Coaching Contracting Issues Could Point to Parallel Process

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I explore an idea on how the phenomenon of parallel process can relate to contracting in coaching and/or coach supervision. This is particularly relevant to experiences of supervision relationships where there are struggles to create session contracts. I consider the potential reasons this may happen, offer some structure for both coaches and supervisors to understand contracting more tangibly and considerations for solutions. This will be of interest to coaches who find their sessions going nowhere or taking more of a casual conversational mode, and to supervisors it offers another option of what might be unfolding when struggling to contract with supervisees.

Coaching and Supervision are Contracted Relationships

Contracting is a fundamental aspect of coaching and supervision practice. In contrast with social conversations, contracting is a distinctive feature of developmentally-focused engagements. When done coherently it brings a structure to the professional conversation, fulfilling its purpose by:

  • Setting the focus. The client relates the context and sets a specific agenda for the session. Without this the conversation can go round in circles, have no focus (jump haphazardly between non-related topics), and by definition not be related to something which is important or relevant to the client.
  • Agreeing on outcomes. A coaching or supervision conversation will have reduced impact if a desired and related outcome is not determined at some point. When a client has approached a practitioner to help with a challenge, the thinking they have used to attempt its resolution has not yielded success. This can happen for a variety of reasons, like the client being tied up in a dynamic with other people (colleagues, family, or their own clients i.e. as coaches), myopic attention to the problem instead of thinking of broader options for resolution, and not considering or being aware of information relevant to the solution (e.g. circumstances within the context of the issue, emotions and bodily sensations). So setting an outcome for the work immediately draws the focus away from the presenting problem and directs it at a desired outcome. This allows both parties to acknowledge necessary information, see how it fits the case, generate options for solution, and experience the personal transformation which enables the strategy to be employed.
  • Co-creating the approach. Often clients have some sense or idea of how they would like to go about addressing their challenge. Sometimes this is merely a repetition of the unsuccessful approach they have already taken (which is of course useful information to the practitioner), and sometimes the client knows how they get in their own way and need assistance to work around that (e.g. “I know I tend to overthink things and I am doing that here now”, which gives the practitioner a clue that the client may not be paying attention to useful problem solving resources like emotions and somatic experiences).
  • Inviting mutually active support and participation (in individual sessions and the overall professional relationship). Co-creating and exploring the elements above inherently leads to the client and practitioner investing psychologically in the piece of work to be done. This effectively invites transparency, vulnerability and trust, while sidestepping resistance.

These elements are addressed holistically, not in a linear method, through ongoing conversation and re-contracting. It is the practitioner’s inherent role to notice themes, patterns, inconsistencies, behavioural clues and their own subjective experiences which inform the contracting process. All of this information can add to the client’s thinking in the session. Contracting on the session involves touching on its content for context, without doing a deep-dive recounting of all the details of the client’s experience, ‘he-saids’ and ‘she-saids’, ad infinitum.

Putting the Pieces Together: Core Issues and Parallel Process

In supervision, a core issue is the fundamental problem, difficulty, theme or pattern which causes, enables or promotes the challenge the client is experiencing. An example of this would be a coach taking more than 50% of the responsibility in the relationship with their client. This could result in the coach continually doing the problem-solving for the client, instead of letting them use their own resources to do so and growing in the process. The resulting dynamic would be the coach ‘rescuing’ the ‘victim’ client. This dynamic would likely continue with that client and others, until the coach breaks the pattern.

Parallel process is the phenomenon of the dynamic which occurs between one set of people, also occurring between one member of that same set and another person. For example following on from the scenario above, in a supervision relationship, if the coach brought this problem to supervision and the supervisor started to do the problem solving for the coach (as the coach had done for their own client), that would be parallel process. Expanding to a wider view, one might even notice that the parallel process is indicative of dynamics within the client’s environment. Being trained to recognise various relational dynamics, their own ways of being and behaviour, supervisors can bring attention to the phenomenon and offer it as information to consider within the session. The client might then recognise the parallel, how they were hooked into the dynamic, how they play a role within it, and generate some options to escape it in an authentic and enabling way for themselves and their client.

Contracting as a Core Issue in Parallel Process

Contracting requires both supervisor and coach to hold a meta-perspective of the session’s purpose, approach and progress. Practitioners at early developmental stages may be less proficient at this skill. Naturally, it comes with the experience of working with clients, learning frameworks and languages which describe those relationships and experiences of self, greater insight and awareness of self, and deepening proficiency in engaging with clients. Once clients have had more experience of supervision, they are likely to get into the flow and structure of a session more easily, as well as being equipped with greater capacity to reflect and strategise on their problem-solving without jumping into the content.

In some supervision cases, even with experienced coaches, invitations to contract on the session with the coach will still be met with a lack of focus (most often going into the story or circumstances of the case). In cases of the seasoned practitioner, there may emerge surprising disparity between the practitioner’s experience and knowledge of coaching/ theoretical/ psychological frameworks! Where contracting arises as a core issue, it could be useful to check the integrity (in a qualitative, ethical and professional sense) of the coach’s contract with their own client. Contracting issues might arise for lack of technical skills (awareness of the concept/s of contracting, lack of training in contracting, lack of knowledge of a contractual framework relevant to the specific context etc). Taking a meta-perspective, the supervisor and coach could reflect on if there is a parallel between the contracting issues the coach is experiencing and those emerging in the supervision session. If there is, the supervisor then has more information at hand about that coach’s developmental level and how to appropriately work with them.

Here are a few techniques both coaches and supervisors can use particularly at the initial developmental stage, for deepening awareness and skill regarding contracting:

  • Bring attention to the existence and nature of the contract between practitioner and client. If the contracting is firm and appropriate enough, the challenges could be related to other dynamics (transference issues, archaic patterns of thinking and behaviour etc).
  • Learning and subsequently referring to a variety of contracting concepts and models, applicable to various contexts.
  • Deepen awareness of how the coach gets stuck when contracting with their own clients.


A few final thoughts which may shed light on experiences for coaches and supervisors:

  • Supervisors can expect coaches recently out of initial training to experience more contracting-related challenges.
  • Serious problems contracting in the supervision session might have a parallel in the coach’s lack of contracting with their own clients.
  • The supervisor can invite a positive parallel process by introducing and modeling contracting models appropriate to the case in question and the supervisee’s developmental level.
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