A few years ago, we uprooted our family and moved to San Francisco. The company I was working for at the time as Creative Director had just taken a small round of funding with the specific goal of rapidly expanding the business. Moving was a big decision for us, but we were enthusiastic about taking this next step in our lives.
My wife, whose full-time job is raising two children, also happens to be an incredibly talented decorator—or organator (organizer + decorator), as she likes to call herself. Her knack for arranging a space and bringing it to life is amazing, and I was constantly encouraging her to start a blog and begin sharing her delightfully smart and creative ideas. But she was always a bit reluctant.
“Who’s gonna read it?” she would ask.
“Just start the blog,” I said. “You’ll be surprised.”
Turns out I was in for the surprise.
Dana finally agreed to let me design and build her site. I became the designer and my wife became the client. To conduct the process as professionally as possible, I even set up a formal session during which we began to talk about what she envisioned for her new blog: how it would be organized, what the content would be, the look and feel—all the usual things you discuss when meeting with a client for the first time.
Seek first to understand is a principle that is absolutely essential for good interpersonal communication. I picked it up years ago from Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I work hard to incorporate this principle into both my personal and business relationships and consider myself to be pretty good at using this to elicit the real problem that needs to be solved in order for a design to be successful.
Surely, this process would be easy. Dana was passionate about her topic, and she was my partner in life. The love of my life. I was an experienced web designer who highly valued good communication. What could possibly go wrong?
However, as Dana and I spent more time together, starting to design and build her new blog, we found ourselves increasingly frustrated with each other. To be candid, she was actually becoming irritated with me. I, on the other hand, was routinely channeling nearly all of the negative clichés about designers you can imagine. Pronouncements like, “You just don’t do that.” and “That’s just wrong!” began to roll off my tongue, complete with eye-rolling and defensive body language.
And, great communicator that I was, I would become extremely annoyed when I had to explain why. My furrowed brow of frustration was pretty much the antithesis of “Seek first to understand” and more like “Stop talking to me, leave me alone, and just let me make this thing for you; it will be awesome, and you will like it, and so will other people.”
Finally, one day, as we were slogging through another session of trying to get this thing off the ground, Dana said, “Okay, forget it. I don’t want to do this with you. Honestly, if this is how you treat other clients or the people you work with, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Ouch! Did she really just say that?
Cue defensive male posture and ready the rebuttals.
Fortunately, I managed to stop myself and instead opened up to what she was saying. It wasn’t easy. Here was the woman of my dreams, the one person that I know and am known by more than anyone on the planet, the wife to whom I pledged my heart and my life, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was not listening, was not open to her feedback, and was not taking what she wanted into account.
Okay, Mr. Seek-first-to-understand-professional-designer-guy, where is your essential principle of interpersonal communication now?
It was nowhere to be found. In fact, it turned out my ego was running the show more than I wanted to admit. I mean, after all, people would see her site and know I designed it. It would represent my abilities and reputation. I had to make sure it was perfect.
Notice how much of that was all about me? Wait a minute. Who was I designing this for?
That’s right, my wife.
So after I got down off of my high horse and humbled myself enough to listen, Dana and I were able to work together to create something that reflected who she is and what she loves rather than a showcase for my skills as a designer.
This experience serves as my constant reminder that design is for the client, not for us, and that humility and openness are qualities not only worth cultivating but critically important for working with every client—even the ones who once said, “I do.”