6 reasons why Critical Friends are the friends you want around you in 2020

By Luci Englert McKean, NSRF Assistant Director and International Facilitator

When I first heard of CFG Coaches’ Training, I thought the term “Critical Friends Group” was a terrible name! As a lifelong wordsmith, I’m attentive to how words, and names particularly, are perceived by others who don’t have all the “backstory” in advance. I enrolled anyway, and by day two of the training, I was enthralled. Like many other CFG coaches, I believe everyone on the planet, not just educators, would deeply benefit from CFG Coaches’ training. 

I still recognize that the NSRF has an image problem to overcome every time someone new hears of this trademarked service.  If you’re not already familiar with this work and understand how we define the term, “critical friends” sounds like exactly the sort of “friends” that nobody wants (unless you’re a big fan of the movie “Mean Girls,” I suppose).  So for years I have been grumbling about the term even as I sing the praises of the actual work. And now that I’m Assistant Director of the NSRF and an international facilitator, I should probably be chagrined about being as vocal as I have been.

But lately I’ve developed some keen insights into why “Critical Friends” can be the very best friends one can have, and why, if you don’t have a small group of critical friends who meets regularly in this format, you’re missing out on some of the most impactful resources of your career.

  1. Forget “criticizing your friends.” CFG is the opposite of that. Long before the term “frenemy” became popular (it first appeared in a newspaper in 1953!), we have experienced “friends” who criticized our choices in dates and clothes and judged our merits based on circumstances beyond our control such as the financial resources of our parents or the texture of our hair. 
    In contrast, what we learn in Critical Friends Group Coaches’ Training, are ways to recognize and celebrate our similarities AND to reveal our differences and learn why those differences are immeasurably valuable to one another. Doing both in the CFG communities that each coach can create, we build trust deeply so we all feel less isolated in our practice and gather honest, actual help with the situations that trouble us. 
  2. Move beyond “congenial colleagues” into friends who spur everyone toward greatness. Smiling and nodding to keep the peace even when we disagree isn’t helpful. Rehashing the same complaints with friends who take our side and declare the other “the enemy” isn’t helpful, either. Once we’ve learned about our different ways of understanding and addressing problems, we can harness those differences to see our problems in entirely different ways and make changes instead of continuing to complain about the status quo. 
  3. ENJOY rather than “endure” regularly-scheduled meetings. My CFG meetings are the only ones I’ve ever anticipated with joy in my professional career! In each of these two-hour sessions, I know that one or more of my friends are bringing important pieces of work or dilemma around which they’re seeking my and others’ input. My teaching friends may bring student work they need to understand from a different perspective, or they may bring an assessment or rubric or other document that needs fine-tuning. My administrative friends may bring important communications documents or tools that need refining for the good of our school population. Someone may bring in a dilemma that they’re losing sleep over. We support each others’ work through skillful use of NSRF protocols, all designed to help us help solve each other’s problems and address those insomnia-inducing dilemmas. We look critically at issues of greatest importance to our members (rather than only to issues handed down from our bosses), and we respond as the best sort of friends, those who deeply care for everyone’s success.
    In every instance, I know that I will be useful to my colleagues and that I will learn something in the practice of helping them. 
  4. In contrast with situations when I have felt invisible and/or was treated harshly, in my CFG meetings I am both seen and valued, and my critical friends help me with issues I have struggled with.  Beyond helping my friends in our monthly meetings, I know that in one or more of the meetings throughout the year, I will be able (and expected!) to present my own problem. Contrasted with hundreds of meetings in which I have been talked “at,” CFG work gives me space and time of my own to present something I need help with, in an environment where I can trust I will get that help without negative consequences. Confidentiality is utmost: nobody in my CFG community will run to my bosses or anyone else to talk about my imperfections. In fact, I know that members of my group will ask me later about progress not because they’re checking up on me, but because they feel a bit of “ownership” of the problem through their participation in our protocol around it.
  5. My facilitation and feedback skills improve over time.  Even before I became a coach myself, I learned to facilitate some specific protocols because CFG coaches are encouraged to share facilitation responsibilities within the groups they lead. As a coach, I learned many more ways to practice responsive facilitation, addressing the people in the room in the ways they need. I’ve learned so many ways to use a variety of questioning forms in appropriate ways to help us all learn and grow. And I’ve learned to avoid a lot of pitfalls (which is especially handy now that I’m training others to become coaches)! 
  6. Be worldly: “Critical Friend” is a term used beyond educational circles in the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. The Wikipedia page for the term (which I keep meaning to edit but haven’t yet) only barely references its use in education reform, with most of the content related to international uses within and around government and business environments. When I speak with possible clients in or from other countries, I’m thrilled to find people who already understand the true meaning and don’t get caught up in the negativity that I had around the term, myself. And as we do more work in Canada, Kuwait, Greece, Viet Nam, Guatemala, and elsewhere, YOU can feel more connected with CFG coaches throughout the world!   

I’m sure that as soon as we publish this, I’ll think of three or six more things to add to it, but for the moment, these are six good reasons for you to WANT your own critical friends, right?  So please click here to enroll in a CFG Coaches’ Training as an individual (your next opportunities are coming up in February and July, so don’t delay!) or investigate how to bring CFG Coaches’ Training to your school or district and have 10-15 (or more!) of your colleagues trained as coaches.

If you’re one of the thousands of people who’ve used and benefited from NSRF protocols over the years, you owe it to yourself to get trained and bring the fullness of CFG work to your environment. Call it what you will, but once you experience the ever-deepening trust and satisfaction of solving problems with your Critical Friends, you’ll know that this is the P.D. you’ve been hoping for.