What is the Coaching Contract?

On the coaching training courses that I run, a large portion of our time is spent exploring the coaching contract, but it’s not always clear exactly what that is!

Rarely is the contract a formal legal document, other than when the coach is contracting to supply a coaching service to another organisation. In this case, the contract includes the nuts and bolts of how the relationship will work (i.e. money to be paid, time to be spent, outcomes to be achieved) but these are not really at the heart of contracting in coaching, so what is?

Peter Hill states that contracting is ‘an explicit operating agreement that provides structure, guidance and alignment for both parties for the duration of the partnership’ (Hill, 2004). In essence, the coaching contract is designed to make sure that things ‘work’ – that expectations between all parties involved (the client, the coach and third party stakeholders) are clear and can be met. Having such clarity also allows for these expectations to be revisited if one party feels that the coaching is going off track. Contracting should also allow (amongst other things) for the relationship to end, immediately and without prejudice, if it’s not working for any of the parties involved. So how does contracting happen?

Contracting can be managed in a variety of ways and I have described three different approaches below; these are often used alongside one another.

1) Formal contracting:
In the case of formal contracting, a written document should be provided, setting out what the coaching is for (and also what it isn’t for, for example that it is not therapy), the basis on which the coach and client will meet (frequency, location, length of sessions, any time allowed between sessions) and how they will cancel sessions and / or the whole relationship. It may also include any intended outcomes / goals of the coaching and relevant procedural issues (e.g. what will be paid). This document can be signed by both parties or merely shared. Most importantly it should be discussed in the initial coaching meeting, to ensure that all parties are happy with it.

2) Informal, verbal contracting:
Agreeing the nature of the coaching to be carried out, be it one session or a number of sessions does not necessarily have to happen in writing. A good example of when this may happen is when coaching takes place on the spur of the moment to address a current issue, or when a manager uses a coaching style to support a staff member. In such instances, an approach which I have found really useful is the STOKeRS© model, which enables the contract to be established through an informal conversation, in just a couple of minutes. A good example of how this is done can be seen in this video provided by Claire Pedrick of 3D Coaching.

3) On the spot/reactive contracting:
Sometimes it is necessary to contact ‘on the spot’ during a coaching conversation. Perhaps it is unclear where the conversation is going, or how the topic at hand links to the intended goal / topic for the coaching session and the coach (or client) needs to check where things stand. This recontracting can be done with a simple question, some examples of such questions include:
“Is this helping you towards your goal? If not, what else should we be doing?”
“How would you like to proceed?”

These are simple questions, that allow both parties to check in that things are on track. There are many more that would be just as effective!

So, there are a range of ways to ‘contract’ in order ensure that all parties are in agreement with the coaching purpose and progress, throughout the relationship. In creating a trusted coaching relationship contracting can sometimes be skimmed over or overlooked altogether, but I would argue that there are a number of ways to do it and without this important factor of the coaching arrangement, difficulties in the coaching arrangement can become very challenging for the coach (and client) to manage.

Reference: Hill, P. (2004). Concepts of Coaching. London: ILM.
STOKeRS © 3D Coaching Limited

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