“Of course, you need a coaching agreement”, I am almost hearing you scream when you read the header of the text. But do you? Who actually needs a coaching agreement? The client? The coach? Both? Or maybe nobody except assessors of coaching conversations?
The International Coaching Federation went through a thorough process of a job analysis in order to update their core competencies of coaching. In the new competencies we read:

B. Co-Creating the Relationship
3. Establishes and Maintains Agreements
Definition: Partners with the client and relevant stakeholders to create clear agreements about the coaching relationship, process, plans and goals. Establishes agreements for the overall coaching engagement as well as those for each coaching session.
(www.coachfederation.org)

So, from what angles do coaching agreements make sense?

1) Creating clarity for coaching in an organizational context:

When you are coaching in an organizational context, and the organization pays you to coach a client, it makes sense to agree up front what is within the scope of the coaching conversations and what isn’t. The most telling example here is when a client potentially wants you to help them apply for a job outside of the organization that is paying you for the coaching, and the organization has not agreed that this is within the scope of the coaching contract. If you did not have that understanding and you coached someone on leaving the company, the company would basically be investing money for nothing. To prevent that it is really helpful to start the contract with a coaching agreement which delineates both the goals of the organization and the client. A coaching agreement like this also prevents the organization from becoming too nosy, and wanting to know the content of the coaching conversation (would you obviously cannot share) because they are sure that the topics covered will be to everyone’s benefit.

2) Helping the client and coach structure the conversation:

A coaching agreement creates clarity on what the conversation is about, what the client would like to achieve, what is important to him or her about the topic and what the client would like to talk about. When a different topic appears in the coaching conversation, both client and coach can check whether they are still on track, whether the new topic is more important than the old and which topic to pursue. A coaching agreement helps the client to make conscious choices on the direction of the conversation.

3) Creating the coaching agreement already helps clients move forward:

In Solution Focused coaching, the coach helps clients to identify a goal of the conversation that they can describe as the presence of something and not as the absence (e.g. “I want to stop procrastinating” isn’t really a good coaching goal, a good coach would ask what the client would like instead). The goal should be something that the client can influence (e.g. “my boss needs to change” is not a very good coaching goal) and something that is important to the client and that will make the difference to the client’s life.
When a client finds out what they want instead of what they don’t want, what they can influence and what they cannot influence and what is important to them, they usually are much closer to what they want to achieve than before. The coaching agreement is not something that happens before the actual coaching. When you are inviting the client to think about the outcome they want from the session, you are already coaching!

4) Helping the client recognize when they are making a step forward
If you help the client define how they will recognize progress (measures of success in the ICF PCC markers), it will be easier for them to notice when they are moving forward. When clients focus on the progress they are making, they will know quickly whether what they are experimenting with is working or not. If they do recognize progress, it is easier to do more of what is working. Taking one step after the other in a desired direction is so much more motivating then getting away from something. A growth mindset is supported: “I am progressing, I am learning!” rather than: “I am a failure, why have I not gotten this earlier?”

So, are they really angles from which a coaching agreement makes no sense?

Personally, I think there are. We don’t really know where a coaching conversation (or any conversation) is going to go. Conversations are emergent and more like a dance than a military march to a destination. In narrative therapy, for example, the therapist will simply go along with what the client starts talking about without inviting them to think of an outcome at the beginning of the session. The therapist then listens closely to the implicit and explicit intentions of the client. At every step of the way therapist and client decide together where the conversation is going to go.
Recently, I observed two beautiful coaching sessions in which the clients simply wanted to describe how they are making sense of their experience. There wasn’t an intention for a first step or an outcome, the desire was simply to talk about an issue and look at what meaning emerged. Both Solution Focused hardliners and the International coaching Federation’s assessors would probably have suggested to the coach to insist on eliciting the client’s best hopes from what could come out of the session in the beginning. I was in the lucky situation of having both client and coach present for the mentoring session on those recordings. I asked whether the client could have answered a question like: “Suppose you talk about the issue and the meaning that emerges in a very fruitful way, what difference would that make?” Both clients said that they wouldn’t have had a way to know what could emerge before it emerged.
So, do we always have to have a crystal-clear coaching agreement before we move on in the session? In most cases — that’s a really good idea! In all? I am not sure.

Do get in touch if you have thoughts around this issue — I always think good open questions are better than premature certainties.
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