Imagine eating a lovely piece of carrot cake with no icing. It’s a good, well-made cake. There is a thin filling of icing in the middle. When we finish eating, we are full, but are we satisfied? There is something missing…

It’s a bit like that when we don’t have a really well-established session agreement (sometimes known as ‘contracting’). So, how do you make sure your coaching session is like eating the best carrot cake you have ever had?

What I am noticing is that there is some misunderstanding about what the ICF Core Competencies or the PCC Markers actually mean and what their intention is. I seek to clarify their meaning and reduce misunderstanding, particularly in this area of session agreements, which will, I hope, enhance your coaching skills.

For the session agreement we are looking at the updated ICF Core Competency (CC) 3: Establishes and Maintains Agreements, particularly sub-competencies 3.6 – 3.10. Notice that almost each one references ‘in the session’. Often a client will come with a ‘topic’ for coaching which is more wide ranging than what they finally need/want to explore and discover specifically in the session. However, coaches often take this initial response as the session goal. At this point, the coach ideally needs to partner with their client to explore the topic (and its wider context) and support them to gradually uncover what they ideally want to work on and take away by the end of the session, that will move them toward and closer to their overarching goals. I often refer to this as ‘funneling’ as the coach invites the client to expand, explore and then focus in on their specific goals and objectives for the session.

Recently, a coach I was working with visualized this as being like picking up a pebble from a stack of pebbles on a beach, discovering what was under it, picking up the next pebble, looking again what was under it, until the final pebble was lifted and a lovely hermit crab was found in its shell and waiting to discard that shell for something new.

This is the funneling process that can happen as the client gets clearer and clearer about what they want and need. The topic is therefore a bit like the title of the cake recipe (updated CC 3.6 /PCC Marker 3.1). It’s simply the starting point, and now we need to look at what goes into that recipe and what ingredients might be missing or need to be discovered.

Having established what the client wants to have with respect to the outcome, we could at this point simply go for what success might look like. However, once again, we can explore further. Sub-competency 3.8 /PCC marker 3.2 is about exploring how the client will know they have achieved something at the end of the session. Furthermore, how they will know that they have achieved what they wanted from the session.

  • How might they feel?
  • What is their feeling of accomplishment?
  • How will they know they have got what they needed from the session?

If this is explored too soon, before the session goal is well established, this inquiry may become mistaken for being the goal itself. In these cases, the conversation can become more transactional and not get to the heart of what the client really wanted to work on. In essence, these two elements of this competency are about gaining real clarity on what the client wants to work on and specifically take away from the session, and how they will know they have got it.

We can of course explore even more deeply. In order to find out what the client really wants to get from the session, something that will be useful and be the start of a transformation into the new sustainable behaviours they seek, we need to delve deeper into why we are having the conversation. Updated CC 3.7 and PCC Markers 3.3 and 3.4 are crucial for this. Updated PCC Marker 3.3 states: ‘Coach inquires about or explores what is important or meaningful to the client about what they want to accomplish in this session’. Updated CC 3.7 states that coach partners with the client to define: ‘what the client believes they need to address or resolve to achieve what they want to accomplish in the session’.

This is the start of understanding what is really going on for the client.

  • What has brought this topic, subject, challenge, desire to the session today?
  • If the client gets some new understanding what/where might it lead for them?
  • What becomes possible?
  • How does it link to another wider goal or objective?
  • What might they have at the end?
  • Why is this particular topic important or meaningful to them?
  • What are the implications of not working on this topic?

The key here is inquiry and exploratory questioning in order for the client to really understand what this is all about for them. Using future focused questions rather than simple data gathering questions will be vital (see updated CC7 Evokes Awareness).

By partnering with the client in this way, we then uncover the ‘real work’ that needs to be done in the session. The missing special ingredient required to make the best ‘carrot cake’!

At this point the coach may well go back to reconfirm what the coaching conversation is now about and how will they know they actually have what they need to make the ‘cake’ (updated CC 3.6 and 8 and PCC marker 3.1 and 3.2). The response around measures of success will most likely be much more explicit and clearer now than if asked too early in the coaching process. This reinforces the fact that establishing coaching session agreements is not a 90-second exercise. Demonstrating this competency well is certainly not a checklist of questions.

Having enabled the client to really know what it is they want/need to work on and what they want from the session, we then seek to partner with them, in a client-centred way to continue the work:

  • ‘Where shall we start?’
  • ‘How shall we look at this together?’
  • ‘How shall we do this?’

Without having delved more deeply underneath the topic, the client may not know where to start or how to do this. The coach may then become hooked into being the one to choose the direction of flow rather than allowing the client to remain in control of the conversation and what they want to achieve.

This is reflected in updated sub-competency CC 3.10: coach ‘continues coaching in the direction of the clients desired outcome unless the client indicated otherwise’.

One aspect of updated CC3 we haven’t looked at yet, is sub-competency CC 3.9 – “partners with the client to manage the time and focus of the session’. Whilst establishing the agreement, the coach may support the client to breakdown what they are needing and wanting to achieve into smaller chunks based on what time is available. Becoming an expert baker is entirely possible, and it may take a few sessions. Slicing up the overall outcome into bite sized chunks will be useful. Once again, this is a partnership, so the client needs to be able to give input into what may or may not be achievable. Having agreed which ‘chunk’ is being worked on that day, it might be a good idea to reconfirm the outcome and indeed success for the session, for clarity.

Two further points to consider:

  1. As the coaching moves through the session, what started off as the outcome may change and then the coach needs to recontract. This could happen a number of times in a session.
  2. A whole session could simply end with a much deeper understanding of the work that needs to be done with the client having a much clearer and newer awareness of what they want. This then allows the next session to start with that deeper understanding and clarity and for the work to progress far better due to the careful and thorough contracting at the beginning.

Finally, this careful contracting process—in true partnership with the client, alongside the coach’s ability to stay curious about ‘what is it the client needs to discover about themselves that they don’t know now’—that creates the foundation for great coaching. What is the missing ingredient that will make the most amazing carrot cake? It’s not your recipe, its theirs!

Hilary Oliver, MCC

Hilary Oliver is a Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an International Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF Chapter and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.

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