The Art of Strengths Coaching

C is for Clear Contracting With A Person About How They Want You To Help Them During Difficult Times

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Imagine you are mentoring a person who is unsure about how to behave towards somebody who is experiencing difficulties. They may not know what to do in a situation where either:

A person is experiencing an illness.

A person is experiencing depression 

A person is returning to work after a personal tragedy.

Certainly they want to show caring, but sometimes it can be difficult to know how to behave. One approach is to invite the person they care for to describe what they do and do not want others to do in the situation. Let’s explore how this can work in action.

Several years ago I was counselling a person who had lost her husband in traumatic circumstances. One month after her loss she decided to return to her work in a small technology company.

Still grieving from the tragedy, she wanted to feel more in control. Returning to work would help her to follow a predictable rhythm and regain a sense of success. She recognised, however, that people might not know how to behave when she returned.

This was confirmed when the CEO of the company called me. He asked for guidance about how people should behave. Should they treat her in particular way, ask how she was doing or not mention the tragedy?

The last thing she wanted were lots of personal therapy sessions over coffee. So how should people behave when she returned to work?

The key in such situations is that the person who is being ‘cared for’ should feel in control. Bearing this in mind, I asked her to describe the Dos and Don’ts regarding how people should treat her at work.

After some reflection she produced the following list. This was shared with the forty people in the company two days before she returned to work. Here is what she produced.


Do treat me normally and, if appropriate, involve me in your professional projects. 

Do use my skills on the work you are doing for customers.

Do invite me to some of your social events, though I may not come to all of them.

Do be yourselves – laugh, joke and enjoy life.

Do respect my privacy and the fact that it will take time for me to recover. 


Don’t be shocked by my appearance, because I have lost a lot of weight. 

Don’t ask about my feelings, because it will take time to deal with what has happened. 

Don’t ask how my family is dealing with my husband’s death, because this is something we are working on privately.   

The return to work went well. She continued to experience challenges, but she found it helpful to follow a set routine and enjoy feelings of success. Six months later the pain still remained, but she felt more able to shape her future life.

Making clear contracts with people
who are going through difficulties

Sometimes it can be hard to know how to help others who are going through tough times. One person said:

“I am not sure how to help my partner who has recently had an illness. The physical problems have eased, but now he falls into deep depressions.

“Some days he feels good, but other days he finds it difficult to get out of bed. I want to help, but sometimes it feels like I am doing the wrong thing.”

People who want to help others can sometimes feel helpless. It is then important to clarify what they can and can’t do for the other person.

They can provide physical and psychological support, but they can’t fix everything for the one they love. The other person may also need to focus on what they can control in the particular situation.

People who experience difficulties sometime go through the reactive change curve. They go through the stages of shock, denial, paralysis, anger and hurt.

Spending time in their chosen sanctuary, they may then begin the process of healing. Gathering strength, they may set new goals, work hard, achieve success and gain self-confidence.

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The process is not linear, of course, and there may be many ups and downs on the journey. Sometimes a person may feel they are back on the road to recovery, only to have flashbacks and return to experiencing the pain.

Over the years, however, many people put the bad experience into perspective. They feel older, wiser and stronger

How do people come through the curve? They may manage it by themselves, talk with a friend, join a self-help group or use another approach.

Depending on the approach they use, people may spend time in a sanctuary. They then take charge of shaping their future and getting a success. Let’s explore this process.

People who suffer a setback often need to lick their wounds and begin to make sense of the experience. Different people choose different kinds of sanctuaries. They may rest, sleep, write, listen to music, see a counsellor or whatever. People begin to heal and regain their strength.

Sanctuaries are great. But there comes a time to move on, otherwise the muscles atrophy. People focus on what they can control and start shaping their future.

They set short-term goals, work hard and get a success. Feeling more confident, they take the next step in their life or work.

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Let’s return to the person mentioned earlier who wanted to help their partner who had overcome the physical aspects of an illness. How could they help them to deal with any psychological aspects?

Their partner had read about many aspects of dealing with depression. They had also joined a self-help group and followed its suggested guidelines for taking charge of their life. These included:

To follow a structured routine, such as getting up at the same time every day, even if they felt like staying under the covers.

To eat healthy food and do the kinds of exercise they enjoyed, such as running. 

To spend time with positive people and do things that gave them positive energy. 

To do satisfying projects that gave them a sense of purpose and success.

To keep a gratitude journal and also focus on how they could use their experience to help other people.

As mentioned earlier, the person wanted to support their partner during this time. After exploring different routes, they decided to make a clear contract regarding what their partner did and did not want them to do.

The person planned ahead and chose the right time to have such a conversation. When the time came, they said something along the following lines to their partner.

“As you know, I want to stay with you for the rest of our lives. We have such good times and I want to keep encouraging you.

“Looking ahead, I would like some guidance about how I can best support you over the next few months. Sometimes I try to help, but I am not sure if I am doing the right thing.

“Bearing this in mind, it would be helpful if you can let me know two things. First, the things you do want to me do to help you during this time. Second, the things you don’t want me to do.

“I am not looking for you to respond straight away. But it would be good to get some ideas once you have had chance to reflect.

“Building on your ideas, I will then try to do my best to keep encouraging you and building our relationship.”

The person’s partner wondered where this approach had come from, but then began to reflect. Three days later this resulted in them sharing their ideas over dinner. The conversation helped to clear the air and laid the foundations for building an even better relationship.

Clear contracting is crucial in any relationship. This is particularly so when people are going through difficult times. Such an approach sounds challenging. But it is even more challenging not knowing how people want you to behave towards them in a relationship.

Imagine you want to apply this approach. If you wish, you can invite the other person to describe the Dos and Don’ts regarding how they want you to behave towards them. It is then up to you to decide if you would like to follow these guidelines.

Below is a framework you can use. You will need to feel comfortable taking this step and doing it in your own way. When done properly, however, it can help people to continue to build fulfilling relationships.

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    R is for Describing The Results You Will Deliver Before Focusing On The Resources and Roles  

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    Several years ago I was asked to work with a senior manager who had difficulty getting past the interview stage when applying for jobs.

    Inviting them to describe their most recent interview, I asked how they had positioned what they could offer to the potential employer. The person said:

    I talked a lot about the culture I would build, because I believe it is important to nurture people and help them to flourish.

    The people on the panel nodded a lot, so I thought we saw things the same way. But unfortunately I did not progress to the next stage of the process. 

    Bearing in mind this description, I asked the obvious question.

    Before you starting talking about culture, did you reassure the interviewers by describing the specific results you would deliver?”

    They gave the following response. 

    No, I assumed people knew that I would deliver the results. They only needed to look at my track record to see that. I wanted to make sure they understood how I would get the best from people.

    The senior manager was open to starting by reassuring the key stakeholders. This eventually led to them securing their desired role. They recognised that:

    People buy success. They don’t buy the theory of success.

    Some people make the mistake of spending lots of time talking about role definition and the resources they require without ever mentioning the results they will produce. This can be unsettling for stakeholders.

    Looking back, can you recall a situation when you got backing by first describing the results you would deliver? You then moved on to getting the required resources and clarifying your own role in delivering success.

    You may have done this when applying for a job, getting support for a project or gaining the autonomy you required. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

    Describe a specific situation in the past when you described the results you would deliver before successfully asking for the required resources and defining clear roles.

    Describe the specific things you did to take these steps.

    Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

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    The results approach can work in many different situations. One leader used it to good effect when moving from his UK role to that of leading the EMEA Region for his USA based company.

    Before travelling to the USA for his interview, he and I met to prepare for the session. The leader explained the challenge in the following way.

    I have a track record of continually growing the business in the UK. Over the past two years, however, my bosses have kept asking me to take over running Europe, Middle East and Africa.  

    This sounds great, but it would probably also mean moving abroad. There are hub offices in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid, Moscow, Johannesburg and Tel Aviv.  

    I could manage the travel. But relocating to Paris, where I might be asked to move, does not fit for our family at this stage. My parents are getting older and I want to be around to look after them.

    Our children are also at a critical stage in school. Whilst they would learn a lot from being in another country – probably learning languages much quicker than me – it is not the right time for them to move.  

    Looking at the interview process, I get the message that for me it is now either up or out. If I am unwilling to take the role, then I may need to start looking elsewhere. This sounds crazy, but it is how our company operates.

    The leader and I clarified the key messages he would give during the interview. He would begin by emphasising the ‘What’ – the results he would deliver.

    The aim would be to get the stakeholders over an emotional line where they really wanted these results. Only then would he focus on ‘How’ he would deliver the goods. This included where he wanted to live.

    The interview went well. Returning to the UK, he explained what had happened during the session. He had opened the interview by saying something like the following.

    Thank you for the opportunity to interview for the role. If I get the job, I will aim to deliver the following profits in the next year. 




    I will also make sure our company’s product is the Number One in the following markets.




    I will ensure that we publish at least three customer success stories in the following countries: 




    I will also build teams that produce leaders that can go on and help to build a successful future for the company.

    The stakeholders liked what they heard. One of them interrupted him to say:

    That sounds excellent. When might you be able to start?

    The leader replied by saying the following.

    I can start relatively soon. When doing so, however, it will be important for me to get some early successes.  

    Looking around the region, I will aim to deliver early wins in certain territories. Here are some examples:




    The intention will be to bring along three satisfied customers to the next world congress. They will be able to share the principles that have worked and maybe others can apply these in other parts of the world.

    I will also proactively keep you informed about the progress that is being made. It important to make sure that you know what is happening in the various regions.

    The main stakeholder interrupted to say:

    Good, can we look at what you will need in the way of help?

    The leader answered in the following way.

    As I mentioned, the specific results I will deliver will be:




    I will keep you informed of the progress. There is, however, a bit of a challenge. 

    My parents are not in great health and our children are at a critical time in school. I will spend the main parts of each week in the various offices, but my family and I would like to remain in the UK for the time being.

    As I mentioned, I will produce the goods.

    The key stakeholder chimed in to say:

    As long as you deliver the results, it does not matter where you live. We also know you have a good track record of building teams that develop future leaders. So this won’t be a problem. 

    Can we talk about the transition?

    The leader accepted the role. One year later I met him to explore how it was going. He gave an overview of his schedule.

    Strangely, I seem to have a better quality of life than when I was running the UK Business.

    I used to arrive on Monday morning to be met by a long list of problems that needed sorting out. Most days I worked from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm. This left little time to see the kids or my parents.

    Now I take our children to school on Monday morning and then fly out to one of the offices. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is usually spent visiting customers and colleagues in various countries.

    These are long but fruitful days. We do a lot of quality work with customers, rather than rushing around fire fighting.

    Sometimes I fly home on Thursday night. On Friday I take the kids to school and spend the rest of the day working from home.

    Looking at my schedule, I still put in lots of hours. But I feel much healthier and have more job satisfaction. My bosses are also pleased about the results we have delivered.

    Different people have different ways of getting the resources they require to do the job. One approach is to start by reassuring stakeholders that they will deliver success.

    If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things. 

    Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to describe the results you will deliver before asking for the required resources and defining clear roles.  

    Describe the specific things you can do to take these steps. 

    Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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