Contracting for Supervision (supervisor's perspective)
Coaches and supervisors often talk about a ‘chemistry check’ meeting as the necessary prelude to deciding to work with someone. That is completely understandable, and indeed a very good idea. The quality of relationship is a foundation of successful work together, and if the initial indicators are that they will not be able to establish a good working relationship, then it is valuable for both parties to recognise that early, and agree not to proceed.
But the term ‘chemistry check’ may conceal the process that will help us to reach that understanding. For the question is not Do we like each other? Rather it is Can we work productively together? And the process that will establish that, and lay much more secure foundations for the work, is contracting.
From Peter Block’s insights in Flawless Consulting, we learn that a contract is an explicit agreement of what the supervisor and the coach expect from each other, and how they are going to work together. So this is not so much about the legal aspects of contracting (though they are important) as about all the other aspects. Block’s work is predicated on the notion of equality in the relationship: the assumption that the most effective way to achieve real change is for both parties to take an equal role, and equal responsibility for the learning alliance.
Block provides a lot of clarity, as ever. The business of the contracting phase, as he sees it is:
Coping with mixed motivation
Surfacing concerns about exposure and loss of control
Triangular and rectangular contracting
Clearly, this is a conversation. The supervisor and the coach need to discuss and agree, and develop a mutual understanding, not simply sign a document. Negotiating wants is perhaps obvious; though anecdotally it seems that many supervisors and coaches focus principally on client wants and not their own. That sets things off on the wrong foot, as it implies that the client is the superior in the relationship, rather than a colleague on a joint endeavour. It also risks the supervisor or coach failing to articulate those things that he or she knows are critical to success, such as the other person’s full engagement with the work.
Coping with mixed motivation is also interesting: the coach both wants help, but may also want the supervisor not to be able to help; as the coach may feel his or her status or autonomy are under threat if the supervisor is ‘better’ in some way.
Resistance, in Block's understanding, normally springs from concerns about exposure and loss of control: so surfacing those concerns early is extremely valuable. And a contract is only valid if it is freely entered into, so that is important to check, as well. If you discover that the contract is not freely entered into (eg in the context of group supervision in an organisation, where some people feel under pressure to attend), you will need to address that directly. You might decide not to proceed, for example; or you might be able to negotiate a contract with those individuals that they are happy to agree to.
Further, there may be several parties to the contract, not all of them obvious; so clarifying and addressing that is also vital. Again, this most typically arises in an organisational context, when a line manager, an HR professional and a coaching coordinator (for example) may all have a direct interest in the coaching. Clarifying expectations, and particularly boundaries, with regard to confidentiality and reporting, for example, is especially important here.
The specific skills involved in contracting (according to Block, though we have varied the terms slightly to apply his thinking specifically to supervision) are to be able to:
Ask direct questions about who the less visible parties to the contract are
Elicit the coach’s expectations of you as a supervisor
State clearly and simply what you want from the coach
Say no, or postpone a project that in your judgement has less than a 50/50 chance of success
Probe directly for the coach’s underlying concerns about exposure and vulnerability
Discuss directly with the coach why the contracting meeting is not going well, when it isn’t.
To these, we would add:
respond to the coach’s expectations, and make clear the kinds of processes, interventions and practices that the coach may expect you to use in the work
discuss your philosophy of coaching and supervision
be very clear about boundaries and confidentiality
explore the coach’s experience of supervision and of learning
All of these are fairly self-explanatory, but some of them, it seems (again, anecdotally) people don't do - perhaps because they haven't been offered such a clear framework and understanding.
When discussing goals for supervision, Charlotte Sills' framework, in Contracts for Counselling, is very helpful. Sills suggests two variables to consider: the ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ of the goals, and the individual’s level of self-understanding in how the goals might be pursued. The distinction between hard and soft goals is particularly helpful. Hard goals are objective and observable: the kind of goals which everyone can see, and which can be ticked off as accomplished. I want to learn and practice three new approaches to coaching, for example. Soft goals are more subjective and often emergent: I want to develop my professional competence and keep my coaching under critical and reflective review, for example. Coaches are often trained to push for hard goals; but in supervision (as in coaching, in fact) soft goals are often appropriate.
These two sets of variables produce a useful matrix, which can help the supervisor discuss with the coach what kind of supervision may be appropriate.
Clearly, where the contract sits on this matrix may change over time. For example, a coach may start with clear specific ‘Hard’ goals, and on realising them, or even in pursuing them, may discover that he or she has a bigger, ‘softer’ agenda. It is quite normal for the contract to move around the matrix, as the relationship develops and the work proceeds, and the coach and supervisor together realise there is other work to be done. Having clarity between the two parties about that is very valuable.
For that reason, among others, re-contracting throughout the supervision journey is important. That includes reviewing what is working and what could be better, and what is changing for the coach, both internally and externally. Such a discussion will allow the kind of supervision to change as appropriate, and keep both coach and supervisor clear about what it is that they are doing together. And that will also nourish the relationship, which, as we suggested at the start, is foundational to an effective supervisory journey.