Critical friendship as everyday #RUOK

Here in Australia, it is #RUOK Day today.

It is the 10th anniversary of the start of #RUOK. The aim of the organisation that coordinates the day and the year-round events that make RUOK an everyday activity is “to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life”.

For the past five years, I have had the immense good fortune to be a critical friend to coaches, teachers and educational technologists. Throughout that time, I have been guided by John MacBeath’s observation:

The critical friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. They are forgiving and tolerant of your failings. They sometimes even love you for your faults. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. (1998: 118)

My critical friend conversations with coaches explored the very public nature of their work and the implications of their roles for their families, their friends … and themselves. The five years of conversations enabled us to go to some very private places that challenged and celebrated their lived experience.

My conversations with educational technologists took place at a time of organisational change and uncertainty about the institution’s direction. Our conversations discussed the physiological and psychological impacts of uncertainty.

All these conversations were held in confidence. I did receive funding to do this but I was clear that there would be no reporting of individual cases only of generic conversations.

On #RUOK Day I am sharing parts of one of my reports that arose out of critical friend conversations with educational technologist and shared with the institution’s leaders. It considered how we might value each other rather than engage in rhetoric about caring.


Introduction

This paper addresses being valued in an organisation that learns. It is a commitment to equitable and respectful treatment of all members …

In writing this, I am mindful of Miller Mair’s observation:

Words are substantial, like paint or clay. They are not transparent and secondary. They tell their own tales. They muscle in wherever they are used to influence everything around them with the stories they wish to tell. They bring with them baggage from other places and other times. They lead off in directions that speak of their relationships with other words and other things. Words, and the choice of words in relationship, create realities of their own and do not point to things we suppose are separate and of superior importance.

I am mindful too that I am writing this specifically for two colleagues who have trusted me to produce this narrative.

The higher education institution is adopting a raft of business intelligence tools that monitor and report on staff and student performance. In organisations that have a mechanistic approach to performance these tools prioritise surveillance over care, and treat individuals as objects of study rather than subjects of appreciative inquiry. I believe that the institution is in danger of becoming such a mechanistic environment. I am hopeful that the University’s conversations about strategic direction is able to reduce this danger as might genuine consideration of staff performance review processes.

My view is that the institution can let go of aspirations to be “national leaders” or to be highly ranked in a variety of global indicators. The rhetoric of external recognition could be enabled by respectful, deep listening in our lived experience at the institution. Process would deliver outcome in an institution that avows to “walk-the-talk”.

This requires the University to value our staff. Recently, Brenda Leibowitz (2017) proposed:

… given that so many academics are intrinsically motivated to teach well, they should not be viewed as mere instruments of policy and strategic exigencies. Instead, they must be treated as academic partners whose role as professionals should be respected. Their importance must be acknowledged and they must be seen as accountable, responsible, thinking and feeling beings – not workhorses chasing global rankings for the benefit of their institutions’ reputations. (My emphasis)

The institution has promoted a narrative of engagement and retention for its student cohorts. I think this is vital for our staff too.

In the last year, I have become extremely concerned for the mental and physical well-being of some colleagues. I have a sense that unless significant changes are made in how we value each other we will continue to live in a threatening rather than enabling organisation that could learn to be different.

We can gain ground (and lose it) and this requires an agility in leadership that trusts and values colleagues whose role it is to engage and retain. There can be space for bottom-up renewal as well as top-down imposition.

I believe each of us has a responsibility to exert our agency to be valued and to value others.


My aim in writing the paper was to give voice to concerns that remain unspoken in fearful employee-employer relationships.

It was nourished by the idea that RUOK conversations are an everyday, formative commitment.

When I have my critical friend conversations, I have in mind conversations I had with Gavin Larkin many years ago.

Today is a very special day to remember him and his journey to support us all in the adventure of caring and being cared for.

Photo Credit

RUOK Mate?

Critical friendship thoughts for #RUOK day: from a sport perspective

Thursday, 14 September, is R U OK? Day in Australia.

I have been thinking about the role critical friendship can play in conversations about personal well-being in sport.

One of the papers that has influenced my thing about critical friendship was written by John MacBeath and Stewart Jardine twenty years ago. It is titled ‘I didn’t know he was ill – the role and value of the critical friend‘.

They start their consideration of critical friendship with this paragraph:

The critical friend is a powerful idea,perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. They are forgiving and tolerant of your failings. They sometimes even love you for your faults. Critics are at first sight, at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. (1998:41)

They explore how this ‘true friendship’ can flourish with and through unconditional listening … and a willingness to challenge.

In five years as a critical friend with a group of thirty coaches, I have tried to learn how to balance listening with opportunities to challenge.

The challenge moments come at times when coaches’ self-esteem is high and the world is a secure place to be. It is not always connected with winning but that adds to buoyancy and openness.

In the five years of the friendships there have been times when listening was the natural thing to do when coaches enter dark places.

All the coaches in the group have a high public profile. The performances of their teams is subject to intense public scrutiny and at the worst of times their personal integrity is under direct and sustained attack. This engulfs their family too.

In good times, coaches and their families have more ‘friends’ than they could imagine. In bad times, the number of friends diminish. It affects the whole family and in some cases leads to their children being bullied at school.

My concern is that as a culture we have normalised the extreme language used to vilify coaches. Sitting with coaches who have entered dark woods affirms the costs of this language.

Back in 2011, Ben Pobjie wrote:

Because I know now the desperate flailing, the horrific suffocation that comes when those black waves come crashing over and you find yourself just about incapable of keeping your head up in the face of the merciless tides. But we’re all capable. We may have to lean on others from time to time, but we don’t have to fall. Tomorrow I may feel them crashing again, and become convinced that none of this is true, but now I have to affirm that it IS. (My emphasis.)

There have been five explicit occasions in my time with coaches that they have been subject to merciless tides. There have been many more times when coaches have not communicated about these tides.

I do infuse my critical friendship with R U OK? thinking. I hope my coach friends feel they can lean on me but despite my offers they sometimes choose not to lean.

R U OK? Day is my opportunity to revisit this paradox of being available, of having ‘unconditional positive regard’, of loving them to bits … and still coming up short as a critical friend.

#coachlearninginsport … silent eloquence

During my travels around England this month, I have been listening to Classic FM.

Each hour in the past week, there has been a promotion of the Woodland Trust’s Big Bluebell Watch that mentions Anne Brontë’s Bluebell poem.

The second verse of the poem starts with these two lines:

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell

Every time I hear those lines, I think about the conversations I have been having with coaches over the last four years in a critical friend project.

Most of the coaches in the group would get stuck into me about being overly romantic in my view of their coaching. However, I do think that the conversations have given me abundant opportunities to share a silent eloquence that comes with their experience and reflection.

There is a melancholy part of the poem too … about times remembered of “sunny days of merriment” when “heart and soul were free”. The poem ends with this verse:

‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

A number of the coaches in the group have lost their jobs in the last four years. Two of them are finding the experience of unemployment particularly hard as they strive to get interviews for new opportunities.

They have silent eloquence to share and will flourish in the light.

That is the paradox in Anne’s poem and in the world of coaching … and perhaps why we need a Woodland Trust project for coaches.

Photo Credit

Tiddesley Woods (Pershore Pictures, Twitter)