To Agree or Not to Agree—That is the Question
What serious thought have you given to the roles, responsibilities and rights that you, your new client, and perhaps a sponsor have when entering a new coaching relationship? The ICF Code of Ethics and Core Competencies both call on coach practitioners to establish a coaching agreement based on the requirements of the specific coaching interaction.
Every coaching agreement will include some standard elements (e.g., cancellation policies, length and frequency of sessions), but should also be tailored to the needs and preferences of your client. Questions to consider and discuss with the client include:
- How do you want me (coach) to show up and work with you (client)? (For example, push with challenging questions, hold you accountable, etc.)
- “Where” do you want us to work together? (Face to face, on the phone, when hiking, etc.)
- What cultural nuances or differences do we need to consider (e.g., hugging, clarity of words or expressions, practices, etc.)?
Written or Oral Agreements?
Neither the Code of Ethics nor Core Competencies explicitly state that agreements must be written. However, consider this: Many (if not most) of us have a difficult time remembering the specifics of every conversation we have. Even when we remember a conversation, we see it through our own lens. If a conflict arises in the coaching engagement, these factors can lead to rapid escalation, and possibly increase the likelihood of your client filing a complaint with ICF’s Independent Review Board (IRB).
As members of ICF’s IRB, we’ve seen firsthand what can happen when an agreement lacks elements that help bring clarity and understanding to the coaching engagement. Examples of some complaints we’ve seen are below:
A coach was hired to work with a client on specific professional goals. Over time, the client revealed that they wanted to lose weight to increase their speed in an upcoming marathon, when the coach—also a trained nutritionist—offered advice for losing weight. The original agreement did not address “advice giving” and how it would be approached. The client, who found the advice unhelpful, filed a complaint for breach of agreement.
A coach was consulting with a marketing team on a project unrelated to coaching. To better support them in their project, the coach offered to provide coaching. The new coaching agreement only identified team members as a group in the coaching relationship. Most team members failed to see any benefits from coaching, and the coaching and consulting relationships unraveled as a result. One team member filed a complaint based on her lack of satisfaction with the coaching process.
A coach was hired to provide 10 hours of prepaid Mentor Coaching by the end of the year. This timeline was included in the written coaching agreement. With holiday obligations, the coach and client realized they would not be able to complete the agreement by year’s end. They verbally agreed to resume in the new year, at which time the coach would contact the client. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the coach did not follow up. When the client attempted to contact them, they did not respond. With no further communication, the client filed a complaint stating the agreement was not fulfilled.
- Explore expectations of all parties at the beginning of any relationship to ensure clarity and understanding
- Never assume your client will be as knowledgeable about coaching agreements as you are. Take time to explore details of the agreement with your client and invite them to contribute
- Keep in mind that things change. The agreement should include wording about the possibility of future revisions should unforeseen changes occur and that such changes will only be made when agreed to by both parties. The need to revise the existing, or create a new, agreement is ever-present during the lifetime of the engagement. For example: If additional coaching services are requested upon completion of this current agreement, coaching is available and will be designed with the client regarding updated goals, session length and frequency. Standard fees apply to any extended coaching services
- Respect your own boundaries and clearly state this in your expectations of the client in all agreements
- Consider other items that may be relevant to the agreement, such as when coaching may no longer be the right and/or only support service needed. For example, if coaching helps the client recognize they have unresolved issues from their past, the client could work with a therapist to deepen their understanding of these issues while continuing to focus on other goals during coaching
All of us enter every relationship with expectations. Understanding the expectations of all involved and honoring them through a well-crafted agreement can serve all parties and help you avoid misunderstandings. The agreement serves as a reference point that reflects understanding from the outset. It can provide a foundation for common ground where conflict is resolved without the need for the client to escalate concerns.
© Janine A. Schindler, MCC, and Kathy Taberner, PCC
Janine and Kathy, excellent article on the importance of a customize coaching agreement! Thank you both.
Thank you for writing this article and for the examples you shared of challenges coaches have faced in the past.
I’m curious to know how other coaches approach contracting with individual coachees on corporate engagements where the company coaching agreement was signed with HR, a team leader, or other executive.
In the past I’ve gone over basics with each coachee verbally but am now thinking this should be in writing. I suspect I could encounter problems with the corporation sourcing department were I to make any individual contracts which haven’t been “approved” centrally.
Thanks for a thought-provoking article. I find it interesting to see in the examples that complaints were filed both when there was a written agreement and then there was not. The importance of the ongoing management of what has been promised and what the client expects of us (what they have listened as a promise even if you believe you did not promise it) cannot be underestimated.
Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking article (blog). I wonder about the usual duration of a coaching agreement? This seems even more important if the sponsor is an HR entity. I think the articulation of a specific but simple agreement is the approach otherwise it seems contractual agreements would need to be much more inclusive of all the possibilities for disagreement.
Thank you for that insight. I have been wondering when the coaching agreement should be verbal or written. It would be interesting to know from which country the complaints came. Coming from three different cultures, I have observed differences in “complaining”. Some cultures are really good at filing complaints whereas other cultures are more about complaining quietly to themselves but not taking action.