Negotiating the Therapeutic Contract in Person-Centred Counselling
“No man has any natural authority over his fellow men.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The social contract
We live in times where the traditional ethic norms are shifting from desirable actions of an individual or a society to well-formed and predefined rules written by law representatives. While this change generally frees psychotherapists, doctors and other professionals from engagement in moral problem-solving on an everyday basis, it strives for a consistent, well-structured document that defines the roles of practitioners, as well as clients in the counselling process. It has to be in accordance with traditional ethical standards and ensure the dignity, integrity and safety of the client and, on the other hand, not to threaten freedom of action of the practitioner. This blog briefly introduces counselling practitioners to the contracting process. It also presents examples of good practice, as well as some of the major pitfalls of contracting.
What is contracting?
Counselling contracts are a mutual agreement negotiated between the counsellor and the client and which anticipates the rights and responsibilities of the counsellor towards clients, as well as the rights and responsibilities of the client towards the counsellor . Contracting ensures that the counselling process will be performed in a good and safe manner and, as a written document, it provides the necessary space for legal intervention if the responsibilities outlined are not met.
In the majority of cases, the counsellor verbally presents the major points of the counselling contract before the session and hands a hard copy of the document to the client.
Why is contracting important?
One of the practitioners I interviewed notes that “the relationship starts with the contract.” This implies that the counselling contract (or agreement) should not be perceived trivially. Indeed, as a legal binding document, the contract is an agreement between the counsellor and the client on their expectations about the outcome. It is a serious manner part of the entire counselling process .
Contracting further reduces the likelihood of miscommunications, multiple interpretations, mixed signals and unintended inferences. The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) recognises the positive persuasive potential of this kind of document in that it allows clients to express their free will and, therefore, feel safe. In turn, this can give them a sense control over their own decisions, thus strengthening their autonomy . The most convenient way to emphasise and summarize the importance of contracting lies in one client’s statement: “Warning me that I might feel worse before I feel better was an important aspect of my contract.”
How does contracting relate to the ethical framework?
The latest revision of the BACP’s Ethical Framework (2013) provides the fundamental principles on contracting ethics. This manual is divided into three segments and proposes good values, principles and personal moral qualities. Good counselling contracts, as well as the counselling process, should always be based on these qualities.
Some major proposed values of counselling and psychotherapy practice are: respecting human rights, safety of the client, alleviating personal distress, enhancing the quality of the practitioner-client relationship, and appreciating the variety of human experience and culture. Ethical principles in the manual are presented as six keystones: trustworthiness, autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, justice and self-respect.
Personal moral qualities proposed are ones that are common for all professions dealing with humanity (empathy, sincerity, and integrity). A well-written counselling contract should meet all provided requirements stated in the BACP’S Ethical Framework, taking into consideration the importance of professional and moral qualities.
What are the elements of a good contract?
There is no defined template of a counselling contract, allowing counsellors to make contracts individual and to customise it to their needs and the needs of their clients. Typical counselling contracts begin with a short overview of the service that is offered to the client and presents the counsellor’s qualifications. The body of contract should begin with statements about confidentiality and then proceed to details about the sessions – how the counselling will begin, how long it will last, how it will be concluded, information about missed sessions, and when and where the sessions will be held. Contracts should be concluded with details about the payment, fees and how different circumstances affect the fees (such as missing sessions) .
The counselling contract becomes enforceable when two hard copies are signed by both parties, where one copy is kept by the counsellor and the second copy is handed to the client.