Shape your own contract

Two way sign

If I say the word “contract” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A dry ream of paper covered in opaque legal lingo in size 9 font, perhaps? It’s fair to say that contracts have a bad name for some pretty good reasons. As a consumer we’ve grown to treat contracts with anything from apathy through to scepticism. Do you absentmindedly click ‘accept’ without reading the tedious online terms of service? Have you ever reluctantly taken out an insurance contract despite being convinced it excludes more things than it covers?

Well forget about those types of contracts with their loopholes and long convoluted terms. We are better than them. Imagine a contract in whatever form or font you like that lays down the foundation for a successful relationship that helps enhance your life. That’s the role that ‘contracting’ plays in a coaching relationship. Your first coaching session is where we define how we can work together to help you make the changes you desire. That means:

  • knowing from the start what coaching is and what it isn’t
  • understanding your coach’s style and how they will use permission and feedback with you
  • exploring the essential conditions you need in place to work with your coach – from practical times and locations, through to behaviours that are important to build your trust
  • reflecting on how you’d like to be coached in the difficult times, based on your past experiences
  • clarifying the professional standards you can expect from your coach including issues of confidentiality

It’s invaluable as a coach and a coachee, so why don’t we have more upfront discussions like this in other areas of our life? I’m reminded of this article by Charles Handy I read several years ago on the secrets to a long and happy marriage. As newlyweds, Charles and his wife Elizabeth were swept along by the flow of life. They didn’t stop to draw breath and have that chat about what they each wanted out of their life together. Children? A career? To live abroad? To build their own house? To start their own business? Reflecting on his marriage of over 50 years, he recognises that “every relationship is based around an implicit contract, a balance of expectations. Unless these are spelled out, misunderstandings are inevitable.” And these misunderstandings are evident across the agony aunt columns of newspapers and magazine: “I want a child but my partner doesn’t – should I leave?” “I’ve supported my partner’s career for years, when is it my turn?”. The truth is it is remarkably easy to end up tagging along on someone else’s ride feeling like you got a poor deal if you don’t have an honest discussion about what’s important to you at the start.

Of course life is dynamic not static. Handy quips,“I sometimes say, half seriously, when others are talking of their second or third marriages, that I, too, am on my third marriage. But, in my case, they have all been to the same woman – and that has made all the difference.” It’s the frequent revision of whether their contract continues to meet both their needs that has really made all the difference for Mr and Mrs Handy. By having the ‘contracting’ discussion at the start of any significant personal or professional relationship, you can explicitly agree your expectations at day 1. Moreover you set a precedent within that relationship. A channel of communication is opened up and, if nurtured over the days or decades ahead, it’ll be there ready to renegotiate your contract to fit your changing circumstances. Stuffy, waffly written contracts might help you split your finances and the CD collection if the worst should happen, but is this really the best type of contract to shape your life?

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