Contracting for Change

I am diving right in with another aspect of collaborative agreement – contracting for change. Come on in, the water is just fine!

In many healing arts models, practitioners BEGIN working with clarity about the focus for change. Over time, this clarity devolves as the conversations become more rambling or real change is less evident or not as quick as both practitioner and client had hoped.

With AAIT, having clarity about the "change contract" is part of almost every session. This intentional clarity actively engages and expands client learning and their capacity for collaboration. They naturally develop the ability to engage in self reflection and self examination. Focusing on a clear contract for change also instills an awareness that change is possible, within their reach and is their responsibility.

Bob and Mary Goulding, the founders of Redecision Therapy, taught me more about collaborative agreement and contracting for change than any other teachers. They were rigorous in their insistence on contract clarity before settling in to work. 

In their 1979 book, Changing Lives Through Redecision Therapy, the Gouldings wrote, "When we first make contact with a patient, we listen and look for a series of connections: What is the chief complaint? What was the patient doing to himself at the time he decided to seek assistance? What are his feelings? What behavior does he dislike in himself? Is he obsessing instead of thinking? Is he depressed? Is he angry most of the time, or bored, or phobic? Is he unhappy in his marriage? In his work? There is some specific feeling or thinking or behavior about which the patient is unhappy: otherwise, he would not now be sitting before us. What does he want to change? This specific change, desired by the patient becomes the contract." (p.5)

"What do you want to change?" Asking various versions of this question evolves into client recognition that they are at the helm of their lives. Moreover, they quickly learn that taking responsibility for and tending to their inner state is the source of their freedom. In this question, they naturally begin recognizing what is within their sphere of influence. We cannot change others. We cannot change circumstances. We CAN change ours self and our experience.

Identifying a specific goal for change can feel intimidating for some practitioners. After all, it means being crystal clear with your clients, being specific about what you are addressing, how you intend to address it and what results you expect from your intervention. That may feel unfamiliar and a little challenging. It might mean upping your game. For many therapists, that all just feels like a bridge too far, too much responsibility for pie in the sky goals. 

However, most of the goals clients bring to therapy, coaching and spiritual direction ARE attainable, IF they are clear, within the client's sphere of influence and we use effective methodologies. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember they are the CLIENT'S goals, “The client decides specifically, in terms of beliefs, emotions and behavior what she plans to change about herself in order to read self designated goals. She works with the therapist to determine the contract and makes the contract with herself. The therapist serves as witness and facilitator.” (Changing Lives Through Redecision Therapy)

To reiterate, the therapist serves at witness and facilitator. Though we work hard to clarify the change contract, the collaborative agreement, the client is the one doing the changing. We are both witness and facilitator and the contract is between the client and herself.

With AAIT, we listen deeply for what clients want to change. Sometimes, despite all the pain and desire to realize their goals, they just don’t know where to start. Listen for where pain and tension are keeping them tethered to old ideas, limiting beliefs and compulsive reactivity. It may be in the ruminative content of their mind. It may be in the decisions they made based on traumas and unmet needs. What cognitive tendency, what pain tied to some story, what tethered tension is keeping them stuck? You will hear it in the stories. 

These stories give us the time to DISCOVER and CLARIFY the contract, setting the focus for our shared time. It means listening to stories for themes, early decisions, traumas, unmet needs, limiting beliefs and more. Essentially, it means listening through the stories for tethered pain. Once we have landed on what the focus of the work is, we are ready to go – implementing one of the integration methods that will typically result in the change towards which we are aiming.

When we are committed to establishing solid collaborative agreements with our clients, we discover that clarity and specificity leads to more effective results. In each session, we ask variations of the question, “What would you like to change?” We ask with the full understanding that the only area that is open to change are those within that client’s sphere of influence, himself. The idea is to clearly identify the problem or goal and get agreement regarding what you are addressing. In. Each. Session.

Here are some questions that could lead to clarifying the contract for change:

  • "If you could walk out of here feeling better about one thing, what would it be? 
  • What's top of mind for you today that you would like to resolve? 
  • If you could take steps towards one goal, what would it be? 
  • What would you like to change today?"

The more specific you and your client can be in identifying the problem or goal for that session, the more effective your results. And yes, working in his way does lead to the resolution of key and core issues over time. But it does it in a strategically respectful way, ultimately trusting the inner wisdom of the client. 

The more adept you become with collaborative agreement, the more effective and efficient your work will be. And, though it may feel clunky in the beginning, with practice, contracting for change will feel like a seamless part of your time with clients. And, it becomes readily evident to clients that they can tend to and curate their state. They learn this as you direct their awareness over time to the specific changes that they made and made with relative ease.

Finally, the most important contracts are the no suicide contracts. If clients report feeling sad or lonely, perhaps without many interests in life, ask about suicidality. In the case of people who suffer with depression and anxiety, it is always important to ask about suicidality and have a solid no suicide contract. This means an adult agreement that he guarantees he will not kill himself for a day, week, month, etc. He will do what it takes to keep himself alive. 

What are your biggest challenges with contracting for change? How has having clarity around your collaboration influenced your wins in helping people? Share your thoughts.