Architecture is no different than any other business when it comes to communication. As architects we must communicate with our clients, office colleagues, contractors and manufacturers, just to name a few. Miscommunications are part of the process. However, the less occurrences, the better. Here's an anecdote of my youth where I learned a valuable lesson.
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Early in my teens, I made a questionable series of choices which helped me realize that communication is crucial in relaying ideas, as well as succeeding in various areas of life. At the time, I was very outgoing, but never overly boisterous. My schooling had not been marred by any major problems—only a few scuffles and occasional detentions for minor infractions.
Little did I know that one spring job would change my thinking about communication. (You won’t want to miss the ending.)
Prelude: Determined to overcome the stereotype of NYC urban/inner-city youth lacking swimming skills, my dad enrolled my brother and me in a swim program before kindergarten. From then on, he worked hard to instill water skills and confidence in us. These times include some of my fondest and youngest memories. We excelled, being lovers of the water to this day.
In the early 2000s, I was about 15 years old. Late that winter, I decided to try to become a lifeguard.
What’s not to like!? Great pay, on the beach or in the pool. How can it go wrong?
I just needed to get certified and then apply to the local water attractions, beaches, and parks.
Stumbling across my local community center—which had a small indoor pool—I came to an agreement with the director that I’d supervise and help with homework during the after-school program. For that, I’d be given a small stipend and access to the pool to train, as well as be admitted into the expensive certification exam. This kind of exchange wasn’t new, though I felt accomplished in negotiating the deal. Nothing was ever put in writing, but since he was an adult, I figured he’d abide by his word.
Months later, I caught wind that a few others, who’d started working before me, had apparently cut a similar deal and were in the final stages of preparation. I inquired about being included with them, feeling prepared enough to also take the test.
Unexpectedly, the director nonchalantly dismissed the notion! He explained that I needed to complete certain steps—as the others had done—to be included. I was not able to rationalize this in my mind, not having been given any instructions in the months prior. As a matter of fact, I rarely even spoke to my boss other than an occasional “Hi” or “Bye.”
For a few days, I persisted in inquiring if it was still possible to enter the program. The decision remained unchanged. Infuriated, I notified the staff of my decision to quit—the only reason I took the job was to enter the lifeguard certification program!
Having no way to express my anger with the director, even among the staff—who I thought were friendly, but remained oddly loyal to their boss—I left. I felt as though something deceptive was occurring. The biggest aggravation was the wasted time. I lacked the money to pay for the certification exam, and now there was only a short interval before the prime hiring season.
During my hasty exit, I failed to retrieve a $50 deposit for a ski trip I’d been looking forward to prior to the aforementioned bubble burst. Not wanting to visit in person, I opted to call, each time being told it would be returned soon. After a while, I got impatient.
I’m going down there and demand my money back!
Looking back, it wasn’t the brightest idea.
My arrival inside the foyer was swift and at first, I thought I’d get the situation resolved with the front desk assistant. Nope…my first roadblock.
My fearless demeanor was firm as I asked to speak to the office staff. These “loyal” employees were really, as I saw it, just afraid. No one wanted to interrupt the director for his signature on the already-cut check (all refunds had to be issued that way). Stopped again…my second roadblock.
This is the last straw.
I began yelling at the front desk assistant. My voice was not being heard; therefore, I was going to make it heard—no matter what!
Another poor choice.
After the staff explained the scenario to the director, I was ushered into his office. No pleasantries were exchanged as I demanded what was rightfully mine. Rather than attempting to understand the situation—or realizing I had been slighted during the previous incident—this former police officer threatened to have me thrown out. Essentially, his tactic was to show no mercy and shut me up. He eventually handed over the check and I stormed out.
Some hours later at home, my parents sat me down and explained that they had spoken to the director. Oddly enough, they weren’t as hard on me as I thought they were going to be. Honestly, I didn’t figure the director would contact my parents. I think they knew my anger was completely justified, and it was a fluke occurrence.
Though I was grounded, it wasn’t really for acting out against authority. It was more for not asking for help in solving the problem. They had always taught me to have and show respect for others, especially adults, even in adversity. We always have a choice.
This story has run through my head many times over the years. What mistakes did I make? What led to the miscommunication? What could I have done differently?
Related Topic for fellow professionals: Communicating your value as an Architect
There were four principle errors:
• I had no agreement with the director, or even the basic program details in writing. I expected the other party to abide by their word and provide all necessary information. When I didn’t receive any, I didn’t request further details. Lesson: Communicate often, and get the specific points in writing.
• I let my emotions dictate my actions. Temporary emotions shouldn’t make permanent decisions, especially when they have future ramifications. My careless actions could have landed me in serious trouble. Lesson: It might feel justified, but you look at the bigger picture, it’s really only a bump in the road.
• Being angry, even if it’s justified, doesn’t give anyone the right to lash out at others. Not everyone was necessarily part of the problem. Even if you were speaking to the one at fault, how does lashing out help? Lesson: It’s more productive and positive to work toward a solution—even if the best solution is walking away.
• Lastly, I didn’t ask for help. Close family and friends were available for advice, or even to intervene. Arriving with my mom, dad, or older brother would have changed my entire approach drastically. Lesson: Talk through your problem with those whose opinion and trust you value. A fresh perspective may lead you to a solution you didn’t think of. However…you learn the most from your mistakes, right!?
Overall, I am glad I had this experience, since it helped shape the way I communicate today. No one is perfect, nor is anyone exempt from dealing with difficult people. Therefore, we must diligently guard our mouth. Treat every interaction as a way to gain positive progress, or at least learn how to remain calm in adverse situations in order to reach an amicable result. DID THE STORY END THERE?
Some years later, I was in my twenties, attending college, and the altercation had been tucked away into the back of my head. I came to hear that this same director was being investigated for fraud and allegations surrounding the organization’s finances. He took a leave of absence and never returned to the job. My suspicions were validated some eight years later when his dishonesty in this bigger circumstance landed him in serious trouble.
Names and locations were purposely omitted. My intention is not to point fingers and blame, but to show that you can bring out the best in any situation and learn from it.
Want to hear more about the author as an Architect and his everyday life? He is known as a ArchiDad.
Jared W. Smith
My life as an architect, photographer and family man trying to stay positive in a negative world.
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