Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Contracts in Coaching
Contracts can bring up thoughts of dull, bureaucratic, stifling legalise, pointless small print only created to catch you out and an army of solicitors on hand to process it all!
I suspect that’s why many coaches, consciously or unconsciously avoid having meaningful contracting conversations: “Contracting? Can’t I just get on with the coaching?”
So let’s get clear on this, by coaching contract we don’t mean the piece of paper that says how much the coach charges, etc (let’s call the Coaching Agreement). Instead, it’s the conversation that ensures the coach and client get on the same page as to what the work is and how they’re going to do it.
That’s it. That’s contracting.
Yet, almost every coaching supervisor quickly sees that the coaching contract is at the heart of effective work.
Coaching contracts and supervision
So with that brief introduction to contracts, how do they feature as a topic in coaching?
In a sense, they are omnipresent – they permeate the work that coaches bring to us as supervisors.
However, they often become figural as an issue when the coach and client (and potentially commissioner) are no longer on the same page, or where they have lost sight of the page altogether and are wondering and wandering aimlessly and confusedly.
If coaching is about helping someone to navigate to a new place (whether that be an external, practical change or an internal shift), it has to be clear what the client wants.
In addition, what the client expects from the coach needs to be clear. It would be a jolting experience for a client to have a normally challenging and probing coach suddenly switch to a Kleinian Thinking Environment in which they barely said a word other than an encouragement for the client to continue. This is both the psychological contract and the agreement on how the coach will work.
In my experience as a supervisor, the majority of issues in coaching can be traced back to the contracting, or the incremental movement away from the agreed contract without discussion.
One of my most common questions in supervision is, “What does your client think the work is about? And what do you think the work is about?”
If coach and client are not working in partnership then the coaching and the outcomes will suffer.
Exploring the Coaching Contract in Coaching Supervision
As always, there are endless ways to explore any topic in supervision but, here, the first step is to notice that it is potentially a contracting issue.
The questions I shared above can help with this: “What does your client think the work is about? And what do you think the work is about?”
But you might also go straight to the question: “What have you contracted for?”
An Eye 1 enquiry might ask, “What is the client expecting of you?” “Or what are they hoping for?”
An Eye 2 might explore how the contracting was done, how clear was the process or the outcome of that phase of the coaching.
Perhaps Eye 5 will reveal that the supervision itself lacked clarity and the supervisor and coach might reflect on how rushed into the work, paralleling what was happening elsewhere.
An Eye 7 enquiry might seek to explore whether there is a systemic issue that is causing a rush to do the work versus getting clear on the outcome. Or it might start to surface a more systemic lack of clarity within an organisation or the client’s life.
(Click here for more on the 7 Eyes of Supervision)
The avenues for exploration are endless, but ultimately the coach needs to do something to get the work back on track.
Finding Solutions to Contracting Issues in Supervision
Almost invariably coaches know (or at least feel) when they are out of contract. They are confused, uncertain, probing randomly.
Finally naming that their issue is a contracting one can be a big relief!
So what next?
This will possibly depend on the coach’s level of experience.
A new coach might find a more informative approach on the part of the supervisor useful, benefiting from the sharing of contracting models and even having the supervisor role-model or role-play the process.
A more experienced coach might simply need to gain that awareness that there is a contracting issue and make the decisions about what they will do and say to bring clarity back to the coaching.
Sometimes the coach starts to see that contracting did not simply go awry in this session but that it is a wider problem for them, something of which they are frequently a little negligent. There might be a conversation around this pattern to explore the assumptions or challenges around contracting.
Hopefully, you’re beginning to see what a rich map of exploration can be laid out for the coach to journey through with the supervisor.
The conversation is likely to be a formative one but could also, potentially, be normative depending on the context.
Any Eye might be explored as part of the uncovering and any of Heron’s intervention styles might be appropriate to help the coaching in revisiting the specific contract or their contracting style.
One thing’s for sure, where there is a lack of direction in the coaching or mismatch of expectation, explore the contracting!