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Matt Somers

Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training

Founder & Managing Partner

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Coaching: why it might be time to ditch the GROW model

It’s time we equipped managers with the right skills to coach effectively. 

Any fool can follow the GROW model.

This was the title of a recent post I wrote on Linkedin that seemed to resonate with a lot of people.

It was a bit of a rant if I’m honest. A potential client was showing me the course description for a two-day management training course they liked the look of. There were a couple of hours on the second afternoon devoted to coaching and the brochure claimed that the delegates would all leave with a handout of the GROW model and some example questions.

I admit, it’s not many people’s notion of a hill to die on, but the idea that this would be enough in any way to equip a manager to coach effectively is silly and may actually be quite damaging and counter-productive, as I hope to point out here.

The notion of GROW coaching can make us believe that asking questions is all there is to coaching, but this is simply not true. 

I first started pondering all of this many years ago when I recall somebody telling me that they did something called GROW coaching. I didn’t understand what that was then and I don’t understand what it is now.

My worry was it was ‘coaching lite’ and unfortunately I’ve seen that proven true.

Before we go on, it’s time for me to confess: I’ve done this too. I’ve run training programmes and seminars with only a cursory look at coaching and given people some questions to get them started – but I won’t do it anymore. I’ve also run longer programmes where we can discuss the questions, practice using them, judge reactions, experience creating follow up questions, etc. There is just no comparison.

Why is this a problem?

Let’s be clear, I could hand anyone a list of example questions to ask that are organised around the GROW sequence but this would not be coaching.

The GROW sequence is not a coaching model, it is a convenient way to navigate a coaching conversation that ensures we examine four key areas: goals, reality, options and will (or ‘way forward’). It is widely attributed to the late Sir John Whitmore, but it seems more likely that he developed it in tandem with Graham Alexander and Max Landsberg.

An over reliance on GROW can make it difficult to move flexibly through a coaching conversation. A coaching manager – or let me just say coach for now on – may confidently ask a question designed to generate an option, only to find that their coachee (again, for want of a better word) revisits their goals or notices something new about the reality of their situation.

Just firing off questions without appreciating their power or the effect they have on the receiver can be quite dangerous. 

Coaching cannot and should not be forced to be linear and we should be prepared to bounce around a structure like GROW, multiple times if necessary.

In this sense, even the term GROW sequence is unhelpful, but it is better than calling it a coaching model.

Similarly, a reliance on GROW can leave some coaches stumped when it comes to dealing with the answer. A handout might suggest asking a reality question like, ‘how does this situation make you feel?’ It won’t, however, tell you what to ask next if your coachee replies that they’re terrified, sick or even past caring.

A third problem is that the notion of GROW coaching can make us believe that asking questions is all there is to coaching, but this is simply not true. Crucially we must actively listen to the answer, and that means really listening and not just peeping at the handout to see what question to ask next. It is usually helpful to observe the coachee as they answer too. Look to see if their body language matches with what they’re saying and so on.

Pauses and silences are often a sign that a coachee is close to a real breakthrough in their thinking, but this can be missed in the rush to ask the next GROW question.

Isn’t this better than nothing?

I’m not sure it is. If coaching around the GROW sequence results in too shallow an outcome then it’s unlikely that the coaching will stick. Few beautifully formulated action steps figured out during the will (or way forward) stage survive their first encounter with real life back at work. Good coaching will have recognised this and therefore identified contingencies and addressed some ‘what if’ scenarios.

Once again, a quick whizz through GROW is unlikely to have been thorough enough.

It follows that the coachee may find this experience less than useful and it may undermine the efforts to get coaching installed as a regular occurrence and its use an established part of organisational culture.

A good coaching question will also help to underpin the relationship of trust that’s so vital in successful coaching. 

Just firing off questions without appreciating their power or the effect they have on the receiver can be quite dangerous. I’ve seen many a list of coaching questions that recommends asking ‘what are you scared of?’ but in my experience this question can open up a host of issues and problems better addressed through skilled counselling than work-focused coaching.

As Sir John Whitmore once told me, “without an understanding of the underlying principles of awareness and responsibility, GROW or any of its variants is useless”.

We need to shift the focus away from following GROW and onto working with coaching principles.

Coaching is an A.R.T

A good coaching question might serve to raise awareness. I might ask questions such as, ‘what’s happening?’, ‘what do you notice?’, or ‘who else is involved’? The idea is that the coachee must refer to their own experience in order to answer. In so doing they become much more conscious of what’s happening, and change and improvement normally follow automatically.

A good coaching question will help generate responsibility. What have you tried before now? What could you try next? What will you do if that doesn’t work? The emphasis is on you. We must use our questions to reinforce the idea that the coachee is in control; they are the decision maker.

A good coaching question will also help to underpin the relationship of trust that’s so vital in successful coaching. What does your instinct tell you? How have you dealt with similar situations in the past? How will you handle any objections? These are all questions that indicate we honour the skills and abilities of the coachee, that we believe in them and trust that they can learn from their own experience and make wise choices.

Next steps

If you have a coaching approach built around GROW, get your coaches to practice working without it. They can practice with each other before going live with their refined skills. There’s no harm in building a bank of great coaching questions, as long as we remember that the context of raising awareness, generating responsibility and building trust is key, and that any fool can ask a question.

It’s about shutting up and listening – now that’s the real skill.

Interested in this topic? Read How good coaching can replace bad performance reviews.

One Response

  1. Matt, Thank you for your
    Matt, Thank you for your article. I absolutely agree that GROW of itself does not make a coach. I was lucky enough to be trained in coaching by Graham Alexander’s company in the late 1980’s and even then they recognised this. They argued then (and it’s been the basis for my coaching ever since) that effective coaching consisted of three elements:
    Structure – the GROW model or other appropriate structure, GROW is just one that I use sometimes.
    Skills – the elements you refer to like questioning, listening, empathy etc. – and using them at appropriate times and in appropriate ways.
    Content – useful to remember as this is unique to the coachee – especially in those early days when many people instinctively thought that the content was all that effective coaching was about!
    Great to interact and thanks again.

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Matt Somers

Founder & Managing Partner

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