In coaching, it all starts with the contract…and I don’t mean the piece of paper

What a dull title! Yes, even I can see that.

That’s what the word “contract” makes us feel, isn’t it?


Small print!


Or is it just me that feels like that?

The thing is, somewhere along the line we’re conditioned to think of contracts as the boring bit we have to do because someone tells us to, and we then breathe a sigh of relief when we think we never need look at it again.

I mean, let’s be honest. Did you ever fully read through an employment contract? A property purchase contract? Your pre-nuptial agreement? (OK, I just threw that one in there to check you were still awake!)

But here’s the thing. In my experience of coaching supervision, I find that contracting is almost always at the heart of the issue my supervisee is facing. Somehow, the client and coach have ended up with different contracts — they’re buying different houses but they think they’re moving in together!

OK, so it’s probably not that bad but often it’s not far off.

Now before I go on, let me be clear. I don’t mean the coaching is going awry because of the piece of paper that says how much, where, when and how many.

What! You thought I mean that? Ah, so that’s why you think contracts in coaching are boring.

No, no, no! I meant the contract that is the sum total of the conscious and unconscious set of expectations you have about each other and what you’re meant to be working on together.

We might think of the contract being the sum of:

The operational contract (covering the nuts and bolts of how you work together in terms of payment, duration etc);
The psychological contract (all those expectations that haven’t been explicitly voiced but which are nevertheless expected by one or other party); and
The working contract (the verbal and conscious agreement about what’s being worked on, how and what a good outcome looks like)

Let’s take the operational contract as read. You agree the basics of how you’ll work, when, where, how much etc.

The real contracting, though, began the moment you met — as you and your soon-to-be client started to form assumptions about each other. These assumptions might be made conscious, as you discuss each other and the coaching issue, or they may remain dormant, unvoiced and at risk of polluting the coaching space. The psychological contract is the result of all that is unsaid but which is assumed to be true and thus makes up our implicit expectations.

For instance — and going to the extreme here — you expect your client to turn up wearing clothes and they probably have similar expectations of you. If they turn up naked, you’d probably feel an implicit expectation had been breached. Pretty obvious, right? Yet, there are many such things you expect which are much less obvious to the other person. Maybe, the client checks their emails while you’re coaching them on the phone (you hear the little “ping” followed by discreet typing); maybe they turn up late; or they don’t do the “homework” you so lovingly set; or they frequently get very emotional….

Notice that my little list here is pretty commonplace and perhaps you’re thinking, “well, of course they’ll get emotional!” But not all coaches do expect this and, for some, it might seem counter to expectation. A breached psychological contract.

Clearly, you can’t get all of the unspoken “stuff’ out in the open before coaching begins and much of what is pychological manifests in the coaching as the very material of the coaching —that powerful here-and-now work with the client around how they’re showing up with you.

What we can say is that where the psychological contracts starts to be felt as a barrier or problem, it’s time to make it conscious and move it to a conversation around the working contract.

The working contract is where, as a supervisor, I see most challenges for coaches. Whatsmore, the working contract, when it is unclear, or where it is not held in common by coach and client, almost always also impacts the psychological contract. That’s when resentment, frustration and blame, inadequacy, self-criticism and annoyance enter the space.

The working contract is the spoken and conscious agreement of where, as a working partnership, you are going. It might include the hoped-for outcome, the style of coaching you’ll use, the level of participation, the degree of challenge or support and more. Some of this might remain psychological since a client won’t always know how to voice how they need you to be at first, but as the relationship grows and once these conversations are had, it allows for much more honest, shared and collaborative coaching.

So where do coaches struggle wrong with the working contract?

To go through all the possible challenges around the working contract would take far longer than this little post but I want to draw attention to a critical area to focus on:

Drift—by which I mean the slow shift of topic over time. This is a natural aspect of coaching but when it is either not noticed or not discussed, it can often lead to difficulties in the coaching. The coach, client or both can feel uncertain, worried or dissatisfied and yet neither is talking about it.

For the record, I’m not in any way saying that coaches should bring their clients back to the original goal or outcome. I am saying that for the clarity of the work, it is important to check that you’re still on the same page together in terms of the overall purpose and journey of the coaching.

As an example of this, a coach I was supervising recently shared how he was concerned and frustrated because a client whom he was coaching on anxiety wasn’t making progress and he wasn’t sure whether his coaching was a) any good b) useful or c) even wanted. In exploring the source of the coach’s emotions, I asked about the contract for the coaching — what journey had they explicitly agreed they were going on together. It turned out the client had come to discuss her career options. Anxiety had shown up over a number of sessions and the coaching partnership had drifted in to working regularly on the anxiety as though that were central. Maybe it was right that it was central, maybe it wasn’t. Neither party had named this shift and the coach was left uncertain, worried and frustrated with himself. He hadn’t checked in with the client and was instead seeking more and better ways to work with anxiety. My suggestion was pretty straightforward. “Before you find new ways to work with anxiety, have a conversation in which you revisit the nature of the work you’re doing, what use the client is making of it, whether she is getting value, if this is the right focus…” and so on.

In other words, get clear and recontract!

Other areas that cause challenge in the working contract include:

Expectations of your style — have you checked in with how they’re finding your style and whether it’s what’s needed? Are you too challenging or too spacious; too goal focused or too unfocused? Of course, you wouldn’t ask in this way but rather through an open, exploratory converation.

Change of topic during the session — coach’s often feel they need to let the client lead 100% or that they should notice what’s really important and ask questions around it. Why not contract together and what’s emerging as figural?

The level of engagment or participation — you too can challenge the client and whilst I would caution against using contracting to manage client behaviour (use exploration of the underlying drivers or fears instead), nonetheless, you might explore what you can expect of each other and verbalise the sense of commitment needed

The level and use of information or tools provided — again, rather than ply your client with tools from cognitive-behavioural work or theories from TA, check in to contract for what they really want and need from you. Try offering informative interventions if they seem useful but check in on how they landed.

In my experience, so much of the challenges my supervisee coaches face can be dealt with through recontracting — open, honest discussions that ensure that the coach and client are on the same page, heading in the same direction, working effectively and collaboratively. Now, THAT’S not boring!

Remember, the contract is not the piece of paper — it’s the working alliance as understood between the coach and client. And it is essential to coaching success.