Don’t Listen… Engage.

cartoon_chocolate cheese

I was walking downtown a few years ago to grab some lunch, and what appeared to be a somewhat mentally incapacitated man dressed in rags ran up to me and yelled, “Why can’t I have chocolate cheese if you can have chocolate milk?” Much to his surprise, I responded:

Me: “Hmm.. that sounds amazing!”
The man gets a huge toothless grin on his face,
Man: “See, I know what I’m talking about!”
Me: “Well, if you ever find any chocolate cheese, you let me know and we’ll try it. My treat.”
Man: “You all-right, girl…. You all-right.”

If I had just walked by, listening but not engaging a conversation with this person, I would have never had the new lifelong mission of finding the perfect chocolate cheese. This act of actually passing words back and forth is hugely important in the field of architecture, and while we likely all agree with that, it’s often forgotten.

(Raise your hand if…) As a young intern I would be asked to go to meetings to listen and take notes, but I don’t think I ever felt like I was learning much by sitting quietly just writing down what was said. This isn’t how most of our “creative brains” learn. After a few months I became more confident in the office, and I would still get asked to “come and takes notes at the meeting”, but I found myself asking questions about the project while note taking which not only helped me relate to the client’s needs, but also helped me remember why they needed bookshelves that were exactly 28” high and a conference room that held 14 chairs. The added benefit that I didn’t realize at the time, was that I was also getting to know the clients on a more personal level which led them to start trusting me even at the start of my career. This trust from the clients developed into trust from my employer, who let me be involved and even manage the bigger, and what I thought would be the more enjoyable, projects – all from simply asking small questions and engaging the client.

Having my own firm now, I of course have to engage with clients on a daily basis if I want to maintain any type of reputation with them, but for me that’s one of the best parts of being an Architect. However, it’s something I’m seeing in many firms that isn’t being taught, or even worse, discouraged. I’m not sure why an owner or manager of the firm wouldn’t want to show that they have bright, energetic, curious people working for them who are genuinely interested in what the client has to say. But I’ve been to a number of meetings where the younger intern is expected to sit quietly and listen, and then have the client ask why they are even brought to the meeting in the first place. This is not a mentoring or learning situation and doesn’t gain trust from anyone. Young architect/intern community, if your boss isn’t giving you opportunities, then you need to take charge, speak up and engage yourself with the client, consultant, and others around you. If you are told not to speak during a meeting, you’re likely not in an environment that’s going to advance your career and it’s time to have a candid talk with your employer and/or look for a firm that actually supports incoming architects. For the rest of us, please don’t tell your interns to just listen and take notes!

And as Citizen Architects, we need to focus not only on clients, but also the community. I have attended a number of community meetings for people affected by the forest fires these past couple of years. Engaging with the people of the community who attended these meetings has made my understanding and appreciation for what they need help with far greater and allowed me to focus my energies into designs that work for them. And it’s ok to talk with people who are outside your comfort zone – they are likely the ones to have some of the biggest impacts on your day, if not years to come. There was a “traveling lady” (this is what she called herself) who was hanging out in Colorado Springs for two weeks or “until someone told her to leave”. She had a cheap disposable camera and said she was taking pictures of all the people she met on her journey. We would walk our dog past her camp nearly every evening and say hello, and on one evening she took my husband’s picture with our dog. Three days later she came running over with a photograph with a big smile on her face excited to see us. She had this set made as doubles just so she could give us a copy of the photo she took. It’s one of my very favorite pictures of my husband.

Don’t just listen to people around you, engage them. You’ll be a better Architect and a better person for it!

Christy Riggs, AIA, LEED Green Associate |  308 LLC

2 thoughts on “Don’t Listen… Engage.

  1. I completely agree and feel fortunate that I had those experiences and support when I first started working as an architectural intern. Building relationships is key to success in most fields especially in a service based industry. I currently work in the public sector where most of my job is reliant on customer service and relationships. Great blog!

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