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Contracting for conversations


We contract for coaching, do we need to contract for conversations outside of coaching?  This was a discussion at a Challenging Coaching workshop on Thursday. There are many times when we coach 'informally'. These are conversations we have outside a coaching session and so outside a coaching contract. These conversations may be with colleagues, work mates, direct reports or friends and family.  With these conversations should we establish a contract that explicitly states the wants and needs of the people involved in the relationship?

With a formal coaching assignment, contracting is crucial; it is the foundation for success. A contract explicitly states how the coach will operate, what the coachee can expect, what the coach expects, standards of conduct, ethics, and the terms of business, etc. The coach will explain how they will challenge the coachee, how they will hold the coachee accountable and how they will provide feedback. In this contracting phase the psychological and formal agreements are established. The assumed is shared and becomes the mutually understood. On the basis of this clear understanding, the coachee can decide to work with the coach, or seek another coach who will better suit their needs.

However, things are less clear-cut outside a formal coaching assignment. Take the example of a line manager using a coaching approach when managing people. Here is the constant challenge of when to coach, when to direct and when to delegate. Feedback and praise will be provided as well as performance managed. In such situations the manager may coach in 10 minute bursts at several times of the day with different people. Does a manager need to contract around how they will do this, and if so how will this contract be formed?

I have worked with teams to establish terms of reference, identifying the purpose of the team, roles and 'terms of engagement' of how they will interact with each other. This team agreement, charter, or contract is hugely valuable. This may come after a period of change or as new team members join. It is valuable to revisit and review this agreement every 12 months; is it still working, is it still relevant, and what needs to change?

Once in place in a detailed form, this team contract enables a manager to coach employees on an informal basis within a mutually agreed framework. Feedback, development, performance management, progress monitoring, etc. are all aligned to this contract. There is validation and a mandate to act within agreed parameters.

Take this further, what about for people outside work, such as friends? Do we need a contract of how we will interact? Perhaps we already do, but these are informal, they are not written down but evolve over time. By the nature of friendships, people are free to accept a 'contract' in which case everything is on the agenda and the friendship will be deep, strong and close. Alternatively, if one friend does not agree with every aspect of the contract then the relationship will be more distant.

Friends form contracts with unspoken and instinctive boundaries around what can be said and done. These boundaries may not be clear but emerge over time as the friendship develops.  Boundaries can be checked by saying "I would like to give you some feedback" or "would you like to know what I think?"

With friendships there is a permanent freedom and a constant choice to be a close friend, an acquaintance or not a friend at all. In a work situation there is not this freedom. Friendships evolve over time, but if a new team leader is appointed, the team members have to accept that from day 1. If Jane is my line manager, she will remain so until one of us moves on. Because of reduced level of relationship freedom in the workplace, the team agreement or contract mentioned above is very important.

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