The Clear Contracting Approach

Clear contracting plays a crucial part in many areas of life. These include both personal and professional relationships. Making clear contracts can provide the platform for achieving success.

There are, of course, many different kinds of contracts. Some contracts may be practical – such as legal or working contracts – but others might be psychological.

Professional contracts often involve people following certain guidelines on the way towards achieving the agreed goals. Personal contracts often involve people agreeing about how they will behave when living or working 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.

Clear contracting plays a key part in educational, coaching and other professional relationships. Sometimes this contract is 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.

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?

Clear Contracting
In The Past 

The specific situation in the past when I made
clear contracts 
with a person or a group was:


The specific things I did to then to make
sure we made clear contracts were:




The specific things that I and they did to make
sure we fulfilled the agreed contract were:




As mentioned earlier, there are different kinds of contracts. This section of the book focuses on three themes. These are making contracts in professional relationships, making contracts in personal relationships and making 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
Professional Relationships

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.

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 coaching contract. The following process seems very structured, but you can adapt it in your way. 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 towards achieving 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 achieved 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? 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?  

“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.

Making Contracts In
Personal Relationships

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 than 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 behave 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 my early career I worked with both healthy and unhealthy families. This highlighted how clear contracting played a part in building good relationships.

Healthy parents were positive and predictable. They were supportive, created a safe environment and encouraged others to develop.

Such parents gave clear messages, however, about how people were expected to behave. People in the family felt valued but 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 began to put his life together.

Imagine that you want to make a clear contract with somebody. Sometimes this will be relatively simply. Both yourself and the other person may want similar things. You can then agree on common goals and work together to achieve the picture of success.

Sometimes it is more complicated. People may want some things in common but have differences in other areas. You may then want to apply the approach described elsewhere in the book in the section on finding win-win solutions.

There are many ways to make contracts with people in personal relationships. This often involves taking the following steps:

To focus on a specific topic about which you want to make a clear contract; 

To, when looking at the topic, create an environment where each party feels able to say what they would like to do or achieve; 

To build on what you have in common – or focus on win-win solutions to differences – and clarify the real results to achieve;

To clarify each party’s responsibilities in working towards the goal and make sure that everybody has the same picture; 

To encourage each other and do your best to fulfil the contracts and achieve the desired results.

One approach is to use the following framework. This sounds very structured, so you may wish to adapt it in your own way.

Making Contracts With Yourself

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.”

Clear Contracting When
Taking A Professional Role

Imagine that you are on the point of taking a role in an organisation. During the interviews you established credibility by doing the following things.

You showed that you understood the organisation’s goals; 

You described the specific results you would deliver to contribute towards achieving the organisation’s goals; 

You described how you would keep the stakeholders informed about your progress toward delivering the organisation’s goals.

Before taking the position it can be useful to make clear contracts about various aspects of the role. Whilst you will be happy to be accountable, you may also need the required authority and autonomy to deliver success.

You can explore these themes with your potential employer. It is important to do this in a positive and professional way, however, rather than being seen as demanding.

Clarifying Your

As mentioned earlier, you will have clarified the results to achieve. Agree with your potential employer about what must be delivered and by when.

Play back your understanding to ensure that you all agree on the same picture. It is important to be absolutely clear about the results on which you will be judged.

Imagine that you take the role. Events can occur that mean your employer needs to change what they want you to deliver. Bearing this in mind, it will be useful to – in a diplomatic way – keep making clear contracts about the picture of success.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. Looking at the role for which you are applying, this invites you to do the following things. 

Describe the specific results you will be accountable for delivering.

Describe, on a scale 0 – 10, the extent to which you believe you will be held accountable for delivering these results. (It will probably be 10/10.)

Describe the specific things you can do to keep making clear contracts about the results to be delivered.


The specific results I will be
accountable for delivering will be:




The specific extent to which I will be held
accountable for delivering these will be: 

____  / 10

The specific things I can do to keep making
clear contracts 
about the results to deliver are:




Clarifying Your Authority

Clarify the authority you will have to perform the role. Make sure it feels like you have at least 8/10 in terms of having the power to act.

Authority and autonomy are intertwined, of course, and you may need both to operate successfully. One manager explained this in the following way.

“Several years ago I took a high profile European position with a stretching brief. Unfortunately I was not given the authority to do the job.  

“The company told me to implement a customer service programme across the region, but we were in the midst of matrix madness. Dotted lines abounded everywhere and nobody took responsibility. 

“Lacking direct power, I was supposed to use my influencing skills to improve customer service in ten countries. My time was spent circling in the holding position above airports, attending meaningless meetings and eventually becoming dispirited.

“Learning from the tough experience, I got a clear brief and mandate before taking my present job.”

If you wish, try completing the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the kinds of authority you would like to have in order to deliver the results.

Describe, on a scale on to 10, the extent to which you feel you will have the authority to act. 

Describe the specific things you can do to maintain or improve the rating.


The specific kinds of authority I would like
to have in order to deliver the results are:




The specific extent to which I feel
I will have the required authority is:

____  / 10

The specific things I can do to
maintain or improve the rating are:




Clarifying Your Autonomy

Clarify the freedom you will have to perform the role. Make sure it feels like you have at least 8/10 in terms of having the autonomy to shape things as you wish.

You must operate within parameters, of course, but you need oxygen to breathe. Agree with the employer on the autonomy you will have, for example:

To set the team’s goals … To set the team’s strategies … To manage the team’s budget … To decide who to hire and fire … To do whatever is necessary to achieve the team’s goals.

As mentioned earlier, it can be useful to clarify your accountability, authority and autonomy before taking a role. There may be times, however, when you feel that the original deal has changed. This can happen as events evolve.

You can then make new clear contracts with your employer. If you feel that there is not enough authority and autonomy in the role, however, you may need to make a decision.

If you wish, try tackling the final exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the kinds of autonomy you would like to have in order to deliver the results. 

Describe, on a scale on 0 – 10, the extent to which you feel you will have the autonomy required to deliver the results.

Describe the specific things you can do to maintain or improve the rating.


The specific kinds of autonomy I would like
to have in order to deliver the results are:




The specific extent to which I feel
I will have the required autonomy is:

____  / 10

The specific things I can do to
maintain or improve the rating are:




Let’s return to your own life and work. Imagine that you want to make a clear contract with a loved one, friend, colleague at work, customer or another person.

What is the topic you would like to make a clear contract about? What will be the benefits of making a clear contract?

How can you find out what each party wants? How can you agree on the results to achieve? How can you make sure that each party has the same picture?

How can you agree on each party’s responsibilities? How can you make sure everybody has the required support? How can you keep each other informed of the progress being made? How can you and the other party do your best to achieve the agreed picture of success?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you complete the following sentences.

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