Contracting is a critical intervention that defines agreements about goals, collaborative strategies, roles, relationship behaviors, and next steps. Developing these agreements—repeatedly—are a core process of managing change in human systems. They build the support needed for the accomplishment of the goals. When that support reaches critical mass, the goal will have been achieved. Such support often creates a deeper sense of relationship leading to greater effectiveness and efficiency. It all starts with the contracting process between the practitioner and the client. It then extends through any desired agreements for support between the client and other members of the system.
These contracts should have two parts: One part focused on task issues and the other focused on relationship issues. The task issues to be covered include basic things like outcomes, strategies, tactics, roles, and accountability mechanisms. Nothing unusual there. What is different, however, is contracting for relationship issues. Contracting for straight talk and feedback are essential to building and maintaining the high levels of relationship quality needed for effective change processes and sustainably healthy human systems. What I can’t fathom is what makes the notion of contracting for relationship issues so difficult to remember! No matter how I coach and otherwise advocate for clients and students to do so, it doesn’t seem to happen unless I am present to broach the issue. When I inquire about this, the responses all circle around, “I didn’t think about.”
If you have any ideas about why remembering to contract for essential relationship behaviors is problematic, I’d love to hear from you!
One final thought: The more explicit and specific the contracting is the better the process! Implicit and general agreements dramatically increase the probability for misunderstanding which will disrupt the change process.
So many clients call me because they are in pain: the pain of low productivity, the pain of disgruntled employees, the pain of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, etc. All of that pain is what gets me in the door. At the same time, goals that are focused on ending pain often reflect an enervated client and an enervated organization, which dramatically slows the change process. Have you ever interviewed a group of folks who are past anger and are into resignation? Their affect is flat; they don’t believe that any change is possible. Many tell me stories of other consultants who have come and gone while making no difference at all.
To mitigate such circumstances, I need to help my clients and the others involved create for themselves personal and organizational visions that generate the positive energy of enthusiasm and excitement! One of my favorite ways of creating positive possibilities is to get a conversation going about what they believe they could accomplish when the pain is gone. This requires some patience and persistence, but it really helps. Another tactic I find to be useful is to encourage the person I’m working with to consciously use the current situation as an opportunity and help them to identify a meaningful support system that affords a more positive outlook.
Whatever your strategies and tactics, helping your clients move from negative energy to positive energy is an important skill. It is a skill that starts with choosing for ourselves a positive outlook. I’ve worked with a few internal practitioners who felt that certain changes within their organization were hopeless. Those practitioners have essentially rendered themselves ineffective. So we are back to our very first discipline: conscious use of self. If we can’t manage our own belief systems we won’t do very well helping our clients to manage theirs!