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Endings in a Coaching Relationship

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Martin Hill, Senior Tutor & Director of Level 7

Endings are not always a bad thing; it just means that something new can begin” PictureQuotes.com

In this blog I thought it may be useful to draw on the lessons I have learned from my own coaching and supervisory practice relating to endings in a coaching relationship.

Ironically, before I explore the topic of endings, I need to look at beginnings. Stephen Covey (“Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”) highlighted that Habit Two is “Begin with the End in Mind”. What does that mean? www.businessballs.com (accessed 25/03/16) states “Covey calls this the habit of personal leadership – leading oneself that is, towards what you consider your aims. By developing the habit of concentrating on relevant activities you will build a platform to avoid distractions and become more productive and successful.” Ok – so what does that mean for you as a coach? For me, it means ensuring that your coaching preparations lay the foundations for the whole of the relationship, including planning the ending phase-but more on that later.

Enough of the beginnings, already – let’s get to endings. The title of the blog is not a typographical error – as a coach you may encounter a variety of endings in the course of a coaching relationship. In the course of a recent group supervision discussion I facilitated at a British School of Coaching UK Coaching Network, asking the group of coaches what they understood “endings” to mean, generated the following insights:
•    The end of a topic/goal discussion within a session, so that the discussion moved to the next topic/goal
•    When, and how, to draw a session to an end (linking in to time management of the session)
•    The ending of the coaching relationship itself – this prompts me to pose the following questions for you, dear reader, to reflect on for your own coaching practice:
– Was the ending planned or unplanned?
– What was the catalyst for the ending?
– Who ended the relationship –coach or coachee?
– How was it ended?
•    How does one know when a goal/objective has been achieved and thus can be ended? How are outcomes reviewed? Who is involved in that review-coach alone? Coachee alone? Coach and coachee? Coach, coachee and organisational sponsor?

The other nervousness highlighted when discussing endings with my coach supervisees, is how to actually deal with the topic of ending with the coachee. One approach is what I describe as the “It’s not you, it’s me” style conversation. Even writing that phrase, I could feel the aftershock-like tremors of memories being jogged by the earthquake shock of painful reminiscences of long ago relationships!! Remember having those conversations, or being on the receiving end of one? How did that feel? How long before you stopped dissecting the ins and outs?

One of the risks of the “It’s not you, it’s me” style in a coaching relationship is that it masks the real reasons for the ending. If you are operating a professional and ethical coaching practice, I am sure that the values of honesty, openness and transparency are of fundamental importance to you. The ending will be easier for you and the coachee to deal with if it is discussed in an open, objective and evidenced fashion. For example – “Our discussions about topic x, are outside my field of experience and I think that a different coach with that knowledge may be more useful for you. I may be able to help you with finding that coach if you would like.”

What about another approach? Remember my promise to return to the planning phase? When I am agreeing my coaching contract/agreement with the coachee and organisation I ensure that my planning includes anticipating potential endings. This means that we agree who, how and when can terminate the coaching relationship. Notice anything missing from that list? My contract does not specify grounds/examples for the coaching relationship to be terminated. This is because I identified that this could be a barrier to the issue being raised, especially for the coachee potentially, and this in turn would mean that the effectiveness of the coaching relationship would be diminished.  However, it’s YOUR contract and YOUR choice what goes in to it.

The other feature in my coaching contract/agreement with the coachee and organisation, and which I draft together with them, are what I describe as my “expectations” section. I outline what the coachee/organisation can expect from myself as the coach (and sometimes specify what it does not include, e.g. I am not here to provide advice to you) and also what I expect from them as coachee/organisation – e.g. punctuality; to turn up with pen and paper; to take ownership for the agreed actions.

The beauty of the coaching contract/agreement approach is that this provides a depersonalised mechanism to review the effectiveness of the relationship and discuss and decide if ending is appropriate. The contract/agreement can focus on behaviours that were agreed, but which have not been honoured etc. As a coach, I find that this gives me a mechanism to challenge the coachee and this usually serves as a prompt to bring them back on track.

Here are some of the factors that I have noticed that help build an effective and successful framework for dealing with endings within the coaching relationship:
•    Contracting – Take time to identify all the players involved as there may be a multiplicity of parties- for example, coach, coachee, sponsor (HR), line manager, department head, organisation etc. etc. This also influences what documentation may be needed – for example the “formal” legal contract (dealing with fees, deliverables, termination, confidentiality etc.) needs to be agreed with the “sponsor”, but I also ensure that the coachee in these situations completes a coaching agreement which outlines what they can expect from myself as the coach, what is expected of them, confidentiality and termination and cancellation). Think what may be needed for your own practice. Review your coaching agreement/contract. Does it cover what they can expect from you as the coach and what is expected from them as the coachee? Does it cover termination? If not – what are you going to do?
•    Values/beliefs – Let me paraphrase a quotation “To coach others, you must first know yourself”. Not only do you need to ensure that you know your own values and beliefs, you must make sure that your practice and behaviours are consistent with them- this can often avoid unexpected endings from arising in the first place.
•    Know when to say “No”-  If there is no beginning, there can be no end – so be clear who  you decide to coach and/or be clear about what actions you are prepared to undertake as coach (e.g. notes; chase ups; out of session contact etc. etc.).Reflect on those choices and challenge and review them regularly.
•    “Permissions”- If in doubt, ask – seek permission from the coachee to check things out. Really useful, for example, when dealing with the outcomes review. I would recommend that as a minimum this should be done by the coach and coachee together; but why not also consider inviting the line manager/organisational representative to part of the review session, with the coachee’s permission. (See my blog on permissions)
•    Regular Reviews – earlier in the blog I mentioned planned and unplanned endings. A planned ending could arise where you have agreed to undertake, for example, five sessions. A good practice to develop is to introduce regular reviews, mine, for instance is after every 3rd session. This is simply a quick “coaching MOT” check – are you content with the relationship; does anything need changing; are actions being generated? Is value being added? If the answers to any of these are negative then this is a prompt to recontract and agree, or, to agree to end the relationship. Unplanned endings can, as the name implies, arise at any time. The same approach of discussing and recontracting or agreeing to end the relationship.
•    Boundary Management – make sure that you know the boundaries for your own competence- and do not overstretch. Also make sure you do not stray into counselling or advising mode. I would also suggest reflecting on the hypothetical situations when you would decide that you would have to end the coaching relationship. Review those situations – are they covered in your coaching contract/agreement? If not – time to review and revise.
•    “I’m OK, You’re OK”- endings can be emotional – make sure that you check that the coachee is ok and can get back ok. Similarly, give yourself time to review, recollect yourself, reflect and reboot.
•    Location – This links in to the topic above- if you anticipate that the relationship may be coming to an end in the next session, especially if you anticipate emotional or difficult responses, plan where and when to hold that session – the primacy concern being that of safety for yourself and the coachee.
•    Supervision/Support – Endings can generate emotional responses- both conscious and sub-consciously. Reflect on the support networks you have to draw upon (supervision, peers etc.) – is anything else needed or are these sufficient? What did you do to recalibrate?  Could that be used again? Could that be improved?
•    Adopt a 3R Evaluation Approach – Review, Reflect & Revise – following each coaching session that you conduct, seek feedback from the coachee, but also take time to review the session, reflect on what you did and what the effect was; also consider what worked well, what could have been improved on or what could have been done differently. Finally, if the reflection leads you to conclude that something needs to change, and then revise your approach before the next session. Does the ending generate the need to review and revise your coaching contract/agreement or coaching approach?

I hope that this has provided a catalyst for your own thoughts and reflections and I would be interested to hear from you with your own comments or observations.

In my next blog, I will look at the content of coaching relationships and the art of elephant spotting!!