Critical Friends


Work friends are the best. Some of the most superb humans I’ve ever known have come straight out of staff rooms in Tegucigalpa, Jakarta, Manila, suburban Chicago, and, for a brief time in my early ’20s, downtown Chicago cubicles. Work friends are also unique because they tend to represent a wide range of people I wouldn’t necessarily have met otherwise– they have been artists, athletes, adventurers, curmudgeons, Suzy Sunshines, professors, class clowns, and everything in-between. All of these people have enriched my life and made me a better person in some way or another. The very closest friends I’ve made along the way, however, fall into two main categories: “You’re the BEST!” Friends and Critical Friends.

I would describe “You’re the BEST!” Friends as those on whom you can rely to tell you that you’re the BEST! You’re so RIGHT! You are NOT wrong! They don’t question your actions, they’re not concerned with the complete picture and whether or not you really did mess up or act less than stellar in a situation. Their main concern is to support you and make you feel good. Who doesn’t love and need these friends?! I act as this type of friend to some people, I have some people who are this kind of friend to me, and I’m sure you have this type of friend, too. They’re who you go to for venting, when you need a strong dose of self-confidence, and maybe when you know you’re wrong but don’t really care or want to acknowledge it in that moment– you just need someone to tell you how awesome you are! Who does this for you? Aren’t they the best?! These friends are important– like I said, we need them to give us a boost now and then. If they’re the only type of work friend that we cultivate, however, we are short-changing ourselves and missing out on an opportunity for growth.

The other type of work friends I’ve made along the way are Critical Friends. The Glossary of Education Reform defines a Critical Friend as: typically a colleague or other educational professional, such as a school coach, who is committed to helping an educator or school improve. A critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.

While Critical Friends can actually be a school-wide protocol, complete with official structures and formal Critical Friends Groups, for the purpose of this blog I am referring to informal friends who act in a Critical Friend way. Do you have someone like this in your work life? I can think of two friends who fulfill this role for me– Nick and Kari. Critical Friends are different than mentors, the importance of whom I have also written about here, in that they don’t need to have more work experience than you, or be in a higher place on the organizational chart. They simply have to provide you with honest feedback, thoughtful questions, and with a lens to view your blind spots. The other crucial components of Critical Friends are that there is a very high level of trust involved, as well as the belief that this person cares about you and is acting in a manner designed to help you become the best person/employee/colleague/leader possible.

An area that I have personally invested a lot of energy and have experienced growth over time is my ability to ask for and accept constructive criticism. I won’t say that it’s still my favorite thing in the world, but I also know that no one is perfect and that all we as humans can do is try our best to grow, and question, and fail forward. In Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s honest feedback to her then-employee, Google director Kim Scott, is described. Sandberg told Scott that saying “um” every three words during her otherwise-successful presentation to Google executives made her sound “stupid.” Harsh, right? This is what a Critical Friend can do. They can point out your blind spots and give you really pointed feedback like this because trust has been established and it’s understood that the person giving the feedback has only the recipient’s best interests at heart. When I was working on my Failure conference presentation a few months back, I asked my friend Nick for his feedback. He and I circled back several times during the process, all the way up to the night before my presentation. His early feedback was fairly brutal– but ultimately correct. He could see the weaknesses in the presentation’s structure and was able to articulate them to me in a way that made sense and allowed me to move forward in a better direction.

He and Kari have also helped me navigate a variety of work issues, large and small. I go to them when I truly want to know what they think of a situation. Did I address this in the right way? What could I have done differently? What could that person’s motivation have been? They don’t indulge me– instead, they ask thoughtful questions that help me re-frame how I think about things. I like to think that our Critical Friendship is mutual, that I help them in these same ways.

Not everyone can be a Critical Friend, and that’s okay. But cultivate these friendships, and look for them if you don’t have one at the moment. Take a risk and ask a trusted colleague for their honest feedback– or offer that to someone you think might be receptive to it. Together you can go farther than you’d ever imagined.

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… just be my friend”
― Albert Camus

“Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
― E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

365 Days of Wonder: Knowing the Answers

Like many families, my daughters and I enjoyed the movie “Wonder” and found that it made for timely, relevant discussions about kindness and friendship, among other topics. I bought the book 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Precepts, by Wonder author R.J. Palacio for my 11 year old daughter for Christmas, hoping it would be something she could enjoy and learn from throughout the year. It’s turned out to be so much more. She and I read each day’s quote together before she goes to bed– we talk about what the quote means and how it applies to our lives. It’s been a meaningful way for us to connect and for her to be exposed to a variety of great thinkers, poets, philosophers, artists and authors. I even thought it would make for an interesting blog post every now and then, so here is the first in my occasional “365 Days of Wonder” series!

It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers. — James Thurber

I LOVE to ask questions. I feel no shame in asking as many questions as I need to in order to fully understand a concept, as I’m sure the tech guys in our back office can attest. I really want to know and understand, so I figure it’s better to keep asking until I “get it.” I like to ask people questions about themselves too, to understand how they think, what motivates them, what experiences have shaped their lives– it fascinates me to see what people will tell you about themselves if you only ask!

In my job as a technology administrator I don’t pretend to know everything about technology. I love when teachers or other staff come to me with questions about tools, strategies, or philosophical questions I haven’t considered. So many questions to ask! Of course it feels good to know some answers as well, as I’ve worked hard in my field and enjoy supporting others with my knowledge and skills. What keeps me invigorated, however, is the constant challenge of the next Big Question.

Just this year I have already been faced with two fairly major requests that have raised some Big Questions for me. One was about how best to integrate technology in the preK/early primary classroom. The other was how to integrate technology in classrooms for children with moderate to severe special needs. What incredible questions. Both of these groups represented children who, to be honest, I had never thought about working with before. I was used to working with kindergarten at the youngest (and really not even very often) and never with students with significant special needs.

The question “Can you help us?”, asked by both groups, shook me. Why hadn’t I sought these groups out before? Was I afraid? Intimidated? The answer to these questions is “yes.” My initial dismay eventually gave way and solidified into a sense of purpose for the year. I have so many questions, and still few answers, but I am grateful to those who reached out– asking these questions themselves.

We’ll never know all of the answers. But it’s humbling and a little inspiring, as James Thurber observes, to start asking some of the questions.