When Things Aren't Going Well
A big part of life is dealing with others. In business we talk about stakeholders - your peers, your team, your boss and their peers, other teams and departments, suppliers, customers, external agencies - but they exist just as readily in life outside work as they do in the workplace - family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues - and they're a regular area of challenge that clients bring to coaching sessions, both individual and team.
Invariably, when stakeholders become the topic of a coaching session, its very seldom because things are going well in that relationship. That does happen from time to time, but it is rare. More often than not, they come up because things are not good and the client is feeling upset, angry, frustrated, undervalued, misunderstood or perhaps just struggling to get things done. Sometimes it feels to the client like no matter what they do, they can't please their stakeholder. Often it's been a gradual erosion of the relationship, but occasionally one side or other might have done something specific that's caused a significant rift.
In my coaching, every relationship starts out with a chemistry session, to understand whether the client and I are likely to be able to form a productive coaching relationship. That's important because more often than not, the client comes to me with a challenge they are facing or an area of their life they wish to improve and they want to know that we're likely to be able to build a relationship and create an environment which will support the overcoming of that challenge or the achievement of that goal. Equally, I as the coach want to ensure that the client is in a place where they genuinely want to achieve that goal, and that coaching is the most appropriate support to enable them to do that. After chemistry, we move onto contracting.
Contracting is one of the most important things we do as coaches. Ultimately, it sets the foundation for everything that transpires in sessions with our clients and, when it's done well, it allows us to to ensure that we both enter into the partnership with our eyes open and minimises surprises which might negatively affect our relationship. We will speak about everything from the number, frequency and duration of sessions, the overarching challenge or challenges that the client is looking to work on and how they'll measure success, the level of support/challenge which is right and appropriate for them, their previous experience of coaching (if any) and how they do and don't like to be coached, as well as some more mechanical aspects such as the cost, payment and cancellation terms for the sessions. By the end of a good contracting session, we have clearly defined the roles and responsibilities for the relationship and while we leave many of these aspects open to revisit and review at a later date (for example if the client feels that more or less challenge would be valuable for them at a certain time), we both know where we stand and have something to call back upon later to check the direction of travel is still appropriate.
Like all aspects of coaching, it took me time to get comfortable at contracting and to be able to do it smoothly and effectively. In my early years of coaching, I barely did it at all and wasn't really clear on the value, because I was working as an internal coach and my clients were assigned to me, rather than having come to me proactively. Once I implemented and worked on it, however, it became clear that many of the niggles which I'd encountered in my coaching relationships went away and it was a lack of clear contracting which had been at their root. Coaching relationships which drifted on aimlessly over months and years. Clients who expected me to do things which sit outwith the realms of coaching relationship. Cancellations, based on the fact that the client knew there was another session already in diary and so this one didn't feel particularly important. All of these things improved once I became competent at contracting.
When I work with leaders on stakeholder management, which is often at the core of their challenges or frustrations, contracting and re-contracting is something that I strongly advocate. At the outset of a new relationship, we're often to keen to get into the work or too busy to stop and set the parameters of the relationship, but doing so will save both parties so much effort and grief down the line. Have a conversation about what each of you do and what you don't do. What your goals are in relation to the piece of work and the support you require from one another. How you like to be communicated with (the frequency, format, whether you like detail or big picture, etc). Who you're beholden to and what they expect from you. Getting all of this stuff out on the table up front ensures that you've got a much higher likelihood of building a productive working relationship
Often, however, the leaders I speak to are already in a long standing relationship that isn't serving them well and where they didn't contract up front. In that case, why not do some re-contracting? Rather than letting things continue to slide and frustrate you, acknowledge that things could be better and seek to improve them. Draw a line in the sand and seek to put things right. And if it seems awkward or clunky, you can say something like this:
"I was reading a blog today by an extremely handsome and wise leadership consultant and coach all about contracting and I was reflecting on my working relationships. When I thought about ours, I recognised that we've never taken the time to sit down and make sure that it's as effective as possible for both of us and I wanted to take this opportunity to spend some time together and talk about how we work together, what's working for each of us and where we can be even more effective. I'm really keen to make sure my stakeholders get the best of me and that I get the best of them. When would be best for you to catch up?"
Just by showing you care about making sure a relationship is great, you're signalling to the other party that they matter to you and that alone will go some way to making things better.
Of course, when the conversation happens, you need to be prepared for feedback on things that aren't going so well or things you've done that have annoyer them, but without knowing what you're doing that's frustrating the other party, you have little chance of rectifying it. Prepare in advance with a list of four things:
What the other party is doing that is really working for you (please continue/do more!)
What the other party is doing that is not working for you (please stop!)
What they're not currently doing that could help you (please start!)
How they're doing it (their style or approach)
You don't need to call it contracting or re-contracting if it feels a bit formal to you. You don't have to call it anything if you don't want to. But by doing it, you'll give yourself and your stakeholders a fighting chance of putting things right and you'll be AMAZED at the impact that has on your experience at work! Try it at home too. Instead of carrying your frustration and disappointment around with you, turn it into something proactive!
Who in your life would it benefit from refreshing your relationship with? Get stuck in and let me know how you get on!