Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 38) define ‘contract’ as ‘an agreement made between client and counsellor as to the work to be undertaken together’. They continue by noting that this is usually done by the end of the first session.
Because the success of counselling is so dependent on the counsellor and client developing a therapeutic relationship, it is very important to establish this on the right basis from the start. For this reason, ethical bodies for counsellors and psychotherapists provide guidance on contracting in their codes of conduct.
For example, the good-practice part of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Profession, published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP, 2018, p. 17) includes a section entitled ‘Building an appropriate relationship’. This states: ‘We will give careful consideration to how we reach agreement with clients and will contract with them about the terms on which our services will be provided.’
Why Contracting Matters
Contracting – which is usually done at the very start of the therapeutic relationship – is important as a way to set an appropriate tone for the future work together, and to begin to build the client’s trust in the counsellor and the counselling process.
Having a clearly explained agreement – with the opportunity to ask any questions about this, and to raise any areas with which they are not happy – helps assure the client that they are in safe, respectful, professional hands. As Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 38) note, ‘a contract to counsel distinguishes the counselling relationship from other (e.g. social) kinds of relationship’, so establishing appropriate boundaries.
Moreover, because the connection between counsellor and client is a relationship, the way in which the client approaches the start of this relationship is important in that it may reflect their life experience of the beginnings of relationships. Thus, it may be possible to look at this as part of their process. For example, Yalom (2002, p. 71) writes: ‘Everything that happens in the here-and-now is grist for the therapy mill.’
It could be too that how the counsellor goes about building the therapeutic relationship – in particular in terms of agreeing ground rules and establishing trust – may be important in serving as a model of good practice to the client for developing other relationships in future, and so help them to do so more effectively.
Other key purposes of the counselling contract are:
- helping to build rapport
- making clear what is on offer
- protecting the counsellor, client and (if relevant) agency.
Indeed, if a complaint is ever made against a practitioner, their ethical body will wish to see the contract, which should ideally be signed by the client as evidence of their agreement to it.
"Having a clearly explained agreement – with the opportunity to ask any questions about this, and to raise any areas with which they are not happy – helps assure the client that they are in safe, respectful, professional hands."
Business Contracts and Therapeutic Contracts
Sanders et al. (2009, p. 138) observe: ‘Counselling contracts need to cover two fairly distinct areas – the practical framework and the developmental or therapeutic aspects of the relationship.’ Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 38) refer to the practical framework as the ‘business’ contract and to the developmental aspects as the ‘therapeutic’ contract.
It is the business contract that is generally what is meant when practitioners and agencies refer to the contract.
Areas to Cover
Sanders et al. (2009, p. 138) list aspects of the business contract as:
- time, place and money
- confidentiality and supervision
- disputes, complaints and codes of conduct
Meanwhile, the therapeutic contract – which may be less likely than the business contract to be recorded and agreed in writing – includes:
- what to work on
- how to work on it (i.e. modality).
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Contracting in Counselling
Considerations in Contracting
The BACP’s Ethical Framework (2018, p. 17) requires that attention be paid to:
- reaching an agreement or contract that takes account of each client’s expressed needs and choices so far as possible
- communicating terms and conditions of the agreement or contract in ways easily understood by the client and appropriate to their context
- stating clearly how a client’s confidentiality and privacy will be protected and any circumstances in which confidential or private information will be communicated to others
- providing the client with a record or easy access to a record of what has been agreed
- keeping a record of what has been agreed and of any changes or clarifications when they occur
- being watchful for any potential contractual incompatibilities between agreements with our clients and any other contractual agreements applicable to the work being undertaken and proactively strive to avoid these wherever possible or promptly alert the people with the power or responsibility to resolve these contradictions.
BACP (2018). Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions [online]. BACP. [Viewed 29/11/21]. Available from: https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/3103/bacp-ethical-framework-for-the-counselling-professions-2018.pdf
Feltham, C. and Dryden, W. (1993). Dictionary of Counselling. London: Whurr.
Sanders P., Frankland A. and Wilkins P. (2009). Next Steps in Counselling Practice, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
Yalom, I. (2002). The Gift of Therapy, London: Piatkus.
Resource created: 29 November 2021