From Contract to Contact - Part II: Relational contracting at work by Claire Sheldon


In my last blog I wrote about the shift that’s transformed my beliefs about contracting. I had an elegant metaphor for the work – artist Mark Dion’s beautiful, spacious, liberating installation, Library for the Birds – and shared my transformative journey.

And so what? How am I translating that metaphor and my ‘change in mind’ (p153, Creaner, 2011) into contracting practice? Where is there still work to be done? And how is contracting adding value to my client relationships? Actions speak louder than words…

What contracting now means for me?

Contracting is becoming a dynamic process. It holds and contains the coaching relationship: creating a space that nourishes the soul and supports mutual learning. It’s a meaningful experience with purpose. At its best, it helps to pre-contractually shape an environment where it’s safe to be vulnerable, to take risks, to challenge and be challenged. It also supports my client in the work – and me too. I call this whole process relational contracting, and it can be separated into three complementary stages:

  1. Agreeing the practicalities

  2. The positioning conversations that ensure transparency and set expectations

  3. The ongoing alignment and realignment that adds special value to the coaching relationship

These are the stages I’m working to embody as I contract with clients. I don’t always get it right – and when I do it’s a delight.


Stage 1: Agreeing practicalities

There’s still a wagging finger here.  I need to agree with my client the structure that will hold  our work. These are the boundaries that will contain our learning relationship. And this also means agreeing the practicalities: clarity about costings and cancellations; numbers and frequency of sessions; record keeping, confidentiality and limits to confidentiality (Joyce and Sills, 2001). This blueprint then needs to be shared with the client and confirmed with the sponsor.

 Work-in-progress. This is the stage I still find hardest to engage with. Even yesterday I described it as the boring bit, rushing this important construction work as if it didn’t matter. Old habits die hard! Something perhaps that I need to keep reflecting on – with that care, clarity and spaciousness. Or something I simply accept and get on with. I need to experience this stage as a door into the work rather than a constraint.

Stage 2: The positioning conversations

Positioning conversations. Here’s where contracting starts to come alive for me because I am creating the environment in which the coaching relationship can flourish. They are about building trust and transparency, clarifying expectations, starting to model ways of working. And as I have observed from my practice there are up to three waves of conversations:

The first wave – Modelling the intention

First wave conversations take place before the coaching assignment begins, often alongside Stage 1: Agreeing practicalities. I have conversations with the sponsor (if there is one) and the client, exploring what they want from the coaching relationship – and what they might expect from me. These conversations are an opportunity to share and to model how I work, and crucially to check how this sits with the client. There are also opportunities to talk about my approach and credentials, to raise concerns and to add detail to the structure. And there’s an important chance to opt out if there’s a mismatch between what’s wanted and my skills, style or inclination to deliver.

The second wave – Setting the tone

The second wave of positioning conversation is the three-way conversation that ensures transparency – transparency around outcomes, the sponsor’s support for the client, client confidentiality and its limits. It takes place at the start of the first coaching session. There may be mismatches between what the parties want, for example. How might we hold these? What happens when desired outcomes are change? How will the client keep the sponsor in the picture? The second wave of conversations set the tone for my relationship with sponsor and client – and for their day-to-day relationship with each other.

The third wave – Co-designing the breakthrough

A third wave builds on the previous conversation. It’s a deeper dive into what’s needed from the work – and it can’t start without the careful relational manoeuvring that goes before. The client and I can now start exploring their breakthrough question – the question whose answer would change everything for them; gather key tales that inform their journey from family of origin to place of work; start to focus on what’s important, right here, right now…

 Stage 3: On-going alignment and realignment

This stage of the contracting process keeps the heart of the work beating and relevant. It’s there at the beginning and end of each coaching session, and weaves a thread through the encounter. It’s also there at intervals through the arc of the coaching, helping me and my client check where we are with the breakthrough question and our earlier agreements. I’m constantly surprised by the power of the simple question: And where do you want to focus? I’m surprised too by the knock-on effect of this explicit alignment and re-alignment.

  • A client who slides into discursive and enthusiastic narrative has started anticipating my interventions: I’m off track here or This sounds like a digression, but it’s relevant.

  • I’ve discovered realigning can take us to the heart of the matter – fast. In a recent session a clarifying Where does this fit right now? tumbled the client into an Of course! of recognition. Of course – she was projecting her life experience onto her staff.

  • And, best of all, the client who picked up the baton and began contracting with themselves. Let’s start with the elephant in the room. If I don’t, it’ll be hanging over me for the rest of the session.

The importance of starting each conversation with meaningful contracting

Patterson describes the topping and tailing of a session beautifully, in writing about Shaping a session (p102, 2013).

  • The conversation starts with a moment of settling into the space before extending an invitation, How would you like to use your time today?

  • Clarifying the intention for the session, What would you like by the end of your time today? sharpens the focus on the shift needed in the room. It also ratchets up chances of transformational learning (Hawkins and Smith, 2010).

  • And I love Carroll’s question for his client: What might we discover together that we might not discover alone? (quoted by Creaner, 2011).

Adding to this list I’ve my own caveat for the client who arrives at full tilt, releasing a wave of narrative as they come through the door. To avoid getting caught in the tsunami, I need to remember to help them – with that care, clarity and spaciousness – slow things down. There’ll be a summary acknowledging of what’s been downloaded and a playful, So where are you, where do you want to go with this…? It’s this question that I need to keep asking, a constant, subtle re-aligning that will keep us focused on what, right now, is most important for the work. It adds immense value by keeping the work relevant and immediate – and by releasing the client from the tyranny of personal narrative and the overwhelming choice of what to say next. And, as important, it stops me from making decisions on the client’s behalf. To quote Hodge (p17, 2013):

 In essence, the underlying purpose in contracting lies with our concern and care for the well-being of the client – his or her humanity, uniqueness, vulnerability and strengths.

My Learnings. A library for the birds and spacious, generous contracting are my gift to myself.  By dividing the contacting process into three distinct parts, I have created a structure that grounds me and supports my client right through our work together. This structure extends far beyond agreeing practicalities. Relational contracting brings positioning and on-going alignment into shared awareness and impacts the coaching in three ways:

  1. It helps us sustain focus

  2. It models the value of clarity in working relationships

  3. And it shines a light on what’s at the heart of this work: making contact.


To connect with Claire Sheldon via Linkedin


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


Creaner, M (2011). Reflections on learning and transformation in supervision: A crucible of my experience. In Shohet, R (ed) Supervision as transformation: A passion for learning.  London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hawkins, P and Smith, N (2010). Transformational coaching. In Cox, E, Bachkirova, T and Clutterbuck D (eds) The Complete Handbook of Coaching. London: Sage.
Hodge, A (2013). Coaching supervision – an ethical angle. In Murdoch, E and Arnold, J (ed) Full Spectrum Supervision: Who you are is how you supervise. St Alban: Panoma Press.
Patterson, E (2013). Reflective learning and the reflective practitioner. In Murdoch, E and Arnold, J (eds) Full Spectrum Supervision: Who you are is how you supervise. St Albans: Panoma Press.