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Build effective lifestyle wellness coaching agreements

This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, Second Edition, by James Gavin and Madeline Mcbrearty.


Coaching Agreements

The second core competency, establishing the coaching agreement, is defined by the ICF (2011c) as the ability to understand what is required in the specific coaching interaction and to come to agreement with the prospective and new client about the coaching process and relationship. In this case, an effective coach

  • understands and effectively discusses with the client the guidelines and specific parameters of the coaching relationship (e.g., logistics, fees, scheduling, inclusion of others if appropriate);
  • reaches agreement about what is appropriate in the relationship and what is not, what is and is not being offered, and about the client’s and coach’s responsibilities; and
  • determines whether there is an effective match between his coaching method and the needs of the prospective client.

International Coach Federation 2011

Clients hire coaches because they want to achieve something. They have a goal in mind and they believe it would be more reliably realized with the help of a coach. As discussed when we outlined the flow model of coaching, it often takes investigation to get to the real topic that the client wants to address. Initial formulations of the goal may be expressed concretely as an objective of losing a certain amount of weight, running a marathon, or sleeping peacefully through the night. As topics are explored, something else may emerge as the overarching purpose that clients want to realize. It may not be weight loss as much as it is feeling good about one’s body. Perhaps an initial goal of running a marathon evolves into an objective of sustaining a high level of wellness over time. Likewise, sleeping peacefully through the night may translate into simplifying life so that anxiety and stress are not one’s daily diet.

Whether initial intentions or derivatives of these intentions become the focus of the coaching relationship, clients have something they want to get out of their investment of time, money, and effort. Coaches need to clarify what the client truly wants and then determine whether they can help. Assuming a clear topic is identified and the coach believes she is competent to help this client reach her goal, the discussion necessarily must turn to the specifics of the agreement: How will the coach and client work together? What will the coach do, and what won’t she do? What is expected of the client? What happens if the coach or client doesn’t live up to the terms of their agreement? Who else might be involved? How confidential is the relationship? How long will the relationship continue? How much will it cost? And on it goes until all questions are answered, all terms are agreed upon, and all boundaries and limitations are identified as best as possible!

The evaluation that takes place when articulating an agreement is ideally two-sided. Both coach and client are engaged in determining its elements; they are both involved in reviewing expectations and assessing whether the coach’s methods are appropriately suited to the stated goals. A client may have an objective pertaining to an area where the coach is richly experienced and knowledgeable. Based on personal experience, the coach believes that she can help. But the client has expectations that the help will take a particular shape. For instance, the coach will write out a prescription that he will unfailingly follow. Even when coaching evolves into a more commonly understood professional field, some clients will continue to arrive with expectations that simply do not fit the model to which the coach adheres.

Ultimately, there is a question of match or fit. Will this client work well with that coach toward the achievement of this particular goal? Will using that method of coaching be effective? Will this coach be able to work with that client who has this particular style of behavior and set of expectations toward a specific outcome within a defined time frame? An essential question about fit can be simply put as follows: Is there chemistry between coach and client?

Signed Agreements

We define an agreement (see appendix B) as a mutually determined understanding of commitments. The terms contract and agreement are often used interchangeably, though contracts are more official in a legal sense. We can agree to do something, but does that carry the same weight as signing a contract? That is not clear. The existence of a written and signed agreement doesn’t make it unalterable; rather, it provides a formality that calls for both coach and client to pay full attention to what they are committing to do. Elements of agreements can always be modified with mutual consent. Written agreements help clarify the coaching relationship and give it direction; moreover, they protect the rights, roles, and obligations of both parties and thereby increase the probability of a successful relationship (Gladding, 2009). Let us also remember that the ICF code of ethics prescribes that client records must comply with the law and that they must be maintained, stored, and disposed of in a manner that preserves privacy.

We believe clients benefit from the structure of a written and signed agreement rather than a verbal agreement. This gives them an opportunity to revisit their commitments and review the terms of the work they are doing with the coach. Signed agreements remove the element of doubt or question about what was said at the outset. In the first coaching session, when agreements are typically determined, clients may be preoccupied with the issues they are presenting and less so with the processes and terms that the coach is describing as part of their contractual working relationship. It may come as an unwelcome surprise when they are informed, for instance, that they have to pay for a missed session. The prevailing wisdom is that the terms and conditions of helping relationships should be agreed upon as early as possible (Brammer & MacDonald, 2003), and we would encourage that a written agreement be reviewed in the first session or that a draft document be sent to the client before the second session.

A signed agreement serves as a road map that provides general directions for getting from one point to another and confirms that both coach and client have explicit intentions to move in the same direction (Shebib, 2010). Contracts add to the clients’ sense of ownership of and responsibility for agreed-upon objectives and methods. An often-overlooked value of signing an agreement pertains to the specification of terms and conditions for ending the relationship. Coaching relationships are more likely to be time limited than open-ended. Having agreements concerning how and when the relationship might end focuses both coach and client on benchmarks of progress and the identification of probable points of termination or renegotiation.

Psychological Contracts

The concept of psychological contracts was originally offered by Levinson (1976). These are the assumed agreements that people often bring to professional relationships. Clients have rich histories of experiences with professionals and perhaps formal and informal helpers. Based on these histories, they enter professional relationships with certain expectations. Think of your expectations of teachers when you were in high school. As you moved on to other educational experiences (e.g., university coursework, professional training and seminars), how were your expectations confirmed or disconfirmed? And how did that affect you?

Psychological contracts constitute a two-way street. Both coaches and clients initially meet with separate sets of assumptions. Clients may believe that coaches have the answer or that coaches should make them feel better each time they come for a session. Novice coaches in particular often expect that clients are fully motivated to take on the challenging engagements of a change process. Coaches may assume that they will enable their clients to succeed no matter what. Clients may also believe that now that they are in professional hands, results are practically guaranteed.

The fewer unexpressed assumptions that there are in a coaching relationship, the better off both parties will be. Even when coach and client are clear at the outset about the terms of their relationship, behavioral patterns may be interpreted to suggest that the contract has been implicitly renegotiated. That is, the psychological contract may evolve differently from the written agreement. Let’s look at a few situations where this may happen:

  • Imagine an instance where the coach serves coffee at the first three meetings. What might the client come to assume is part of the working arrangement?
  • The client repeatedly shows up 5 to 10 minutes late for appointments and the coach always gives him the contracted 45-minute session. Could the client not reasonably assume that he is entitled to the full session no matter when he shows up?
  • A client answers his cell phone during sessions without comment from the coach. Even if sessions end at the agreed-on time, what is the implied agreement about calls during the session? Might they not be seen as taking precedence over the coaching agenda?

These situations all have one thing in common: People observe behavior and infer the rules or agreements. Regardless of what you say, actions often speak louder than words. Each time a deviation from the agreement occurs without comment or discussion, it holds the possibility for altering what was formally agreed upon. Over time, both coach and client may come to assume that their agreement is different from what was originally stated. This is not to say that agreements should remain fixed; rather, the parties need to acknowledge variations or changes explicitly and either define them as exceptions or incorporate them into a revised agreement that is then signed by both parties.

Most coaches have a standardized agreement. At a minimum, this covers the basic terms of the working relationship, and it may also make explicit not only the ways of working but also the boundaries of the relationship and its implications. Even in more detailed contracts, some issues may be missed. A critical skill for effective coaching is the ability to surface unexpressed assumptions and expectations that clients might have about the professional relationship and its objectives. Embedded elements of the client’s unexpressed psychological contract may take weeks to identify. It is important to remain alert to the possibility of a misalignment between client expectations and the realities of the coaching experience. When the evidence is clear, an effective coach will respectfully present her impressions so they can be mutually explored.

Critical Elements of Agreements in Lifestyle Wellness Coaching

As we have repeatedly noted, the client’s agenda as stated in the first session may evolve over time. It may become more focused or even more complex. For this and other reasons, agreements are not commitments to goal attainment within specified time limits. Agreements have more to do with the process and terms of the working relationship. There may well be an initial statement of the client’s objectives for coaching, and beyond that there would be descriptions of how coach and client will work together, responsibilities for actions, fees and pay schedules, length and frequency of sessions, and expected duration of the agreement, among other things. Some critical elements of a coaching agreement are as follows:

  • Meets the legitimate needs of coach and client; both parties perceive the agreement as fair.
  • Contains concrete, descriptive statements of expectations for both coach and client.
  • Describes arrangements for reviews of how the agreement is working and how terms and conditions can be renegotiated when necessary.
  • Clearly stipulates exchanges of resources, materials, and fees. These should be based on objectively justifiable principles. For example, fees, meeting schedules, terms of working together, and limits of the working relationship should be based on principles of professional expertise, industry norms, mutual respect, and scientific evidence.

Reaching an agreement requires great attention to small and large matters. As detailed as it may be, it can nonetheless energize the relationship by providing clients with solid ground for their work. It can be seen as a relationship-building engagement that strengthens the abilities of coach and client to work cooperatively and come to fruitful resolutions of differences.

Exploring the Components of Agreements

The coaching agreement should detail the rights and responsibilities of both coach and client in implementing the agreement. An important framework for understanding the elements of coaching agreements can be found in the questions who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Who?

Who is involved in the coaching relationship? It may be just coach and client, although lifestyle wellness coaching might include a team approach in collaboration with a medical doctor, nutritionist, personal trainer, or other allied health professionals. This variation would be represented in a multiparty agreement. In other instances, coaches may provide group coaching or may be hired by an organization that pays their fees to provide coaching to employees. In this case, the name and responsibilities of the sponsor are outlined in the agreement and the client is cleared of the financial element of coaching to the extent agreed upon with the sponsor.

What?

What is involved and what is not involved in coaching? What is contracted for? Exactly what services are provided? What are the boundaries of the relationship? What are the coach’s responsibilities? What are the client’s responsibilities? What are both parties expected to do to live up to these responsibilities? What are they expected to do between sessions?

When?

When will coaching take place and for how long? If a client hires a coach for one hour a week, the agreement stipulates not only the length of a session but also the minimal duration of the contract, such as six weeks. Another critical aspect of this question concerns when the terms of the coaching relationship might not apply. Clients may want to discuss their issues during unscheduled meetings or phone calls. Is this acceptable? How often and at what times are you willing and available to accept such unscheduled conversations? What is the time frame for responding to e-mails? Finally, agreements need to outline the cancellation policy. What is the client’s obligation in terms of cancelling an appointment? When can sessions be made up? What if the coach needs to cancel a meeting?

Where?

Where does coaching take place? In an office? At the client’s home? In a fitness facility? Over the phone? What are unacceptable venues for coaching (e.g., coffee shops, casual street encounters)?

How?

What does the working relationship look like? Some health, wellness, and fitness professionals may enact their responsibilities in a hands-on manner rather than while sitting and talking. What methods or assessment tools will be used? What training and certifications need to be signified in order to legitimately use these approaches and tools? How will clients inform the coach that something is not working for them? How will coaches let clients know of issues affecting the relationship?

Why?

Though this question comes last in this chapter, it is really the first one that needs to be addressed. Through the rapport-building process of detailing a client’s interest in achieving certain goals, coaches can begin to understand the reasons behind intended actions. Why is this goal so important that the client is willing to devote time, money, and effort toward its accomplishment? Too often, the why is assumed rather than made explicit. You may assume that an overweight client asking for guidance and support in maintaining an exercise program may hardly need to be asked why, yet the value in doing so can be substantial. Is the motivation coming from the client or from others? Does a larger issue need to be addressed while the client is undertaking a specific lifestyle change?

Commentary

Within societal parameters, people are free to choose their goals and to pursue them by legitimate means. When they elect to work with lifestyle wellness coaches, professional considerations and ethical codes define the range of goals, the types of processes, and the nature of the relationship.

For some people, goal statements resemble ungrounded fantasies. In working with coaches, amorphous intentions are shaped into specific objectives and ultimately described in contractual ways. Only in moving from abstract to concrete or from general statements to specific objectives can coaches fully understand what is expected of them and whether such expectations are reasonable and within their scope of practice. A core requirement is that coaches be completely aware of what they have been contracted to do and whether they are fully capable of the work that has been negotiated. This can best be achieved through ongoing learning, practice, reflection, and supervision. The material reviewed in this chapter will serve as an indispensable tool for your success as a coach. We have offered it as a guide for achieving high-quality coaching relationships rather than as a litany of arcane rules and regulations. Excellence in practice stems from a vision of your being of the greatest possible service to clients rather than from a defensive stance of guarding against malpractice.


Read more in Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, Second Edition edited by James Gavin.



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