Do you have a Critical Friend?

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Each of us has its own personal definition of “friendship”, but generally we all love discussing and sharing experiences with our friends. It is in mankind’s social nature to look for people with similar interests and trusted relationships.

One common factor to healthy friendships is that we feel to care for the other person, and that is reciprocal. We care about their well-being and whereabouts, sure. But we do care also about what they think. Although not necessarily sharing the same opinions, thus enforcing consensus over a topic, friends are good to debate different visions of things in our life. This is something that enriches us, sometimes “waking us up” from a blind perspective or just noticing something we did not before.

There are people with whom we like to share our worries more than our successes. Perhaps, that is because we are looking for insights and elevation, rather than pompous self-validation in public. Do not take me wrong: celebrating is important. It is a moment of realization and ultimate acknowledgement of our skills. Who does not like to win, once in a while?

The Relativity of Knowledge and Skills Mastery

I used to be proud of my victories myself. However, I was so stuck into polishing my successes that I was neglecting my areas of improvement. Then you receive a moral slap, a time when somebody puts out all your failures and you fall off from the sky.

My lesson here was to focus more on what to improve. Being highly skilled in something does not mean to be perfect. We can handle more, both in terms of volume and complexity. That is what you notice if you practice some activity, a sport, even when you are learning a language. I have been a Wing Chun practitioner for years now; before that, I also tried Tae Kwon Do and studied Karate. You can practice martial arts either mindlessly or mindfully.

The first case happens when you go to your club or gym, you do what you are told to do, then you go home. You have practiced something, yet you did not internalize the idea of it. You haven’t thought critically about it. Maybe you asked yourself whether you like it or not. This is not a formula for long-term growth.

The other is the case when you go to learn and test yourself, then you are back home where you keep practicing, both with your body and your mind. The more involved, the more details you will notice, and broader perspectives will come out.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

Albert Einstein

Languages, computer programming, soft and hard skills whatsoever: all is subject to the same condition that is inherent in our individual approach to life.

Skills are important factors in our way to chose what to become, because they are in practice a way to externalize our talents in optimal experiences. Time flies when we do something we like; and slow down when we need to focus on something that is extremely important to us. In my opinion, we also tend to be humbler when we are more skilled, because we have lived through challenges and failures before finally getting somewhere.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

And yet, we may fail to acknowledge our limits and failures. We can get to think that what we know, what we do etc. is the only way, or the right way. Speaking of martial arts… there you have plenty of practitioner saying around their art is the “definitive” one, it is invincible, it is unbeatable… Forgetting they are referring to a single part of it (the application in combat), not to its holistic complexity; and also, that such art is expressed by different people, and each of us can have more peculiar skills.One can be executing a technique in the most elegant way, but being inept in a sparring. Another one can excel in confrontations, being very imprecise in the movement. Similarly, one could be “fluent on paper”, meaning that he is able to read and translate a language correctly, otherwise unable to speak a sentence; and another could be practically fluent in the same language, speaking with perfect accent and vocabulary, and not knowing the grammar at all.

But, back to friendship…

Is here where friends come in handy. Because with friends we share about challenges and frustrations, we can get into any sort of recommendation, advice, but also critics. When a friend spits out some constructive feedback, we are emotionally involved, but in a different way than we normally are at work or school. They know us better for the persons we are, rather than the role we are covering. Therefore, their critics may be quite subjective.

Still, they can prove useful. Especially if you have the luck to have a critical friend. That is, as the name says, somebody close to us who is not afraid to point out our weaknesses and failures, but is able to do it without getting on our nerves too much. It is somebody who doesn’t simply share an humble opinion, but breaks down facts, opinions and causality of things before expressing himself.

That surely makes a difference from critic-friends, that are just about criticizing our whereabouts and hold us back. I will not enter in the merits of unhealthy or dysfunctional relationships here: some people have just this tendency, they can also be bit narcissistic or simply they do not know how to express themselves otherwise. The silver lining stays on us, on how we interpret and acknowledge the feedback from the other side while managing our emotions.

Yes, we react that defensive way most times.
Or is it just with that person?


How do you recognize your critical friends?

You can stay assured that even critical friends can be overly critic sometimes. They are going to have their moments, too. Basically, you can look for a critical friend in any one you feel is helping you in a constructive manner. Here are some most wanted behaviors we are looking for in our special buddy:

  • challenging assumptions, not criticizing them
  • making suggestions without being directive
  • asking more questions than speaking for themselves (this can turn out as coaching)
  • pointing out your weaknesses, while emphasizing your strenghts
  • boosting your confidence to move forward rather than weighing you by the failures

Whatever we mean now with friendship, we assume we have a stronger connection with that kind of person than the average acquaintance. We keep his/her opinions in higher regards, for good or for bad. Stay assured, having a critical friend makes a difference than having an expert sharing an opinion. Interestingly, those people may act with us as if they are a coach or a mentor. You have that if the range of questions follows logical, solution-oriented or introspective patterns. We may end up to get a dumb face while saying eureka upon our realization. Or our buddy is somehow advocate in a field or went through similar experiences before and can bring out options we didn’t think about before.

How that is better than celebrating success?

I’d rather say that both experiences are needed and complete one another. Empathy has the great power to manipulate emotions for good and when we are with friends, this happens spontaneously. You can laugh as well as cry together. Being critical is not for everybody as it might break down a certain level of complicity, or a status quo in the formed relationship.

I have troubles as well to be critical or uncritical “enough” with my friends. That is because long-term relationships are formed in a way that is difficult to change some behavior without feeling strange (for both parties). Some people just want to be pleased, while others will be always asking your opinion. How to make a balance is up to us, according to circumstances and the severity of the topic.

However, a thing that changed overtime is the need to be listened mindfully, and being told another perspective. The more I learn about coaching, the more I feel that active listening with the right dose of emotional intelligence is empowering for any purpose. That includes feeling better with yourself: not only in relation with what we do and how, but who and how we are.

So you see that the cognitive element that comes with communication is underlying the emotional layer: as a paradox, it creates a comfort zone where one can be challenged and still feel good about it. It is quite a fascinating balance.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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