Thursday, July 14, 2011

Work is about more than showing up, Part 2: talking the part

I find it interesting that college prepares us--not just architects, but most if not all professions--with nearly every skill necessary to their job except that of communication.  In architecture, we learn some communication skills, of course, but they're mostly visual and very trade-specific.  We learn how to draw and build models of what's happening in our heads and how to get that point across to the jury in school, and then we learn how to explain visually to the contractor how to build our vision. But we spend a lot of time learning how to speak an insular language, that of architecture, and then find ourselves unable to speak to the average person about how what we're doing is important and why we're doing it and what it means and so on.  Further, it seems that we spend so much time learning how to speak--or refuse to speak--our insular language that we forget how to speak to any other human being about anything.  I could write a hundred pages on my  issues with archispeak, but I'll spare you because 1) you seem like decent people and 2) I want to focus a bit on everyday communication in the workplace.

If you're working in a architecture firm, the chances are extremely high that you have a college degree.  Your bosses, clients, and consultants know this: they know your degree is part of what got you in the door to this office in the first place.  And especially in this economy, they know that you must know your stuff.  With so many well-qualified interns and architects to choose from right now, you must be really sharp to be working right now.  So imagine someone's surprise when they open an email that's poorly-spelled or confusing, or perhaps they receive a slang-filled, profanity-laced, or sharply-worded accusatory email from you.  Suddenly, your credibility is gone (or at least damaged) with a few keystrokes.  I've seen it happen with architects, not just interns, and I've seen it happen in person as well as with email.  Again, I've compiled a few things I've learned in 11 years of practice and from my colleagues' experiences as well.

  • Don't just fire off emails; take the time to pause and understand them.  Are you clear with what you want the outcome of this email to be?  Is it something that might be better handled with a phone call first?  If you've received an email, do you understand what is being asked of you?  Is there an undertone to the email (whiny, bossy, belligerent, confused)? 
  • Don't just fire off emails; take the time to pause and reread them.  If you're sending out the initial email, is your request or question clear in the email?  Have you provided all the necessary information for the recipient to respond or make a decision?  If you're responding to an email, did you answer all the questions asked of you?  Is your response neutral and factual (especially important if the received email was nasty or cranky or accusatory)?  Again, might this be better served by making a phone call first? 
  • A one- or two-word response is rarely acceptable.  Every now and then, they're okay, but in general, use complete sentences to respond to a question or request.  If your client emails to ask if you would send them a color hard copy of a site master plan you've done, the best response is something like, "Absolutely.  We'll print it today, and you should have it via UPS tomorrow."  Not "okay" or "yup" (which I've actually seen in an email to a client).  If a consultant emails you to say that they need a ceiling lowered in a specific room in order to get ducts to work with beams, a good response is something like "Got it--we'll make that change right now, and it will be in the Revit model we post on Friday."  A real sentence shows that you've read the email and understand the request or information being presented.
  • Watch the slang--not everyone hangs with your crew.  I say this regardless of whether your favorite phrase is "holla back,g" or "git 'er done."  Slang implies a level of intimacy that you possibly don't have (and probably don't want to have) with your clients, consultants, or contractors.
  • Remember that everything you send or write on company email is fair game in a court of law.  I've talked about this before, but it's worth repeating.  If your email has an inside joke, profanity, or some sort of snide comment about a project or another team member, think about how that email would sound being read aloud in court...or having a belligerent client find it in your files and using it against you.
  • Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.  Some of the stuff you deal with might be better handled by your boss, or even your boss' boss. If you're ever unsure, forward the email to your manager and ask them how you'd like to handle it.  This is especially important when someone asks you about something in which you had no part of making, such as a contract, fees, or project schedule.
  • Pretty much all of these things apply just as much to verbal communication as they do to written communication.  We are often taught that being able to immediately say "yes" or "no" or "two weeks" or "blue" makes us look on top of things and highly competent, but it's not always the case.  Pausing in verbal communication to ask questions, check the drawings or code books, or talk to our colleagues and/or managers helps us make sure that we understand the problem or question fully. This understanding ensures that we're not revisiting the question later when our attempt to talk fast and go fast has forced us to give an incorrect answer or poorly-thought-out solution.  Email has the blessing of making communication nearly as instantaneous as speaking face-to-face or on the phone, but this can be a curse when we think we have to respond immediately. 
The bottom line here is that it's okay to pause and think before responding or acting on an email or a verbal request (or comment).  That pause gives you the chance to make sure you understand the situation and are reacting appropriately.  As a friend of mine says, "Don't mistake action for progress."

Got a question to ask or a topic you'd like to see discussed here?  Let me know in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!

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