Top tips for tip-top relationships

29 November 2018

Catherine Greig, Director, make:good

‘Tis the season when the relationships in our lives come to the fore – whether it’s getting to spend more time with those we love most, or sadly for some, feeling the absence of those relationships most acutely.

Relationship-building is something we think about, talk about and write about all the time at make:good. It can sometimes be dismissed as the softer stuff, but in our line of work it’s really hard to get anything designed, approved or built without really good relationships all round. This is particularly true of public sector projects, where you often find yourself liaising with a wide range of stakeholders with varied interests and priorities.

Architecture is all about people. People feeling good about the stuff we design for them, or the stuff we support them to co-design, all comes out of the strength of relationships we build. Without a good relationship there’s no trust between client and designer or designer and end user, making it difficult to interrogate the brief, get honest feedback and really understand what will make a project successful. Without trust, open communication and collaborative working, you don’t get designs that feel right for a place and make your heart sing.

This is equally true of our relationships with the fabricators we work with, who go on to build our projects. Getting their best work from them and understanding what motivates them to make things beautifully is all part of ensuring that the end result is something we’re all proud of. So what does it take to build good relationships?

  1. Listening. Sounds so simple but it is surprisingly rare that we really listen to each other and check back in that we understand. Whether it’s listening to people’s concerns and aspirations for their neighbourhood or listening to a fabricator explain the limitations of a material, it’s so important to make sure you’ve fully understood.
  2. Be curious. People are brilliant! I often say this when we are pitching for work, which is sometimes greeted with a raised eyebrow – but I really believe it. Get to know what makes people tick and why. Asking questions and taking a genuine interest in people also helps to build rapport.
  3. Be upfront about limitations and mistakes. You can’t build strong working relationship and trust if you are holding things back, not giving people the full picture or avoiding admitting mistakes. People understand that not everything is possible, so setting out parameters and being transparent from the beginning helps to avoid frustration further down the line.
  4. Be yourself. Another obvious one but we’ve been taught for a long time to be professional, not personal. But the longer I run make:good, the more I realise that just being me – complete with flaws and best bits – is what pushes projects over the finish line. It also means the rest of team make:good feels comfortable bringing their full selves to work. In turn, we encourage it in most of the people we work with. Without being real, we step back into the problematic roles of expert vs ill informed, the doers vs the done to. And what’s the point of engagement if it only serves to reinforce a feeling of powerlessness?
  5. Put the time in. You can’t just expect good relationships to develop at the drop of a hat. You need to be prepared to go back time and time again, be consistent and show people what you are made of, so they start to believe that you are true to your word.

It all comes down to people in the end. By getting to know them in all of their wonderful quirkiness and bringing your authentic self to each conversation, you can build a relationship based on equality not hierarchy.

Building better relationships seems like a great aim for next year; we would love to know your tips, ideas or experiences that have made a real difference in relationship-building when working with communities.