Listen Up!


Someone recently asked me what skill every architect should have today and when I gave them my answer, they were a bit surprised by its simplicity. “They need to know how to listen,” I said, with a brief pause before adding the next two words. “Really listen.”

In a market flooded with creative, talented professionals, it takes more than just architecture or design know-how to win repeat business and referrals. Being a good communicator is what truly separates the acceptable from the exceptional, yet the art of listening is continually undervalued.

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Don’t believe me? Below are some facts, verified through research studies, to underscore my point:

  • Listening is considered one of the most important skills for an effective professional by both business practitioners and academics, yet only 1.5% of business journal articles deal with the topic. (Smeltzer, 1993)
  • Individual performance in an organization is found to be directly tied to listening ability or perceived listening effectiveness. (Haas & Arnold, 1995)
  • Listening is tied to effective leadership. (Johnson & Behler, 1998)
  • Listening is identified as a top skill employers seek in entry-level employees as well as those being promoted. (AICPA, 2005)

If you follow this column, you’ll recall that, just two weeks ago, I shared the names of a few of my key business inspirations. Among my top influencers was Dr. Gerard D. Bell, Ph.D and CEO of the Bell Leadership Institute. While I’ve always considered myself to be a solid communicator, his listening techniques have heightened my skill set. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be the one speaking. Sometimes it’s best to take it all in, let the other party fully express themselves and then reiterate the key points through active listening.

So, how is listening beneficial to those in the commercial real estate industry? A number of interactions come to mind, but here’s one that nicely highlights the value: In a recent deal, by listening intently to a broker, I was able to understand his hesitations, know how to react to them and help him meet his clients’ costs within a lease. Had I not been fully listening, I might have missed the underlying message behind his words…and the opportunity to offer up a solution. It’s that reading between the lines — letting the person finish their thoughts without reacting and interrupting, but instead listening and watching — that makes all the difference. You have to hear out the whole thought and examine the other person’s body language to decipher if their words and non-verbal signals line up.

I consider listening and integral part of my job as an architect. A great architect can pull information out of the brokers, tenants and landlords they work with, even if they themselves are not sure of what they want or how to communicate it. This tactic is at the very core of workplace strategy. We think ahead, analyze current needs, anticipate future ones and ask thought-provoking questions as much as any skilled attorney or psychologist would. (I’ve often said that my work overlaps with those two professions on any given day!). It is only then that we can negotiate and help design a workspace that suits a tenant or landlords’ requirements.

Good listening can also protect our clients in transactions. It’s smart business to listen carefully, dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” — and even siphon out the nonsense along the way. That active listening results in the best deal for the client and allows us to put forth our best design efforts.