Contracting, Meaning, Love: My Coaching ‘Big Three’

I’ve been trying to figure out the factors that have been present when my coaching has been at it’s best. Here’s where I’ve got to…

Earlier this year I spent some time looking back at coaching work over recent years. Part of my reflection was about trying to figure out what had made the best assignments better than the others. In this post I want to share with you the outcomes of my reflections – my ‘coaching big three’ success factors.

Looking back over my coaching assignments, some stand out more than others. They stand out both in terms of their impact, but also in terms of a quality that there seemed to be about the work. Something that seemed to contribute to that impact.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, trying to work out exactly what it was that led to the best results. And what it was that brought about that special quality. As a result I’ve settled on my top three ‘coaching ingredients’. They are Contracting, Meaning and Love.

I’ve been consciously working on each of my coaching big three over the last two months. Sure enough, it’s really making a difference. Let me share them with you…

the First of my coaching big three: Contracting.

Perhaps not the sexiest place to start but good contracting is undoubtedly a prerequisite for good coaching. Put a different way, a large proportion of the issues I see in supervision can be traced back to poor contracting.

When my clients have had the very best results, the contract has been crystal clear at the outset. The right people were involved. The objectives, mutual expectations and practicalities were clearly defined. When you have those, you have a solid foundation for the coaching. When you don’t, you risk a ‘looseness’, and can invite in all kinds of unhelpful dynamics. These can eventually scupper the work.

I know that this is fundamental stuff for a professional coach, but I can see occasions when I’ve not contracted as well as I know I should. Even an apparently small detail missed or overlooked can have an impact and can lead to big problems down the line.

Regardless of our experience, whether just setting out as a coach or whether we have many years of experience under our belts, it doesn’t hurt to refresh our thinking around contracting now and then. Is there something you can add, change or sharpen up on?

Revisit your own best practice and check out the latest publications from your professional body (e.g. the EMCC, ICF, AC, APECS or AoEC). Are you contracting at your best?

the second of my coaching big three: Meaning.

I’m referring here to objectives that really matter to the client.

Working at this does a few things. It tells you if the client really cares about their objectives. Do they really matter, or are they aiming for something they think they ‘ought’ to do? It shows whether what they’re trying to do serves a long-standing sense of value. It also reveals something deeper about the client as a human being. What’s emerging for them in their life?

Let me expand on the last point a little.

I find it helpful to see the objectives within the larger context of the person’s life, where possible. Why these objectives, and why now? In my reflections I wonder about a couple of questions that serve as a guiding light:

  • How will meeting these objectives help the person be more who they’re meant to be?
  • How will it help them do more of what they’re here to do?

Of course, I don’t want to just have a guess, so finding a plain-speaking way to talk about this is key. It can add a whole new dimension to the coaching. It’s also very practical in that it brings in a level of motivation, empowerment and creativity that goes a long way towards helping clients meet their objectives. And, it can help sustain clients through bumpy patches.

In the past I struggled to find the words to help some clients go there… this stuff can feel a little ‘woo woo’!

so, How to bring this in?

Years of trial, error and awkward moments have given me some straightforward questions that I now use in every single coaching session. I use them at the start of the session when reconnecting with the overall goals for the series, and when unpacking the session goal. Any and every client I have worked with for as long as I can remember can (and usually will) answer in a way that brings to life that deeper agenda. I start with something like this…

“If you can make a meaningful step forward on these goals, why will that be so important for you?”

Simple. But I sometimes need to ask more than once until I get to the ‘level’ I’m really curious about, so I follow up with another…

“If you can really do this, why will it be so important for you, given where you are in your life right now? And don’t just talk to me about work, talk to me about you as person.”

And, if necessary, another…

“So tell me, why will that really matter to you?”

Sooner or later you get you to the deeper ‘end’, as opposed to the ‘means whereby’. It adds a very subtle energy to the coaching and – in my experience at least – it makes a big difference.

the third of my coaching big three: Love.

Yes, I will allow myself to say it! And here’s why.

When I was struggling with a client some years ago, my supervisor asked me a question. “Can you allow yourself to really love this person?”

It stopped me in my tracks and has stayed with me ever since, in all my client work.

I realised that I was reacting to a human being who, like the rest of us, was trying their best to make their way in life. But they’d learned to go about it in a way that really wasn’t working for them. I wasn’t letting myself really hold them in unconditional positive regard. Or love.

My supervisor helped me to go way beyond just acknowledging how my buttons were being pushed. He helped me to open to this person with all their struggles, woundings and their continued efforts to keep on trying in the only way they knew how. There was a definite shift in my perception of the client as a person who was loveable.

This matters because…?

Things changed. Not just in my perception, but in the client (so it seemed) and without a doubt in the relationship. This person began to open up far more in our conversations. There was a new level of sharing. They were willing to reflect far more on their own part in what was happening around them.

There was a deepening of the relationship and, as we know, in coaching the relationship is everything.

Whether it’s a tough agenda (or client) or an inspiring agenda (or client), I always try to hold them in this way. And it has an impact. It’s as though the client knows at some level that they’re safe to share more than they would usually share, to be more vulnerable than they would usually let themselves be.

This isn’t spoken, but it seems real – at least in the sense that it has an impact.

Again, I’m mindful of the potential ‘woo woo-ness’ of this but I see the power of it again and again, both in my own coaching and in supervision. And there does seem to be magic in it.

So there you have them…

My coaching big three. Possibly different to your own, but for me these made the top of the list. Try them out and let me know what happens. Or if you’re already doing something similar and getting results, I’d love to hear!

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John Crossan

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash – many thanks!


Author: John Crossan

I help people and teams learn, grown and live their best lives and their best performance. For me, this is often about developing leadership - whether of an organisation, a team, or simply to 'lead' Self in our own lives. In practice, I help leaders to create outstanding leadership cultures and coaches to become outstanding coaches.

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