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On the Sunny Side
Contracting the Relationship and Setting Boundaries

By Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron

Coaching can help business executives to fine-tune skills that are crucial within today's economic and market constraints. These include, for example, the ability to exert influence across organizational boundaries, to manage conflicts, and to create and articulate a vision. Coaching has also been shown to help leaders develop a clearer understanding of their roles and responsibilities. But perhaps most importantly, coaching can help new leaders deal with the aspects of transition, transformation, and change (Stout Rostron, 2009:61).

In order to make this happen, it is important for coach and client to carefully set out the boundaries for how communication is to take place. Developing the habit of both formal and informal contracting is one of the first steps in beginning to understand the dynamics of forming a coaching relationship and setting boundaries. The coach and client agree to conditions of time, space, fees, confidentiality, and goals. In contracting, the business coach agrees to a specific set of conditions.

Contracting the Relationship

The purpose of the contract is to open up the potential for trust between coach and client that is essential if the client is to trust his or her own self-exploration. As the agreement lays the foundation for the relationship, it must be adhered to in action for trust to develop.

The contract between coach and client sets out which services have been agreed upon and delineates all fees as well as the outcomes and deliverables that can be expected. The contract sets out ground rules for the coaching relationship so that both parties are aware of their obligations. This helps prevent future misunderstandings and provides a firm basis to deal with disagreements. The contract describes the relationship between the coach and multiple parties, such as the individual client, the client organization, the HR unit, and line management.

Objectives for the individual executive and for the organization need to be clarified, with boundaries made explicit in terms of confidentiality, fees, cancellation, and termination of the contract. Often in coaching, the contracting process is linked to the generation and fulfillment of outcomes. Contracting usually deals with the management of the process, roles being played, evaluation of the process, learning and outcomes, and exit clauses.

Another important aspect of contracting is the review of the contract when necessary, including termination or renewal. In any business contracting process, it is important to draw up the "marriage" and the "divorce" papers at the beginning: a bit like a prenuptial contract. It is important to specify the boundaries and parameters of the entire coaching intervention, i.e., how the process will proceed from beginning to end and how to terminate the process, whether at the contracted termination point or sooner if required by either party.

For example, last year one of my clients terminated the contract prior to the agreed upon period for the coaching intervention suggested by her organization. She and I verbally re-contracted together how she could manage her exit from the coaching process, how she would defend this position to her line manager and sponsor, and how she could negotiate re-entering the coaching process in the future when she felt more ready. This was made very transparent to the sponsoring organization. It is important that your contracting allows for this type of flexibility, yet keeps you within the bounds of your agreement with the third party or sponsor.

Defining Coaching in Your Contract

It is useful to include a definition of coaching within your contract, specifying how coaching differs from other helping professions. For example, "the services to be provided by coach to client are designed jointly with the client. Coaching, which is not advice, therapy, or counselling, may address specific personal or professional projects, business issues, or general conditions in the client's life or profession."

In our organization we use the following clause in our coaching contracts:

Throughout the working relationship, the coach will engage with the client in direct conversation. The client can count on the coach to be honest and straightforward in asking questions, making interventions, and facilitating the setting of goals. The client understands that the power of coaching is in the relationship between client and coach. If the client or the coach believes the coaching is not working as desired, either client or coach will communicate this.

Your Model as a Contracting Structure

A model is a metaphor for the entire coaching journey, yet embodies a structured process. The Purpose, Perspectives, Process model developed by David Lane within the scientist-practitioner paradigm (Lane and Corrie, 2006) can help you in three ways: to contract with the client, to structure the entire coaching journey, and to guide your coaching conversation. Out of the specific conversation about process can emerge the client's purpose; the way your perspectives fit together can help clients to achieve their purpose; and the process within which you will work helps you both to achieve the outcomes desired.

Essentially, to contract the overall journey, coach and client discuss the overall aim of coaching for the client (purpose) and what each brings to the relationship (perspectives). Coach and client then discuss and contract how the coaching will take place: timing, boundaries, fees, the tools and techniques to be used by the coach, and the way the client would prefer to work (process). They also discuss the overall results and outcomes the client hopes to achieve from the coaching intervention, results that need to be visible to the organization, including thinking, feeling, and behavior that the client would like to change (outcomes as a result of process).

As a rule, I start the coaching conversation with perspectives: "Where are you now?" "What's happening with you?" "What's informing your thinking?" "What are your reflections on your current (or specific) concrete experience?" We move on to identify purpose: what they want to talk about, what their needs are for today, and what key outcomes they want to achieve. Once we have identified what needs to be worked on, we agree on the process we will work with using whichever question frameworks, tools, or techniques are relevant to that process. At the end of the session we summarize actions, learning, and outcomes that have resulted from the coaching conversation.

Any model that you use for your regular coaching conversations can help you to define a structure and process and set boundaries for working with your client. However, the name of the game is flexibility and working to the client's needs, so anything prescriptive will only be for your needs. Remember, the conversation is about them.

Often when things go wrong it is due to poor practice on the part of the coach, perhaps from not setting proper boundaries (Ting and Scisco, 2006:19). Contracting and relationship building are crucial to the outcomes of any coaching intervention. Contracting is complex as it determines in what areas, and how deeply, the coach can work with the individual client, the team, and the organization in a holistic, integrated, and systemic way.

References

Lane, D.A., and Corrie, S. 2006. The Modern Scientist-Practitioner: A Guide to Practice in Psychology. Hove: Routledge.

Stout Rostron, S. 2009. Business Coaching International: Transforming Individuals and Organizations. London: Karnac.

Ting, S., and Scisco, P. 2006. The CCL Handbook of Coaching: A Guide for the Leader Coach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron, DProf, MA, is an executive coach and consultant with a wide range of experience in leadership and management development, business strategy and executive coaching. The author of six books, including Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2009), Sunny is Director of the Manthano Institute of Learning (Pty) Ltd and is President Emeritus of COMENSA (Coaches and Mentors of South Africa). Learn more about Sunny in the WABC Coach Directory.
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