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Blindly following models won’t help your clients GROW


Alan Ward warns against the dangers of relying too heavily on coaching models.

A supermarket delivery van driver recently became stranded on a narrow footpath after his satellite navigation system sent him down an impassable lane. Despite the path being only one metre wide and surrounded by dense foliage, the driver continued to follow the electronic voice directions to the point where the vehicle was jammed. According to The Daily Telegraph, figures suggest that last year SatNav systems were blamed for causing approximately 300,000 accidents in Britain.
Whilst this story might raise a smile of disbelief, I wonder how much we are all beginning to rely on systems that were initially created to enhance our thinking rather than replace it. In the coaching world there are many models designed to raise awareness of process and which serve as excellent guides for helping both coach and client monitor progress. Perhaps the most popular is the GROW model, setting out a logical way of moving through Goal, Reality, Options and Will. Too many coaches use and abuse this mnemonic by paying more attention to what the model says is next rather than truly listening to the client’s needs. Similarly, clients often exhibit signs of being stuck in their thinking or reveal limiting beliefs that constrain their behaviours. In recent coaching conversations I have encountered very senior clients whose thinking is linear, following established corporate procedures or entrenched routines.

Three steps for a safer journey

1. Have a map or model

Despite the horror stories of people driving along footpaths, railway lines, or even in one case turning into a flowing river, having a map is infinitely better than wandering aimlessly. The old proverb “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there” is as true for a coaching journey as for any other. A general road atlas might be a good place to start planning a route and monitoring progress; along the way you may need more detailed data on altitude, vegetation, rights of way, geology or climate depending on purpose and focus. In the same way, GROW is a perfectly valid map for planning a coaching discussion and can be used for short, medium or long-term goals. But a good coach will have other models and maps on hand to use in more specific circumstances encountered during any of the stages of GROW. These additional resources may come from NLP, Gestalt, Transactional Analysis, Psychosynthesis or any number of other disciplines. The key is to know what resources you have available and how to get the best from them.

2. Keep your senses working

Remember, the map is not the territory! I can recall one hike as a young Boy Scout leading my group to the edge of a precipice whilst following a stream down a mountain (it was the shortest route on the map!). The temptation to surrender yourself to “trusting the process” is very high and allows brain-power to be diverted elsewhere. The SatNav stories are understandable when considering how many things a driver might be processing at the same time: the weather, the fuel gauge, travel news on the radio, dinner tonight etc. Like the distracted driver, you too are putting the coaching journey at risk if you don’t give full attention to what is going around you. Look up from the model: listen, look, sense what the client is communicating in word and body language. Straight parroting back may be easy and might even help raise awareness by degree but your client deserves your complete commitment and that requires total focus on your part.

3. Use the map to inform, not instruct

Are you in the area you expected to be? What lies ahead or to the side and how does that information help you guide the client’s next steps? On our Coach Education programmes we deliberately spend time exploring not only the purpose of questions in GROW but also the indicators that signal it is time to move on to the next part of the journey. Or not. What has the client shared that helps you determine what question to ask next? What has the client not shared that could impact their understanding and level of awareness? Check how this fits with the model or map you have in mind – consider how that informs subsequent interventions and helps you select the most appropriate model for the next stage. Blindly following the model may lead you to that precipice. Be inquisitive and test your own assumptions as well as the client’s. Use good measures of challenge and support to raise client consciousness of their own mental maps and how they fit with the emerging reality.
At the beginning of any coaching workshop or programme we always ask participants to think about their objectives and write down for them what success would look like by the end of the session. By far the most common goal is to get “tools and techniques” to take away. Whilst these are valuable aids, especially when moving from Conscious Incompetence to Conscious Competence, they should not provide a quick-fix substitute for thinking. The van driver in the opening story has not enhanced his Unconscious Competence in driving but having abandoned his rational thinking to the SatNav, he has reverted to a new depth of Unconscious Incompetence. So next time you find yourself in a coaching dialogue heading towards a narrow path and dense foliage, I implore you to stop, look around, and check whether the map matches reality.
Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist which runs university-backed coach education programmes accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.
He also chairs TrainingZone’s Coaching Discussion Group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business.

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