A critical friend will give you honest, expert feedback. Photograph © StockSnap on Pixabay

They can help with support and advice – but do you need one? Julie Wrigley has this guide

Are you new to research and evaluation or have been asked to oversee a study as an additional part of a broader role?

Or perhaps you are a Programme Manager charged with coordinating a peer research study with volunteers?

If this sounds like you or something similar, you may need the support of a critical friend to offer constructive advice and support.

Here’s a quick guide to the kind of critical friend who can really make a difference.

What is a critical friend?

One definition of a critical friend is “a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend” (Through the Lens of a Critical Friend by A Costa and B Kallick).

This trusted person combines aspects of mentor, advocate, coach, scrutineer, and sounding board. They work with you on specific projects, taking time to understand the context of the work and the outcomes you are working towards.

Applying their expertise and experience from an independent perspective, they can offer support, advice and critique.

Why might you need one?

A critical friend might help an organisation design a research programme that will deliver valuable outcomes – without overburdening staff.

Or they could take the insight gleaned from a completed research project and take it a step further – by recommending actionable steps to implement change.

When should you introduce a critical friend?

This depends on your individual circumstances.

A critical friend can be involved during only one part of the research process, such as:

  • at the beginning, to help the research or evaluation design
  • at the end, by taking part in a collaborative workshop with programme staff which goes beyond a debrief of findings to explore recommended actions for the programme.

Alternatively a critical friend can also provide support and challenge throughout the research or evaluation lifecycle.

This is particularly valuable when the programme or intervention under consideration is a fluid, evolving one, or when there are staff changes.

Who makes use of this service?

Charities regularly evaluate programmes to ensure that they achieve the intended outcomes. Many are now using critical friends to help them adopt a learning mind set to programme delivery from start to finish.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation funds the Our Museum programme, which facilitates partnership between the museum sector and communities. The evaluators in the video above talk about their supportive, yet challenging, role as critical friends.

At Qa Research, we were asked to provide critical friend support to a charity to measure the impact of its newly formed befriending service.

They planned to conduct a postal survey of loneliness. We recommended a change of approach – one that relied more on open, qualitative, questioning and a telephone method of interviewing.

The insight this provided helped to determine the future direction of the befriending service.

7 tips to be a good critical friend

Here are the key ingredients for an effective critical friend:

  1. Mutual trust and respect
  2. Understands and supports you and your context
  3. Honesty
  4. Skilled observer and listener
  5. Uses dialogue to uncover new interpretations and learning
  6. Willing to ask provocative questions, to voice unspoken concerns
  7. Provides a balance between support and challenge