Coaching Mastery

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When we talk about Ethics, we soon find that our Ethical Foundations live in the agreements we make with our clients. Like these steps in a hiking trail, our agreements provide a path over uneven terrain and can lead us from darkness into light.

Morse Pond Stairway 2

Do you like to talk about Ethics? Probably not. Not many people jump at the opportunity. It sounds stale, pedantic, authoritarian and downright dull.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed that students in the Ethics in Coaching and Coaching Master Classes were engaged, intrigued and surprised by what they learned. They were grateful for the opportunity to talk honestly and openly about this important topic.

(By the way, my classes meet the requirements for the 3 hours of Ethics training you’ll need for your ICF credential renewal and I promise it will be the most fun you’ll have talking about Ethics!)

In these conversations, we talk about the challenges we’re facing with keeping client information confidential, recognizing and avoiding conflicts of interest, knowing when (and how) to decline or terminate a coaching engagement, and what information we can keep and what we should delete.

It soon becomes clear that there is some guidance in the code on these topics but the real guidance comes from the agreements we make with our clients. Agreements set the foundation for a strong coaching engagement. They support our ability to act ethically when challenges come up. But taken to extremes, they can feel out of sync with the coaching relationship we want to create.

These class conversations prompted me to think more deeply about the role our agreements play in the coaching relationship.

I’ve seen (and used) agreements that are on two ends of a spectrum. On one end is the “not-in-writing” agreement. This could be a verbal agreement that isn’t written down. It also happens when coach and client don’t think they need an agreement (perhaps they’ve worked together before or know each other well) and don’t even discuss an agreement before starting the coaching.

On the other end of the spectrum is the multi-page, many-clauses-to-cover-all-possible-contingencies, carefully crafted in legal language to cover the coach’s tokus. It feels like bringing a prenup on a first date!

Neither seems right to me.

Coaching is a business relationship and warrants explicit agreements about boundaries, expectations, and the rights and responsibilities on both sides. The “no agreement” option doesn’t honor the professional nature of coaching. 

The coaching relationship also requires trust, mutuality, co-creation and holding the client’s interests at heart. It often involves more people and stakeholders beyond the coach and client, who also need be a part of that trusting relationship. The long, legal agreement doesn’t feel aligned with these qualities of the relationship.

Given that, my next question was “What is the ‘just right’ agreement?” Of course, the answer is – it depends! It depends on the existing relationship, the context for the coaching engagement (for example, is this coaching as part of a training program, or individual coaching towards specific development goals), and other factors (such as who else is a stakeholder in the engagement) that might impact what you include or what you exclude from your agreement.

The better questions are “what is the purpose of the agreement” and “how can you best serve that purpose with a specific client?”

Consider this. The coaching agreement serves two primary purposes:

First, it documents the business relationship including the services the coach provides and the container in which those services will be provided, such as time frame, payments, meeting logistics, client goals, coach’s methods, etc.

Second, it sets a foundation for a trusting relationship, including clarifying what the coach and client expect of each other, what will happen if something goes awry, and how the coach will keep the client’s interests at the heart of the coaching. 

The second seems to require more thought than the first. In thinking about some recent coaching engagements I realized that I had to include some unique items in my agreements. Here are some things that I felt needed to be addressed to build that trust:

  • The coaching sponsor is a friend and colleague of mine, so I was careful to cover with client and sponsor how I would interact with the sponsor during and after the coaching engagement.
  • The client and I were planning to meet in a public place, so I added language that said I wouldn’t share information about the client, but I could not promise confidentiality and privacy because others could see us together and overhear our conversations.
  • I was coaching someone who was looking for a job in one of my professional communities. We had a very specific conversation to assure the client that no one in that community would hear anything about our coaching.
  • Because I teach and write about coaching, my agreement covers how and when I share stories based on our coaching conversations.
  • My agreement with students in my classes clarifies what information I keep and what information I destroy once the class is over.

I’m curious. Does this “framework” for coaching agreements resonate with you? Are there other things that you consider when you’re crafting and customizing agreements for your coaching engagements?