To understand our clients’ needs and then offer a reasonable solution for them, we have to learn what they require and where they are starting. There are several ways of gathering this information. One is from asking questions and listening to what is shared, another is from observations and impressions, and a third is from perceptions. All are valuable, but the last one – perceptions – may be the most underutilized resource we have.
Of course, verbal communication is essential to understanding our clients and learning what they might want us to accomplish for them. We listen to what they volunteer to share with because they want us to know what they are thinking, and we need to be aware of what they want us to know without our even asking for it. They may have some very strongly held ideas of what they feel they need to have done or how they desire to remain safely and comfortably in their homes in the coming years. They may casually mention some “nice-to-have” features that they would like to get if they could. They may share ideas about courses of action, products, solutions, or directions that they do not support or want to see.
Verbal communication consists of asking questions skillfully – opinion questions about what they like or prefer in general or how they feel about various options or possible directions; preference questions about which of a few choices presented they desire the most or how well they like a particular brand, style, color, or choice being described, suggested, or presented to them; and decision questions where they are asked to actually make a choice about moving forward with a design concept, modifying it, eliminating it, or going a different direction.
There also is an element of verbal communication which includes what is conveyed but not specifically spoken. We call this nonverbal communication. It consists of gestures and expressions – a shrug for indifference or no opinion, a raised eyebrow for shock or surprise, a scowl or frown for something unpleasant or undesirable, a smile for a pleasant response, a nod for consent or agreement, steepling (holding one’s hands loosely together so that just the fingertips touch) as a sign of confidence or self-assurance, looking down or away to be non-engaging, looking upward as if dreaming or thinking, or a nod for agreement or interest (as in keep talking), for instance.
Observations come from what we see. We look for conditions in the home that suggest the need for modification of improvement to make the dwelling space safer, more comfortable, more convenient, or more accessible for the client. We look at what exists, and we compare that to what we know can be used in its place to make the dwelling stronger or more viable for the client. We watch the client and form an opinion of how they are using their space and what we might be able to do to improve that for them. We look at any issues they have in navigating their space, reaching, lifting, holding, grasping, sitting, standing, bending, lifting, or other aspects of mobility.
Sometimes the client will volunteer concerns they have about their home or certain features in it. Or they may comment on how it is difficult to perform certain tasks in their home. Then we make a specific point of looking at those and making notes as part of our observations.
The final way of gaining an insight into what is going on and what we might want to recommend to assist our clients is through perceptions. This is a type of impression but is based more on what we sense that what we observe. We need to ask ourselves if we perceive or sense any inadequacies anywhere in the physical layout or use of the floor space even though we may not actually see it initially or have it brought to our attention.
As we look about or remain in the home with our clients during our initial interview with them, do we feel that there might be any safety issues that are present in concealed areas that we think we need to check out or investigate? Are the clients suggesting any security concerns (falling, intrusion, burns, leaks, or other unexpected or disruptive or intrusive acts) in anything they say or do that would lead us to believe that we need to factor this into our design recommendations, or are there any other concerns that we may be picking up on that are not specifically stated?
It’s having this heightened awareness to what is going in around us, in front of us, and within the home – and how the clients might be relating to their space as a result of what we sense – that will give an edge on addressing it and meeting their needs. This is an important additional tool that we can use to formulate our design approach.