Sunday 21 February 2021

On Contracting

Sometimes a particular issue arises again and again over a short period of time: it is almost as if the universe is trying to tell you something.  For me, that has happened over the last few weeks with the business of contracting. In a number of supervisory conversations, I have found myself thinking 'How did you even get into that situation?' and in each case, the answer was poor contracting. Likewise, in another conversation, a colleague had had a consultancy project terminated because the CEO's expectations were different from hers - not about the work to be done or the importance of it, but how it was to be undertaken. He was expecting her to have done stuff, whilst she was still awaiting his more detailed brief. Poor contracting! And again, I have had an intake session with a new potential coaching client, at which we got to know each other, and discussed his expectations and mine; but also what I needed from him for the coaching to be a success: not just chemistry, in other words, but also, and importantly, contracting.

Strangely this doesn't seem to be well covered in the coaching and supervision literature, or training, that I have encountered. Instead, I go to Peter Block's great book, Flawless Consulting, (about which I have blogged before, on more than one occasion: see here, for example).

Block states that a contract is an explicit agreement of what the consultant and client expect from each other, and how they are going to work together. So this is not so much about the legal aspects of contracting (though they are important) as about all the other aspects.

And Block provides a lot of clarity, as ever. The business of the contracting phase, as he sees it is:

  • Negotiating wants 
  • Coping with mixed motivation 
  • Surfacing concerns about exposure and loss of control 
  • Triangular and rectangular contracting 
Clearly, this is a conversation, and agreement and an understanding to develop, not simply a document to sign. Negotiating wants is perhaps obvious; though in my experience many consultants and coaches focus only on client wants and not their own.  That sets things off on the wrong foot, as it implies that the client is the superior in the relationship, rather than a colleague on a joint endeavour.  It also risks the consultant or coach failing to articulate those things that he or she knows are critical to success, such as the client's full engagement with the work.

Coping with mixed motivation is also interesting: the client both wants help, but may also want you not to be able to help; as if you can sort this out, when they couldn't, what does that say about them?

Resistance, in Block's understanding, normally springs from concerns about exposure and loss of control: so surfacing those concerns early is extremely valuable.

And, of course, there may be several parties to to the contract, not all of them obvious; so clarifying and addressing that is also vital.

And then (and this is why I really like his work) Block gets very practical:

The specific skills involved in contracting are to be able to: 

  • Ask direct questions about who the less visible parties to the contract are 
  • Elicit the client’s expectations of you 
  • State clearly and simply what you want from the client 
  • Say no, or postpone a project that in your judgement has less than a 50/50 chance of success 
  • Probe directly for the client’s underlying concerns about exposure and vulnerability
  • Discuss directly with the client why the contracting meeting is not going well, when it isn’t. 

All of which are pretty self-explanatory, but many of which, I find, people don't do - and that mainly because they haven't been offered such a clear framework and understanding. 

And that's all for now, as I have a conversation booked about some new work with a new potential client in a few minutes - so I may be able to put all this wisdom into practice, once more.


With thanks to  Cytonn Photography and Christina @ for sharing their photography on Unsplash

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