February 24, 2018

To be a critical friend you need to start by being a friend

Three people in discussionThe phrase “critical friend” is sometimes used to describe the role of a trusted adviser and, in particular, one who is prepared to tell you something you might not really want to hear—but do need to hear.

The role is reasonably widely understood, but that doesn’t mean it’s a commodity, or even really a service to be bought. It does depend on there being a real and genuine connection between the people involved. They need to care.

To be a critical friend, you need to start by being a friend.

Connection or fluency?

Mid sized audienceWhich is more important: being fluent or being connected with your audience i.e. the other party?

Traditionally, we pay a lot of attention to being fluent, even organising many aids to make sure we can join words together in a smooth and flowing way.


It may be more effective to concentrate on being connected with the audience.

If people have a sense of connection, they’ll listen with the heart rather than the head—and, in fact, take more away from the conversation. They won’t be that aware of glitches in the delivery.

It might not really about the words anyway.

If people are disengaged, it really doesn’t matter how good your words are.

Sometimes attempts at fluency can get in the way of natural connection.

The ideal is both, I suppose, but if you can’t have that, which would you go for…

Connection or fluency?

Aiming for less to get more

GatheringIt’s a funny thing…

Sometimes we need to aim for less, to get more.

In leadership and management, it’s tempting to demand a great deal from another person in the hope of getting some of it. Actually, we risk getting none at all if they are demoralised by the seeming impossibility of the expectation, or if trying to meet it makes things impossibly complicated.

That’s not to say that we should accept only what the other person thinks is possible.


We can push for them to exceed their own expectations, just not in such a way that our vision is wholly out of sight. And we need to know they can do it.

In my view, we’ll do better if we stay within reach of what they think is possible.

It’s like towing a ship: Pull too hard and the tow line will break. And forward movement will stop.

All of this is brought home to me with my son with special needs… We realise that learning sometimes needs to proceed in tiny steps, matched to his pace, otherwise we don’t move forward at all: The flow of knowledge stops, he disengages, and we end up with nothing.

The principle is the same with the rest of us: The steps might be bigger, but the need to preserve the connection remains.

Don’t say you’re not breaching a confidence. Keep it to yourself

Three people in a meetingIf you state you’re withholding information, you create a barrier between yourself and the people you are with. You break the connection.

If you must have secrets, keep even that a secret.

Of course, you must respect confidences, and not share what you’re not meant to share. Actually I’d say avoid being in that position too much because it undermines your authenticity and disconnects you from other people.

They say “information is power.” Connection with other people is more powerful still.

Don’t be a keeper of too many secrets. Your friends resent it.

Sometimes words get in the way

Sun and treesWe’re in almost complete silence. The background noise level is very low. We hear a little noise from outside, but not much. The winter sun streams in from the large windows. Everyone is aware of everyone else. Nothing is said. Nothing needs to be said. Connections are made in other ways: By the sharing of an experience, by the sharing of a space, by the sharing of energy. Aspects of personal presence are noticed and acknowledged. Individuals are honored and respected. Much is communicated without words being said. Whether people knew each other beforehand or not makes little difference.


I learned a long time ago that the spoken word is often rather unimportant in face-to-face communication. Tone of voice is more important, and more important than that is what is said by our bodies and our energy.

But now I would go further…

Sometimes the spoken word actually gets in the way, and we’re better to leave it out altogether. Our attempts to articulate what we see, feel and hear are often inadequate and we do better just to show these things. Attempts at verbal communication can distract both us and the other person from what really needs to pass between us.

Sometimes it’s better not to speak at all and leave the space to other forms of communication.