Being explicit about how we work together

March 2019 by Carrie Birmingham

Why do I need it?

Have you faced a change in circumstances and not found a way to talk to your colleagues about the fact that you need to change how you work?  Have you started a project, knowing what it would take to succeed, but struggled to find a way to say anything? Have you worked with people where you know that your different approaches are going to get in the way of working together successfully?

What is it?

We bring expectations, hopes and fears to all relationships we create but rarely are these spoken about explicitly.  In many situations, problems arise between parties because they are expecting different things from each other and don’t have a way to talk about it.  When we start new projects or roles, it’s natural to ask questions about WHAT needs doing, but rarely do we talk about HOW we want to do it.  

The act of ‘contracting’ makes the HOW explicit at a personal level.  It focuses on the individual expectations we bring, because of our own preferences, or what the situation demands.  It can be especially useful at the start of a new relationship (individual or group), or when circumstances are changing.

  • Wants: this is a description of how you like to work (e.g. in the office, or from home) and/or what you think is needed in the situation (e.g. decision making and your involvement in this)
  • Offers: this is a description of the support you can (and can’t) offer e.g. advice on what you have done before.

There is a tendency to complicate things by making elaborate explanations and justifications.  Partly because we fear being seen as rude or overly demanding. This can confuse the situation, so I invite you to make your statements: clear, simple and short.  

How do I do it?

In terms of the steps of contracting:

  • Explain to the individual or group that you would like to contact with them and why. Invite them to be honest, specific and clear in their feedback.  
  • Invite them to think about their own wants and offers and come to the conversation prepared. 
  • Do your own homework and think about the wants and offers you want to put on the table. 
  • Meet to discuss and compare notes and look for common ground and differences. Look to understand, rather than defend differences.  
  • Work together to agree (and keep a note) the expectations of each other and how you will work together

For further advice on this topic see