The coaching journey — beginnings, middles and endings (and at times re-contracting)

If we look at the coaching relationship as a journey, we can begin to see that like all journeys, it has distinctive phases: the pre-journey planning, the beginning, the middle and the ending

This applies to the whole coaching journey; however, we could equally say that it is also a feature of each individual coaching session. When we take this perspective, it helps the coach to see that each phase requires some attention and may often require different approaches. My intention here is to offer some thoughts about the beginnings, middles, endings and re-contracting.

The overall journey – beginnings

Having coached and supervised for quite a number of years, I have observed the architecture of coaching relationships and I have become fascinated with how they are formed and what this can mean for the quality of the relationship and the success in achieving outcomes.

The following quote is something I wrote a few years ago when I devised an interactive game to teach the 7-Eyed Model* to coaches in order to support them in getting the most from their coaching and from their own supervision

“The very first interaction contains the seeds of the whole relationship.’

Monica Ross

What brought me to this conclusion was that in the course of supervising coaches and asking the question “how did you come to be coaching this client?”, I heard how the very first conversation with the prospective client already showed signs of what was to become even more apparent in the later stages of the relationship.

The Greek word “entelechy” means “code” — just as an acorn contains all of the code and ingredients to create an oak tree. Most of the time the challenges that arose were already present, albeit in subtle ways.

Another question that I tend to ask in supervision is “what gut level messages did you get, and possibly chose to ignore, when you first met this client?”

Invariably the coach will tell me that they noticed a sense of unease but were afraid to probe further, or they had a suspicion about a hidden agenda on the part of the coaching sponsor — but didn’t feel able to challenge in case it might threaten any future possibilities of work in that company. 

Individual Sessions – how we enter the space

I have learned to be curious about the very first words that a client uses when they enter the coaching space. I have found that when I listen with great attention, the first sentence, the joke or piece of sarcasm, the rant or complaints all contain a seed that link in some way to the client’s issue for that session and related to their overall objective.

My invitation to coaches is to consider everything as valid and be curious. One example comes from a recent session where I noticed that Skype was misbehaving and I shared with my client that there was a storm outside my window. She also spoke of the bad weather in her part of the world (we were both in Europe but different countries).  

I invited her to be curious and added “I wonder how this stormy weather might fit in with what you would like to speak about this morning?  The result was that she burst into tears and told me that it was exactly how her work situation felt right now – “stormy and disconnected”.

It surprised us both, and led to deeper contracting about what she wanted to speak about specifically and how she would know that she had got what she wanted. It resulted in a real breakthrough in terms of moving into a deeper conversation. The environment around us often offers clues to what wants to be spoken about if we are attentive and simply open.

One of the challenges in coaching, particularly when we have established a good level of rapport with clients is how to move skilfully from the moment of meeting and perhaps walking together to the coaching space, to a productive conversation, particularly if the client is enjoying the camaraderie and has some engagement or energy around the topic of conversation.  

As a coach, our role is to create the container for good work; to ensure that there is safety and structure for the client to explore their issue and to achieve a useful outcome related to their overall objective. 

One way I have found is to acknowledge what is present. If the client has been speaking about something personal that affected them on their journey to work (traffic, tube strike, etc. or something in the organization that is particularly testing right now) to say “I can see that this really is impacting on you /annoying for you right now, and given that this is around you, what is uppermost for you today?”

It doesn’t cut off what is present; it allows it to be there but also signals that we are both there for a purpose and we can move into “the work” more smoothly.

Beginnings – contracting for permissions

One thing that I still remember from my coach training was a comment frequently made by one of our trainers: “the contract IS the work”. 

At the time I didn’t quite know what he meant but I later made my own of it using a well-known expression in the Irish language “tus maith, leath na h’oibre”( pronounced tooce mah leah na hibra) which translates into “well begun is half done”. 

In coaching terms this means that the quality of the initial contracting conversation and the continuation of this conversation, supports good coaching to happen. I liken it to co-creating a good quality road map that will serve us well if the road gets bumpy or we lose our way.  

Apart from refining the goal until the client really connects to it and owns it, there is a lot to be gained by the coach if they take the time to check what permissions the client is willing to give in terms of challenge and in dealing with sticky situations, road blocks and vulnerability. 

  • “When you say you want me to challenge you, can you tell me what that would look like?” 
  • “What is the best approach for me to take should you find yourself feeling emotional?   

These questions are offered only as examples, and each individual coach will find their own way to express the same thing.  The most important thing is to take nothing for granted – if in doubt, ask the client. They are the expert on themselves and it is far better to check with the person in front of you rather than you retreating into your own sense of anxiety or responsibility while they sit there noticing that you have become disconnected or preoccupied looking.

Setting it up to work

In some cases, a client will come to coaching because someone else had a good experience with coaching, and this individual may have a vague sense that they too could benefit from it. In organizational contexts, clients can be referred for coaching as a way to improve or to overcome some deficit that stands in the way of  performance.

As coach, it is valuable if you can notice what you are experiencing as you engage in conversation with the client and as you seek to refine the contract. If a person is “sent” for coaching, there can be an  incongruence between the client’s need to simply tick the box and their actual desire for coaching. Resistance can also surface if the client feels that the required change is not in keeping with their sense of self. 

As we begin to build a relationship of trust with a new client, we are well placed to notice these signals and rather than feel threatened or less skilful, we can simply offer our awareness back to the individual with benevolence and curiosity.   I have been known to say things like, I notice that I am still not clear about what you want to achieve from working with me.  Can I check what it is you want to achieve?

If they speak in what I call “headlines” or vague language, e.g. I want to feel more confident, I invite them to tell me what they will be doing differently in their everyday life/work if they felt more confident. Sometimes the very act of offering someone your in-the-moment experience, without judgement, can bring a new awareness to them. 

Middles – the plateau

It can sometimes happen with coaching, just as with a physical journey, that we encounter loss of momentum or clarity where it feels as if nothing is happening and the client appears to simply be “going through the motions”. This is where the “roadmap” can be invaluable.

If we have already gained the permission in advance, we can simply be transparent and name what we are noticing, i.e., “It feels as if we have hit a plateau here — can we look back at our original contract to reconnect to what is important for you?”

This can often lead to a realization that the objective needs to change, and it can signal an opportunity to tweak the contract or to further refine the goal. It could also be a sign that the client is not in a place to benefit from the coaching at this time or that they might need to access another resource.

It is important to recognise that this is not about good or bad, and supervision can often support the coach to navigate these conversations in a way that supports the client to gain greater clarity for themselves about what they actually do need and to gain the courage to access the resources they do need.

Endings – every ending is a new beginning

Endings are an intrinsic part of life and each new beginning already contains an ending. Coaching is an empowering relationship and invites the client into a place of autonomy rather than dependency. I often say to clients that my role as a coach is to make myself redundant as soon as is feasible and useful. 

Clients find this amusing but they also recognise that this is healthy.  I have developed a habit while contracting at the beginning of the relationship to ask “when we come to the end of our relationship and if you were to meet me a year from now, what would you like to be able to say that you had achieved?” 

This makes the ending an explicit part of our conversation. I follow this up by referring regularly to the ending and by flagging it up a few sessions before the end is due.

As coaches, how we handle ending our coaching relationships is very much determined by our own relationship with endings. It can also have links to personality preferences such as “J” and “P” in Myers Briggs. The former likes to close off the relationship in a timely way while the other may like to keep options open. 

In organizations, the challenge for internal coaches may well be that they will continue to cross paths with their former clients and therefore it is important to create a clear and clean ending to the relationship and possibly to agree what form their future contacts will take. If a coach finds themselves hanging on to a client, it might be useful to ask themselves, “who am I doing this for? The client’s benefit or mine?

Harvesting Conversations 

Clean endings allow for clean new beginnings. One way to create a healthy and valuable ending for both the coach and client is to invite a “harvesting conversation” – this can be the last session or can be held separately.

The idea is to invite the client to revisit the key moments in the coaching from their perspective and to recognise the learning along the way – this may include the moments of stuckness and challenge which often teach us more than the easy moments.

This can also be an opportunity to ask the client for feedback and, if appropriate, a testimonial.

Re-contracting – a clean slate and a new level

When a client expresses a desire to continue working with us, it can be validating and satisfying.  However, it is important to check what the motivation of the client is in continuing the coaching and in particular with us as their coach. If we remind ourselves that coaching needs to be moving forward and offering a productive space to the client, we begin to recognise that, unless we do something different, there is potential for working within an existing “comfort zone” and even falling into comfortable collusion with the client.

My philosophy around re-contracting is that it offers both coach and client an opportunity to grow and develop within the new relationship, to co-design even higher levels of challenge and to contract even more deeply. I have created a process whereby I invite a clean space between the ending of the first coaching assignment and the beginning of the new one. This allows some time for settling and for reflection on what has been gained already.

During this time I offer the client some reflective questions and when they are ready, we set up a re-contracting conversation. I make it explicit that I am not assuming that we will work together, we both have the right to say “a very positive “yes” or a “respectful no” at the end of the conversation. This allows us both to be absolutely courageous and clear.  

The following are examples of questions that I offer them:

Goals / objectives

  • If we were to continue working together, what do you want to be the focus of your coaching sessions?
  • What specifically do you want to achieve?
  • What difference will that make to you? (personally?, in your professional life?)
  • If I were to meet you in a year from now and you had achieved these goals, what would you like to tell me?  What would be the first thing that others (family/ colleagues) would notice?
  • What did you find valuable/useful in our previous work together?
  • What would you like to change about how we have been working? (e.g. do more of, do less of, continue, stop)
  • Given that we have worked together already, what assumptions are you making about me as your Coach? (this can be very telling, because it lets us know if they expect something unrealistic)
  • If we were both to step up to a higher level, what would that look like for you?
  • What would it look like for me as your Coach?
  • What additional permissions would you like to give yourself and to me?
  • What is your favourite strategy for self-sabotage?
  • How might you let me know that you have fallen into this pattern?
  • What permission would you like to offer me around working with you?
  • What are your areas of vulnerability?
  • How would you like us to handle these moments if/when they arise?

Practical / logistical aspects

  • What level of frequency will work best for you?

Payment terms

  • Who will pay for this coaching? (self-funded, organization)
  • If the organization, who else needs to be involved in setting up the next stage of the coaching (e.g. tripartite conversation)?

Note to coach: if the coaching has been on a pro-bono basis and will now be self-funded, it is important that you charge an amount that is valuing of your work and sustainable for the client. This may need some reflection and some prior research on your part. My suggestion is that you charge an amount that you feel comfortable with — i.e. not so low that you feel a sense of not being sufficiently valued and not so high that you will feel a sense of needing to demonstrate your value, which can lead to taking too much responsibility. 

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