I was mortified.
That was the feedback I received in a client meeting where we were reviewing one of my designs.
The client continued, “We have a perfectly good home page, why don’t we just use that.”
I was confused. We weren’t redesigning the home page. We were integrating journal content into an online community.
My design provided easy access to the current issue, the archives, and accounted for the new context.
Yes, the journal home page included the same links, but it didn’t account for the new context.
She was suggesting that we embed the journal’s homepage within the community site.
I was horrified. This was bad design even for 1999 standards.
I was 22 and ill-equipped to handle this conversation. I was confused and smarting from her extreme feedback. My design wasn’t horrible.
Fortunately, my manager had the wherewithal to say, why don’t you let us try again. And ended the call.
She then turned to me and said, “Walk me through your design.”
So I did.
After which, she replied, “I see what you are doing.”
I sighed in relief.
She continued, “Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be what they want. Can we try embedding the existing homepage?”
She listened to my objections: It will look terrible. It will confuse people. It’s too much information on one page. People will be confused about what site they are on.
And then said, “I get all that. Let’s just try it.”
I said I would do my best.
Most designers have been in this situation before. It’s frustrating.
You want to be heard. You don’t want to design something you disagree with. You want your expertise to be valued.
But as soon as I had to try it something changed.
I got curious. How could I make this work?
I started to experiment. The constraints required a creative solution. I was up for the challenge.
In the end, we went with the client’s suggestion. I found a way to make it work and I was happy with the result.
But if my manager hadn’t intervened, I wouldn’t have gotten there.
Let’s take a look at what happened.
First, I reacted poorly to the criticism. I stopped listening and started bristling instead.
Second, I wasn’t curious. I didn’t ask, “Why is it horrible?” or “What were you expecting instead?”
I was doing exactly what she was doing to me.
I was upset that she wasn’t curious about my design, but I wasn’t curious about her response.
She was critical of my design, but I was critical of her feedback, and even more critical of her alternate solution.
These types of disagreements come up frequently in my coaching sessions.
A product manager disagrees with a design from UX.
An engineer disagrees with the requirements.
A designer disagrees with an implementation.
How to Navigate Disagreements
Let’s take a look at what my manager did and see what we can learn.
She put an end to the argument. It wasn’t constructive and we weren’t converging on a solution.
Rather than being critical, she was curious. She asked me to walk her through my decisions.
She assured me that my thinking was sound, which made me feel heard and valued.
Then and only then did she introduce the new constraint – it’s not what the client wants.
I still protested and she continued to be curious. She listened to my objections. And she reminded me we had a new constraint.
It worked. Her curiosity engaged my curiosity.
Instead of arguing for a position, she invited me to explore it.
The Power of “How Might We”
If my boss had argued the client’s position, I would have rebelled. I would have become more entrenched in my own thinking believing that the client (and now my boss) was wrong.
She didn’t do that.
By encouraging me to explore the possibility, she engaged my own curiosity.
She shifted the focus from who was right and wrong to how might we address this new constraint.
She invoked the power of the “How might we” question.
“How might we” questions are hard to resist. They invoke curiosity. – Tweet This
Consider the difference between: We should embed the journal home page into the community site.
And: How might we use the journal home page within the community site?
The first invokes a discussion about whether or not this is a good thing to do.
The second invokes a conversation about how we might do it.
For more, see this video:
Lead With Curiosity
It’s easy to lead with criticism. It’s challenging to lead with curiosity. But curiosity gets results. – Tweet This
Imagine what would have happened if I had responded to my client’s criticism with curiosity.
If I had asked her what was so horrible about the design or if I had asked what she had expected, I would have learned more about her perspective. I would have gotten closer to a viable solution.
By leading with criticism, I stalled out the conversation. We went nowhere. We got stuck.
In my coaching practice, I encourage my clients to treat curiosity like a game. These are the rules.
When you disagrees with someone:
- Start by assuming that they are smart and talented.
- Assume they have good reason for their action or their thoughts.
- Your goal is to find that reason.
The first assumption is key. If you don’t assume they are smart and talented, your curiosity will come across as an attack and you’ll invoke defensive behavior.
The second assumption keeps you motivated to play the game. If their reason doesn’t seem like a good one, you haven’t reached your goal.
You don’t have to agree with them, but you should keep playing until you can see why their reason makes sense to them.
This is the epitome of Stephen Covey’s habit, seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Find more tips on cultivating curiosity here.
Are you interested in developing your product skills? Subscribe to the Product Talk mailing list. You’ll get:
- A new article every Wednesday,
- Book recommendations and worthy reads from around the web every other Sunday,
- And you’ll be the first to hear about the upcoming Product Talk Academy where you’ll get a variety of opportunities to invest in your product skills.
Thank you for sharing your story. It is a good reminder. I can very much imagine how you felt and can practically feel the heat in my face rise in sympathy. You were so fortunate to have such a manager to help you learn from that experience.
Teresa Torres says
Thanks, Jenny! She was a great manager. I only got to work with her for a couple of months, but I learned a lot from her.
Daniel Lang says
This is a fantastic tip for how to be better at discussions in general. Thanks
Teresa Torres says
Thanks, Daniel. Glad you found it helpful.
Rick Levy says
Thanks Teresa, great insight into listening to clients!
“How might we” vs “We should” – Great idea and well said!
Excellent skill to develop and thanks for sharing this 🙂
Another thought crossed my mind – would having an internal review with your manager/coworkers prior to the client review have helped avoiding this situation, or, made it better?
I understand that its not always possible, given time limitations, but curious..
Teresa Torres says
In this particular case, I had reviewed the design with my manager before the client call. Neither one of us had a complete understanding of the client’s requirements and that’s what led to the mismatch in my design and their needs.