Coaching with GROW

In the coaching community GROW is probably the best known and most popular coaching framework. Arguably, no coach training programme would be complete without it’s inclusion.  GROW has been around since coaching’s early days and was popularised by Sir John Whitmore in his best selling book Coaching for Performance (1988). Since then it has been tried and tested across cultures and disciplines. So, what exactly is GROW?  It’s an acronym that stands for:

G: Goals – aspirations and intentions

R: Reality – current situation, including inner and outer obstacles

O: Options – possibilities, strengths, and resources

W: Will, way forward and ‘what next’; actions and accountability

At each step a few powerful questions are used to structure the coaching conversation. Starting with the clients goals, identifying the gap between where they are, where they would like to be, along with actions they need to take to get there, GROW supports setting goals, solving problems, improving performance and unlocking potential.

It doesn’t take long to learn to use GROW, these four simple steps are easy to pick up, giving a framework that doesn’t take much knowledge or practice to apply. It gives beginners and more experienced coaches alike an empowering sense of direction, competency, and focus. GROW provides a simple and effective way to help the coachee identify what they want to achieve and a convenient way for coaches to navigate the coaching conversation, keeping it purposeful and avoiding the pitfall of drifting into a cosy chat. It’s not hard to see why GROW is so popular.

But if GROW is the only focus, our coaching will be limited and limiting. If as coaches we become lazy or cling too tightly to the structure, we can end up concentrating more on our ability to follow the steps, feeding the belief that asking questions is all there is to coaching. This is simply not true.  When we fail to allow the client to fully explore what is important, they won’t be wholly committed to their actions and the result will rarely lead to meaningful or lasting change.

When this ‘slippage’ happens we need to shift emphasis away from GROW towards developing what is sometimes called ‘coach presence’ the underlying capacity to be with the client. This involves learning to listen deeply, understand and follow their energy and be in relationship, rather than racing towards the finishing line of ‘W’ – ‘will’. This shift is from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ and involves increasing both coach and coaches awareness about who they are, what they are noticing; ‘their being’. It involves coaching principles like empathic resonance, the ability to create the space for generative dialogue, and the flexibility to move between and beyond structure; holding tools and techniques lightly, using them sparingly, in the service of the client. This is where the true art of coaching flourishes, it takes time (maybe even a lifetime!) to cultivate and is a defining characteristic of coaching excellence.

Another criticism of GROW is that its emphasis on behavioural change, performance and business results limits the conversation. If this is the case, what might be excluded? Often the more ethical, philosophical or personal aspects of the coachees life. Topics like career change, wellbeing, personal transition, integrity, deeply held values, meaning and purpose. The relevance here goes beyond the individual coachee. Trust is a critical success factor in business today, questions of ethics, purpose and doing ‘better business’ have moved up the corporate agenda over the last decade. Though it remains important, performance alone is no longer the holy grail. Increasingly today success is not only a matter of what you do—it’s also how you do it.

The advantage and strength of GROW, the structure it brings to guide the process contains the seed of its weakness.  Could this be otherwise? Any single tool or model brings its gifts and limitations. Used wisely, GROW offers an excellent framework for structuring a coaching conversation. It is particularly useful for beginners, helping them keep a session on track while they gain confidence and learn to embody deeper coaching principles. It’s in this context that we offer our introductory ‘Steps into Coaching’ session on GROW.