My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy, we train up coaches and consultants from beginners to advanced, from team coaches to consultants. In Team Agility I help businesses innovate more quickly than their products. I work with multinationals, family, businesses and startups. I’m a registered European Union startup coach. I still love my work after 35 years. So I feel very privileged and lucky to be able to contribute to better lives, better business this way.
Last time we said that “Contact” was really important to start with in executive coaching. Today, I’m going to talk about contracting. Contracting is really important in executive coaching. In the contract the client and I agree how we’re going to work together. Obviously, in coaching, you cannot guarantee a result. But you can agree what you’re aiming for, the steps you’re going to take, and we can hold each other accountable regarding the steps.
Eric Berne called the contract a “bilateral commitment to a well-defined course of action.” In that definition, you can see that Berne was very practical and pragmatic, he was focused on doing not on thinking or feeling, as the result of coaching. A well-defined course of action means that you agree step one, step two, step three, etc. to reach the agreed goals.
Within coaching, we’re really co-creating the process. The client has as much to say about that, as I do. They know their own life course much better than I do. I’m the guide along the way, who’s asking the powerful questions, and giving the feedback and helping them along with bits of theory, that will help them conceptualise their experience. The client is autonomous and equal, in terms of. In that coaching moment, of course, there is a difference in position because I am guiding someone through the process this time, but maybe next time the client will be my guide.
The importance of a contract is also that we shift the focus from problems to action. As long as people are focused on how bad their situation is, it’s really difficult to think about what you’re going to do about fixing it. Some people are really dedicated to “being in trouble”. Contracting gives them hope and direction.
Truthfully, contracting is what makes the coaching! If you don’t have a contract, you’ll probably have a good conversation, but it’s not coaching. Without a contract it is not coaching. You’ll have a great conversation in a bar, you’ll probably help your friend, but a contract really distinguishes professional coaching from having a good conversation.
Different Levels of Contracting
Contracting has different levels:
- Administrative: You have an administrative contract with your client, which means that you agree together the fees, the timing, the duration, the legal side, the copyright if you use any materials. Anything that’s more legal and administrative is in this separate contract. A coach can standardise that part. Do check it with your legal advisor.
- Professional: The second layer of a contract is called the professional contract. In that contract, we agree on the method, the action steps. This is your added value as a professional. The client comes with a problem, you translate and conceptualise it.
Clients will come with anything to coaching, that’s their prerogative. They tell you what’s going on in their life, and as coaches we observe, we interpret, we conceptualise. Then we think about what the smallest step could be to change. That’s the professional contract – the problem we’re going to work on and the steps.
- Psychological: There’s a third level of contracting, the psychological contract. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about it. Eric Berne used to come into a room with a client and say, “What am I doing here? Why me? Why now?” Those are really good questions to ask, because it focuses on why your clients pick you. The client picks you, obviously, on the basis of reputation, or the zero line of competency, but they’re also picking you on the psychological level. They’re hoping that you can help them. They’re thinking you’re bigger than their problems.
It’s interesting to figure out this counter-transference part of the contract: Why me? Why now? Why you Why now? Why are we working together? Do we fit into each other’s stories? And can we do something to make that explicit? That way you can turn the transferential relationship into a working alliance.
At the psychological level I have a metaphor that I’m working in someone’s Coliseum, maybe the dungeons of the Colosseum of their psyche. The client invites me in, that’s already a humongous privilege. And then at that psychological level, if they trust me enough, they open the door to their Colosseum, we go down the steps together, and there are tigers and dragons and lions, and where they keep caged their own little monsters. In that psychological part we’re looking to see if I can deal with their monsters together with the client.
An executive might come to me to work on organisational change, to help lead people through it. That’s a quite common question in my case. I make an administrative contract that is usually for 10 sessions, we evaluate at the fifth session, but I need some sessions to really figure out what’s me, what’s them and how can we work together. Usually after about 10 sessions, people reach their goals in my executive coaching and come out transformed at the other end.
At the professional contract level, coaching is both professional and personal development. Professionally, he might want to analyse the situation in the organisation, understand the priorities and test the plans of action. Personally, he might say he’s been tasked to do this change, but he feels really alone, there’s nobody around to help. That might be true or not. His personal development contract might include how he can find allies as the antidote to his feeling alone.
At the psychological level of that contract, this feeling of loneliness might have been with him for a much longer time, it might have been archaic, one of the monsters in his Colosseum.
And I have to ask myself: what does it touch in me? Does it resonate with me? And how can I work with him without confusing my own story with his story? And how can we deal with this explicitly in the professional contract?
I believe that vulnerability is a strength when you do executive coaching. It’s not you as a kind of avatar, going through steps that you already know. It’s always made to measure. It’s always a vulnerable process where you both co-create what’s happening in the coaching.
For those of you who are starting coaching these are the kind of questions to ask when you’re contracting, so you have some form of a guideline:
- What is the problem? Your client will tell you a multitude of things that are the problem, your task is to listen for the patterns and the silences, so you understand if it’s an incident, the problem you have to hold them in until they can think for themselves? Or if it’s something that’s recurring, a pattern and how to interact.
- What have you done till now?
- What worked? What didn’t work?
- What still needs to be resolved?
- What options do you have?
- What do you think you need?
- What do you think you need from me?
- How could we translate that into professional development goals and personal development goals?
At the deeper level, your task is to realise what story are they really telling you? How can you help them take the smallest step to transform their quality of life and quality of work? Try it out. Let me know.