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PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT: Notes from the RIBA 'Client and Architect' publication

I caught up on some reading over Christmas break including the RIBA publication "Client and Architect: Developing the Essential Relationship". With sections titled "Lend them your ears", "Brush up your people skills", "Walk a mile in their shoes" and "Seek and listen to feedback", it's fair to say that Stephen Hodder and the Client Liasion Group give a pretty convincing argument for developing your soft skills.

My perspective, however, wasn't focused on the architect-client relationship. Listening and understanding, feedback, people skills and continuous improvement, are skills that also have great bearing on your internal relationships and your success as a leader. I've summarised the 'soft skill essentials' below, quoting out of context (authors forgive me) so that you see how they apply to you back at the office. 

1. Seek and listen to feedback:

'Continuous improvement is central to architects' professionalism.'

 'More compellingly for individual architects, perhaps, it supports personal aspirations to strive for excellence.'

'Architects should seek and listen to feedback. In that way you get continuous improvement.'

They may be talking post-occupancy evaluations but I'm thinking performance appraisals. Have you ever attended an appraisal (either as employee or reviewer) where you were surprised by the feedback? Thoughts such as "where did this come from?" or "how come I never knew about this, months ago?" might just shock you enough to descend into defensive comments, reactionary behaviours and even tears. It's to our advantage to know how to give feedback, listen to feedback and react to it in an appropriate manner.

'As well as better outcomes on...projects, honest performance review engenders trust, boosts reputations and can be intelligently digested to improve an architect's performance on all measures. More importantly, it can be used to demonstrate... unequivocal competence and effectiveness...' 

Ok, so it's got to be a well-executed review to live up to that quote! But then how many of us prepare adequately for a performance appraisal? Or for seeking and listening to feedback? 

  • Having a specific list of outcomes for your meeting and communicating those outcomes will ensure you leave your appraisal/meeting having imparted the information you need to get across or need to seek.
  • Practising review/feedback scenarios will help you verbalise your thoughts coherently. An awareness of your body language can help you prepare for giving or receiving unsavoury feedback.
  • Ideally, we want to meet feedback with further enquiry, positivity and with emotions in check. Working with an executive coach is an advantage, as often 'you don't know what you are going to say until you say it'. A coach will hold up a mirror to your words and actions so that you can give yourself choices in delivery and response.

2. Brush up your people skills:

 'It is, then, ironic that clients see significant scope for architects to improve the people skills they display within the project team.'

'Good people skills - teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, communication, anticipation, respect, empathy and so on - are hard to define and tough to acquire. But they are very important in building trust and overcoming the stresses that inevitably arise, even in the smallest of projects.'

'For an architect, getting these soft skills right brings lasting relationships, repeat business and a stronger reputation.'

"When the team gels, what comes with that is a healthy and challenging relationship."

Bravo to the Clients' for being honest. Although the roundtables found that 'many people lack the people skills needed for collaborative working', it's still alarming to read supporting comments such as "The team have to work together, but in my experience working together is not a concept architects enjoy". We all recognise the importance of people skills but are they so hard to acquire as suggested? Developing effective people skills starts with stopping, reflecting and taking note of yourself. This is difficult when we feel that every gap in our day has to be filled with checking emails, tweets or social media. 

  • Relating to others starts with self-awareness, a growth mindset and a willingness to change aspects of yourself - beliefs, behaviours and feelings.
  • Creating daily opportunities to ask for feedback, give appreciative feedback and listen to your team will go a long way to improving communication and developing trust.
  • Developing a strong sense of identity and self-worth makes us less likely to be threatened by new ideas and unfamiliar ways of doing things. We are more accepting of people as individuals and of input from those on a diverse team. 
  • Working with a coach allows you to explore aspects of your self-development or your team development that could benefit from changes. Soft skills can be developed through observation, reflection and discussion in a non-judgemental environment.  

3. Walk a mile in their shoes: 

 'Some architects excel at listening and understanding, the evidence from the roundtable discussions suggest they are seen as exceptions.'

'Architects who listen and understand breed trust...'

'Architects who listen and understand are better placed to challenge the brief.'

Listening and understanding are harder than we think. In conversation with someone, try not interjecting with your opinion, try not to offer any advice and try not to assume you know exactly what they mean without first confirming it. For the most part, we listen with the intent to interject. We listen whilst simultaneously forming our response and we listen with our ears only and not our body, heart and soul. But effective listening and understanding skills are realistic and achievable and are not beyond any architect.  

  • Who are the people that you can identify as good listeners? What are they doing or not doing that make them effective at this?
  • To accelerate your career, slow down. Pause, breathe and listen without interruption. Then repeat what you have heard. Ask enquiring questions. Chances are the speaker will further clarify some aspect of what they said. 
  • Engage in a partnership with a professional coach as listening is at the very essence of their work with you. Coaches are best equipped to help you turn effective listening into powerful questions that will raise communication levels. 

4. Lend them your ears:

 'The key is to actually listen, not just make assumptions or presumptions.'

'Once the architect has interpreted the client's needs, it is essential to communicate that back... (so they know you know)...'

"...openly exchanging and challenging ideas, building consensus in a shared spirit of open dialogue. This recognition - demand even - that all those around the table can and should contribute to solving the problem has been central to the success of the project."

Further emphasis on listening and understanding to develop trust and respect. What is stopping everyone at your team meeting from contributing to the discussion, developing a solution and taking ownership of the outcome? Hierarchy, gender, bowing to the extrovert on the team, race, conflict, motivation; there are a great number of covert and overt factors that may be influential here. If the most senior person in the company participated in your team meeting, how many people would refrain from talking? One of the reasons I love facilitating LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® meetings is that they demand full participation and ownership of the team vision. Best of all, you get the time to think about what you are going to say before you speak, freeing you up to really listen to what others say.

  • Team collaboration starts with recognising and appreciating the strengths of your peers. Are the strengths that you see in them, the same strengths that they see in themselves?
  • How often do you publically thank each other for successes, hold each other accountable or engage in constructive critical dialogue with taking it personally? As a team can you discuss what needs to change in your team?
  • Allowing everyone on your team dedicated time to speak at the beginning of a meeting goes a long way to getting everybody prepared to communicate without fear of interruption. 

It has delighted me to read about soft skills so openly and prolifically in this RIBA publication. Soft skills are essential to the development of our careers and can be overlooked or brushed aside when it comes to actionable strategies to achieve them. Are you going to improve your soft skills this year and how are you proposing to do this?

If you would like help in achieving better listening, feedback, communication and leadership skills then executive or team coaching is an excellent space in which to achieve this.

Without prejudice or judgement coaching helps you raise your awareness levels so that communication is more effective. It results in 'efficient, appropriate decision-making', a happier team and ultimately, as this RIBA publication emphasises, a happier client. 

Contact me today to talk about how coaching can help develop your soft skills.