clarify expectations about what the client might expect, and to talk about how I work. And I spoke about the first session with its three-way conversation with client and sponsor, the emphasis on a breakthrough question and my desire to hear something of the client’s journey from family of origin to place of work. Hmmm, she said, sounds as if you’re doing just fine. I protested. But I hate the procedural stuff!

A brainwave! I would resurrect my written contract, handing it to my clients to read at a later date. Problem solved – nothing learned. A fine example of Level 1, single loop learning (Carroll, ibid)!

The dragonfly: Changing my behaviour

I’ve a new supervisor. She has heft and vision and I trust her to keep me at my learning edge. For the first time ever, I take contracting to supervision. We talk about the subtle contracting and re-contracting that takes place during a coaching session. The careful summarising that draws attention to what’s being said. And the question that asks the client where they want their attention, right now, to be…

Sue models the process with elegance and refinement – and I notice how it helps focus my scattergun thoughts. The doors in the room where we work are wide open – and as we talk a huge, green dragonfly flies in, hovers for a moment, then flies out. I realise two things. First, that while I use this technique with my clients, I could use it more frequently, earlier and explicitly. Second, that I too often follow my felt sense of what’s important, failing to checking my assumptions with the client.

In my next coaching session, I give particular attention to this contracting – the dragonfly is just at the edge of my vision. You’ve talked about z, y and x… So where do you want to focus right now?  There’s a pause then, That’s a really good question…

There’s a shift in the energy in the room – a settling, then clarity about action to be taken… And I’m doing something different too – contracting in awareness, and for the benefit of the coaching relationship. This is double loop learning – I’ve changed my behaviour.

The beach: Changing my thinking

I’m walking along the beach at Formby. The sky is vast and there’s a salt tang from the sea. I’m talking about the fast-approaching course, the pre-work, my contracting, the endless possibilities for learning. You’re like a bird in a cage, says my partner. You fly in one direction, then dart off before you finish your thought. I make the choice, there and then, to focus my thoughts and my pre-work on contracting. Choosing my focus is liberating. I’m instantly calmer, more grounded. I’ve learned something new about contracting. Or rather I’ve felt its emotional and physical impact. I’ve changed my thinking – triple loop learning…

Lying in bed: Changing the thinking behind my thoughts

The next morning I’m thinking about the bird in the cage. In my head, she’s constrained, panicking, beating herself against the bars. It’s how I’ve pictured contracting – and it’s not how I want to work. A new image floods in. I’m visiting Mark Dion’s Library for the Birds at the Whitechapel Gallery. It’s an aviary big enough for 22 zebra finches and four human visitors. The birds have everything they need to feed body, mind and soul. Their very own tree of knowledge, piles of books, nooks and crannies to explore, a pith helmet, cameras, binoculars, bowls of seed and water. Contained, but expansive. They settle, chirruping, then lift and continue their exploration. I’ve a moment of complete clarity. This is the metaphor for my work. It’s the ‘true and liberating alternative’ (Brene, 2011) to my energy sapping response to contracting. I’ve changed the thinking behind my thoughts – and I’ve changed my heart.

So where does this leave me? Excited. Energised. Keen to get started. And that means modeling my contracting conversations with the care, clarity and spaciousness I’d want for the bird in the cage…


Coda

I spent half an hour this morning trawling through my bookshelves, checking indexes for references for contract and contracting. And I repeatedly failed to find what I wanted on the appropriate pages. Frustrated, I checked back. I’d been looking up references to contact and contacting… Bingo! Level 4 and transformational learning...

And it doesn’t end here. In Part II: Contracting, contact and the client relationship I’ll outline how that transformation translates into practice.

To connect with Claire Sheldon via Linkedin

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Claire has over 20 years experience as an executive coach and facilitator. Her clients report developing richer, more productive workplace relationships, and the skills and self-awareness to sustain individual and organisational change.

Having long described herself as ‘an intuitive coach’, her curiosity about what that might mean triggered an MA dissertation. Her research broke new ground in clarifying how coaches talk about and use their intuition. She uses her model, Working at the Boundary, to support her own work as a coach – and to help coaches and supervisors extend personal understandings of intuition in their practice

References

Brene, C (2011). Resistance is natural path: An alternative perspective on transformation. In Shohet, R (ed) Supervision as transformation: A passion for learning.  London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Carroll, M (2011). Supervision: A journey of lifelong learning. In Shohet, R (ed) Supervision as transformation: A passion for learning.  London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hindmarsh, L (2017). The coaching contract: What’s in a name? In Thackray, Y (ed) Book 3: Translating Coaching Codes of Practice - Leading the way into the personal knowledge bases of everyday practitioners. Blogpress Publishing.
Hodge, A (2013). Coaching supervision – an ethical angle. In Murdoch, E and Arnold, J (eds) Full Spectrum Supervision: Who you are is how you supervise. St Alban: Panoma Press.