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“So, are we supposed to come back tomorrow for more in-depth training?” Doris asked Mikki, the volunteer coordinator.

“Um, no,” Mikki returned, puzzled at the question. “I’m sorry if I gave that impression. Today is the only day of training, at least in the beginning. We will be interviewing each one of you for your assignment next week. Is that ok?”

“Hmmm,” Doris said and paused. “I suppose so.”

Down the road, volunteer manager Don stopped in the hallway to chat with Jeremy, a volunteer. “I have five of our best volunteers lined up for the event next week,” he said, proudly, “including you. I am just awaiting instructions as to start time and assignments. Jeremy shifted and asked Don, “is your volunteer Chad one of the ones who will be there?”

“Yes, actually he is,” Don answered. “Is that a problem?”

“Just wondering,” Jeremy said after a moment and then he shrugged his shoulders.

Occasionally we are faced with statements concealed within questions and often these statements are thinly veiled criticisms. And since it is difficult to respond to a question with anything but an answer, you end up defending something you didn’t know you needed to defend in the first place.

I remember a volunteer Gladys, who threw these “critiquestions” like a pitcher striking out a string of batters. “Are you planning on giving that assignment to Hershel?” she’d ask, one eyebrow arching skywards in lofty judgment. “Is that the wording in the letter you are sending to all the volunteers?”

Being on the defensive is not the best position for volunteer managers. It is not ideal, defending every decision made, whether it is yours or your organizations’. Volunteers do have a right to know why decisions are made, but a barrage of constant critiques is counter productive. We want to keep our volunteers from becoming embroiled in organizational politics so we don’t share any political reasons for our actions. We also want them to experience the mission in its purest form, so explaining the nuances of policy is an art form in itself.

Dismissive phrases such as “I don’t make the rules, it’s just the way it is,” or “I agree, that policy is stupid but we are stuck with it,” doesn’t help the volunteer and actually encourages them to ramp up their criticisms. We can certainly hear their concerns while encouraging them to work within the system . “I understand your criticism, but here is the reasoning behind this policy or decision.”

Not every volunteer will agree with your style of managing volunteers, or your system for reporting hours or your training methods or your assignments. Heck, there will be volunteers who dislike you personally from the start. This hurts, I know.

But we’re not here to be liked by every volunteer who crosses paths with us. It would be nice, but it is unrealistic. Instead, we are creating an atmosphere in which volunteers feel connected to the work. So, for those volunteers who are overly nit picky and critical, the question becomes: How are they connected to their work? Are they deriving meaning out of helping, or are they deriving meaning out of the feeling they get when criticizing?

And, if hyper critical volunteers, like Gladys are hard-working, efficient, reliable folks, you may find yourself overlooking their prickly questions. You may just turn a blind eye to their not so subtle barbs and tell yourself, “oh, it’s ok, I’ll put up with it because frankly, I need the help.”

There’s a few ways to deflect these critiquestions so that it does not become the permanent way a volunteer interacts with you. Here are three I’ve used:

Sincere honesty: “I’m noticing a tone of disapproval in your question. Can you tell me what you mean by that?”

Reverse the power: “Hmm, why would you ask me that?”

Humor: “C’mon, you know that everything we do makes no sense. That’s why I love working here!” Granted, this is flippant and doesn’t address the underlying behavior, but sometimes, I just needed to laugh.

The point is, negative patterns often become established. Volunteer managers, being savvy leaders, can discourage a nit-picking pattern from forming by managing negativity head-on, having those difficult conversations and redirecting volunteers to the joy in mission work.

And, the next time you get a question that isn’t really a question, acknowledge the criticism buried just below the surface. Dig it out and keep it from growing too big.