The HGTV effect.
Architecture is a slow craft that takes years to master. Creating something as complex as a building involves a tremendous amount of expertise. It is common for even the simplest of today’s buildings to be touched by hundreds of hands in the process of designing and building it. It is also a concept that’s very difficult to grasp for neophytes. Somehow, it is very common to find people who think they have a good understanding of building science and the art of designing buildings even if their experience stops at being a mere building user.
Let’s call it the HGTV effect, which makes designing building, house flipping and home renos look easy because it is scripted for TV and this mass-consumption content is designed to make complex issues appear effortless. We all know that the reality is vastly different. So, what to do when a client shows up and they think they know everything and can “do it themselves”?
Empathy and listening skills.
This is where empathy and listening skills come in. The same way you wouldn’t trust a doctor who would prescribe a treatment before a proper diagnosis, your duty as a designer is to diagnose your clients from the start to ensure that your work with the right people and that your relationships are being managed properly.
A proper diagnosis starts with asking the right kind of questions and then listening. Intently. This is where the magic happens, because all of a sudden, your clients are given the space to open up and say what’s truly on their mind. You can really get gold from doing this and it’s a skill that just about anyone can acquire with enough deliberate practice. Asking great questions early and often will also contribute to positioning you as the expert in the relationship as you are purposely taking the reigns of the relationship. Remember, this is what clients are paying you big money for, to lead the engagement and guide them gently but firmly in the right direction.
Don’t tell them what to do.
We live in a culture of telling, which makes this kind of more reflective practice at times difficult because our instincts push us to talk more than we listen. Telling people assumes that the other person does not know what you’re talking about and can be condescending, which in turns impedes the building of trust-based relationships.
A ready-made method for better relationships.
Ed Schein, in his book Humble Inquiry teaches us how to practice such a deliberate and structured form of listening. In it, he explains in great detail and with very telling examples how humble inquiry works. It requires being in a state of mind of non-judgmental curiosity, where the questions we ask are genuinely and openly giving the interlocutor permission to speak freely, without trying to lead them in a particular direction.
It also requires the willingness and ability to put oneself in a temporary vulnerable position of humility, described by schein as “here and now humility” which demonstrates that we are willing to put ourselves in a position of dependence with regards to the other person, which builds trust and enables them to open up more. As we are all more or less dependent on other people, there are many situations in life where this skill can come in handy.
For people at the top of any kind of hierarchy, it is even more critical to learn how to master those skills, as people in position of power tend to be by default deferred to, making it more difficult for subordinates to bring up difficult topics. In a designer-client relationship, this is particularly helpful because it gives the client permission to be more open about their fears, desires and aspirational goals. It also breaks down the natural defences that we all tend to put up when we find ourselves in a situation where saving face is more important than achieving our goals.
How does that apply to a design practice?
In the running of a design practice, we are reliant on our clients to get critical information to make any given project successful. Mastering humble inquiry, puts the client temporarily in the driver seat, giving permission to share information in a safe, non-judgmental way. After all, we all strive to look good, but that comes with a price, when putting up a always-positive front, we tend to engage our ego, that’s just human nature. It results in a skin-deep image of our self that we project to the world. Breaking down that barrier and getting deeper in a relationship is where the magic happens.
Every step of the design process ideally requires our clients to freely express themselves and talk about their aforementioned fears, desires and aspirations. When we get to the point where open and trusting relationships are created and maintained with our clients the information flows freely and our work becomes easier.
This in turns makes you more effective, which ultimately means more profitable because you don’t spend a lot of time -if any at all- dealing with “emergencies” that are often the result of poor communications. It is also important to note that this does not mean that we have to turn ourselves in order-takers, simply executing our clients’ every whim. Becoming a master of our craft is about finding a balance between being a spineless order-taker and an egomaniacal diva pushing people around. It’s about pushing and pulling, but always doing so in a way that both gives out clients permission to fully express themselves while maintaining the position of the expert leader, paid to lead the client to the desired result.
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