Clear contracting plays a crucial role in both personal and professional relationships. People feel better when:
They make clear agreements with each other about what they are each going to do to reach an agreed goal.
They all do what they agreed to do and reach the agreed goal.
Keeping promises helps to build confidence. People are then more likely to trust each other and work together to achieve future success. The Red Arrows flying team say, for example:
“When flying together, it is not that we trust everybody will follow the agreed moves, we know they will follow them.”
There are many kinds of contracts. Some may be practical – such as legal or working contracts – but others might be psychological.
Professional contracts often involve people agreeing to follow a certain code of conduct on the way towards achieving certain goals. Personal contracts often involve people agreeing about how they will behave when living together.
Sometimes contracts involve signing a piece of paper. Sometimes there is a spoken agreement. Sometimes the agreement is assumed but unspoken. The latter can, of course, lead to misunderstandings.
Different people make contracts in different ways. They do, however, often focus on the following themes.
People agree on the goals to achieve. They then translate these into an agreed picture of success.
People agree on the principles to follow – the Dos and Don’ts – for working towards the goals. They also agree on who will do what by when on the road towards achieving the picture of success.
People carry out their parts of the contract. They do whatever is required to achieve the agreed picture of success.
Clear contracting plays a key part in educational, coaching and other professional relationships. Sometimes this contract is made extremely explicit. This is the case when, for example, a therapist is working with a recovering alcoholic or addict.
The therapist will make it clear that they will only work with a client if they want to be healthy and act in a responsible way. Breaking the agreement will lead to the end of the therapeutic relationship.
Sometimes contracts are made in a more informal way, but the expectations are still clear. When running super team workshops for organisations, for example, I start by outlining the contract to the participants. This involves me saying something along the following lines.
Clear Contracting For Today
The goals of today’s session are to
provide practical tools that you can use:
To continue to build a super team.
To clarify the team’s story, strategy and road to success.
To build on your strengths and make your best contributions towards achieving the picture of success.
To find solutions to specific challenges.
To do superb work, reach your goals and deliver ongoing success.
My role during the workshop is:
To be a positive encourager.
To provide practical tools that work.
To do whatever is necessary to help you to achieve success.
Your role during the workshop is:
To encourage each other.
To take the ideas you like and use these in your own ways.
To do whatever is necessary to help the team to achieve success.
Before going further I ask if people are okay with the agreement or if they would like to add anything to it. Sometimes they want to add topics to the agenda.
We also underline the basic rules for working in the session. These include telephones being switched off – unless there are compelling reasons why not – because there will be plenty of breaks. We then embark on the session.
Looking at your own life, can you think of a situation when you made clear contracts with somebody or a group of people? What did you do to make the clear contracts? What did people then do to carry out what was agreed and fulfil the contracts?
Describe a specific situation in the past when you made clear contracts with a person or a group of people and people fulfilled the agreed contracts.
Describe the specific things that people did to make the clear contracts.
Describe the specific things that people did then to fulfil the agreed contracts.
There are many different kinds of contracts, but this article focuses on three themes. These are:
Making Clear Contracts In Professional Relationships
Making Clear Contracts In Personal Relationships
Making Clear Contracts With Yourself
People often follow similar steps in each of these cases. As mentioned earlier, they focus on the following themes.
Clarity: people agree on the specific goals to achieve.
Contracting: people agree on the actions required – and who will do what – to achieve the goals.
Concrete Results: people carry out the actions and achieve the goals.
Making contracts in
People often enter into a contract when taking up a professional role. Sometimes this is made explicit by them agreeing to follow a certain professional credo. This may require them to sign a formal agreement.
Sometimes it takes the form of people making a verbal agreement to follow certain principles. The guidelines that people are expected to follow will differ depending on the task.
They may be aiming to climb a mountain, build an elite sports team, run an Accident & Emergency Unit, find a breakthrough medical cure or whatever. People can be given chance to decide if they want to opt into following these guidelines to achieve the mission.
Here is an example of a Professional Credo that was put together by one organisation with whom I worked. Potential employees were given examples of how this worked in practise. They were then invited to decide if they wanted to join the organisation.
Good coaches often use the contracting approach when working with people. They do this when encouraging athletes, learners and in other professional situations.
They start by establishing a clear coaching contract. Whilst the following process sounds very structured, different people use it in different ways. Doing this properly can provide the basis for building a successful coaching relationship.
The coach begins by inviting the coachee to have an initial go at filling in the coaching contract. The coachee is asked to describe:
The specific goals they want to achieve.
The specific things they see as their responsibilities in working to achieve the goals.
The specific kinds of help they want from the coach and other people in working towards achieving the goals.
The specific things that will be happening that will show they have reached the goals.
The coachee and coach then meet to agree on the coaching contract. This forms the basis for their work together.
“What happens if the coachee breaks the contract?” somebody may ask.
Depending on the situation, the coach may immediately stop working with the person. On other occasions, they may ask them:
“Let’s go back to the goals you want to achieve? Do you still want to achieve these goals?
“If so, what do you see as your responsibilities in working to achieve the goals? Are you prepared to do those things?
“If so, then we may have the basis for working together. If not, then that is your choice. And, as we know, every choice has consequences.
“If you wish, take time to reflect. Then let me know your answer.”
Good encouragers are supportive, but they can also be tough. They give people clear messages and are prepared to follow through on the consequences.
Here is the framework for the coaching contract. This can be adapted and also further sections can be added if appropriate.
Making contracts in
Good relationships often involve clear contracting. Looking at your own life, you will know the people who will do exactly what they say they will do. There may be others about whom you are less certain. Breaking the agreements can lead to breaking the relationships.
People often enter into contracts in their personal lives. Some involve both verbal and written agreements. These may include getting married, drawing up a will or making financial agreements.
People also make verbal contracts when living together. They agree on who will take care of the various tasks involved in earning money, looking after the house, caring for the children and doing other activities
Individuals also make assumptions, rather clear contracts, with their friends and loved ones. They develop ways of relating to each other that, whilst seldom spoken about, form the basis for their interactions.
They may get upset if others start behaving in ways that veer from what they expect. If appropriate, they may then try to rectify matters by talking about the issue and making clear contracts for the future.
During the 1970s I worked with both healthy and healthy families. This highlighted how clear contracting played a part in building good relationships.
Healthy parents, for example, were often positive and predictable. They were supportive, created a safe environment and encouraged others to develop.
Such parents also gave clear messages, however, about how people were expected to behave towards each other. People in the family felt valued. But they also knew the consequences if they behaved in ways that hurt others.
Unhealthy parents were negative and unpredictable. They often gave conflicting messages that caused chaos and confusion. As a result, other people felt scared and unable to develop.
During family therapy we invited people to make clear contracts about how they wanted to treat each other. Every family already had contracts. Some contracts were unspoken, however, and some caused difficulties.
One father, for example, told their 17 year-old addict son that he must learn to take responsibility and get a job. At the end of the session, however, they gave the son money to go and spend with their friends. The unspoken agreement was:
“I am going to tell you to take responsibility, but then I am going to enable you to stay in your role as an addict.”
Both parents were asked if they were serious. Did they really want their son to take responsibility? If so, it was important to make clear contracts about him looking after himself.
The parents agreed and, despite a few difficulties, stuck to their parts of the bargain. The son left home and stayed with friends. He was a survivor and, without resorting to crime, began to put his life together.
There are many ways to make contracts with people in personal relationships. One approach is to use the following framework. This sounds very structured, so you may wish to adapt it in your own way.
Sometimes the most important contract you make is with yourself. You may believe in following certain principles in life, for example, and aim to follow these, even when things get tough.
Faced by a challenging situation, you may buy time to think. You may then ask:
“What is actually happening in the situation? Bearing in mind the things I can control, what do I want to do? What are the real results I want to achieve?
“What are the principles I believe in following in life? How can I follow these principles in this situation? How can I do my best to achieve the picture of success?”
Peak performers, for example, make a clear contract with themselves about what they want to do in their personal or professional lives.
They start by clarifying their goals. They then do due diligence and clarify the pluses and minuses involved in working towards achieving the goals.
Such people then commit to pursuing their chosen path. They keep returning to this internal contract – which acts as a compass – when making decisions about their future actions.
Making an internal contract calls for translating ideas into action. A person may choose to get up at a certain time, eat certain foods, behave in certain ways or do certain activities. They develop a rhythm for doing these things and this becomes part of their daily life.
Some people make a contract with themselves to follow a certain mantra. A person may, for example, keep saying the following things to themselves (other people may follow other scripts).
Keep being positive.
Keep doing your best.
Keep encouraging other people.
Such a mantra acts like a personal contract that they aim to follow in different situations. As one person said:
“My contract with myself is always to do my best.”
Let’s return to your own life and work. You may want to make a contract with a loved one, friend, colleagues at work, a customer or another person. Alternatively, you may want to make a contract with a group of people.
If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.
Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to make clear contracts with a person or a group of people.
Describe the specific things that you can do to make clear contracts.
Describe the specific things that people can do then to fulfil the agreed contracts.