When does a coaching assignment really end?
When we talk about mentoring, we describe it as a relationship. Coaching still requires a relationship (though often perhaps less intimate and of shorter duration), but we tend to talk about it as an assignment. This difference in language or metaphor can affect subtly the way we think and behave. The word assignment carries with it an assumption of finality — when the final session is completed, the coaching is done.
We know from research carried out by David Megginson and me more than a decade ago that coaching and mentoring relationships are subsequently perceived much more positively by both participants, when they have a clear formal ending. Both parties need an opportunity to review what has and hasn’t been achieved, what has changed for them, and what they are grateful for towards each other. Even with this open and re-affirming conversation, however, there is often a sense of unfinished business.
The arguments for an abrupt ending (at the end of a pre-determined number of sessions) are powerful. It’s important not to create dependency, for example, and having a defined expectation about the number of sessions helps to create focus and momentum in the coaching conversation. But the thinking processes stimulated by good coaching conversations continue to work for some time afterwards. An analogy is a perfectly cooked steak – once taken from the pan or grill, it needs additional time for the heat within the outer layers gradually to work through to the centre.
The coach can help by ensuring the client recognises this phenomenon and has a process for managing their continued reflections. But does their responsibility stop there? Or should the coach continue to be available for light touch interactions with the client, as they continue to “cook through”? Is the coach losing an opportunity for learning about their own coaching, if they have no access to what happens to the client after the assignment ends?
There is probably no simple answer to these questions. Creating an open-ended commitment would raise a number of difficult issues, not least the question, for professional coaches, of “who pays?” I have found that many experienced coaches continue to have brief, unpaid e-mail exchanges with clients for months and sometimes years after the formal end of the assignment. More proactively, coaches can contract with the client that they will keep a learning log of their post-coaching reflections and progress towards goals and share this with the coach at intervals.
Perhaps there is an argument for recognising in the coaching contract that coaching doesn’t end with the final word in the final formal coaching session – and that it is in everyone’s interests to maintain an unobtrusive, informal level of support over at least the next six months.
© David Clutterbuck, 2014
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