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How not to argue with your Spanish contractor

A building site is not exactly a rose garden. And often you have to draw the line somewhere.

I am referring to the situation when the contractor on site is not doing his job properly or when a member of the contractor’s team is not up to the standard that it is required.

Communication is a vital skill for an architect, whether in dealing with clients, fellow members of a practice but more important when dealing with the contractor and when you are assuming the site supervisor role because the job is too small to contract out a contractor you will need to to take upon your shoulders the skill to be the leader and client, so there will always be times when you have to have a challenging and potentially awkward one-to-one conversation.

 

Language barrier

As I mentioned above, one common such conversation is necessitated when the contractor performance is poor. If you are in the position of having to address this, it is worth asking yourself some questions beforehand, such as: "Is this poor performance due to something I am doing wrong or have said but it was not understood properly?"; and "Has the person in question been given a clear set of goals?" Do remember that frequently there is a language barrier (or the contractor does not speak fluent English or your Spanish is a bit rusty).

 

Frequently there is a misunderstanding in what has been asked to be done and what the contractor has understood that need to be done. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the construction jargon varies from region to region in Spain. I myself have problem in making myself understood when working with a contractor from a different region, so imagine if on top of that there is language problem.

 

A good strategy

There are three stages to a successful site conversation. The first is to prompt a proper awareness of the problem in the person being spoken to. This requires a clear statement about a performance issue that will leave the contractor in no doubt that there is a problem or situation that needs to be addressed.

 

This should not be approached tangentially wrapped up in ‘the feedback sandwich’ but should be spelled out unambiguously without any circumlocution.

 

The next vital stage is acceptance on behalf of the contractor, which means ensuring that the message has been received and understood.

In our case we might need the help of a neighbour with good Spanish or even the use of Google translator. The idea is that our message has to get through clearly and quite unambiguously.

 

The conversation might go like this

“When you turned up late to site this morning, it was the third time in a row": this clearly sets out the situation. "The impact was to that I had to get up early to allow into the house and now I will have to go late to my job because I had to wait for you ": an explanation of the impact.

 

"The consequence of this was that the job will not be finished on time and will not be able to let the property for next month as I had agreed with my tenant ": a statement of the consequence. Is there something going on that is impacting your performance? If not, what will you do to change this behaviour?": this moves onto the action required.

 

These are principles to follow. But there are also techniques that are readily learnable and which can be practised to help get the message across. Being clear about what you wish to say in advance, lowering your voice and slowing down your speech all demonstrate seriousness. Making good eye contact and having relaxed body language is important, while leaning in suggests you are engaged.

 

One common temptation we are prone to in challenging conversations is to over-use the term ‘we’. Instead, you should own the problem: take responsibility by using ‘I’ instead. The more general ‘we’ dilutes responsibility, while use of the ‘I’ brings out the addressee's instinctive desire to empathise with a fellow human being.

 

To find a cure for the malaise

The person you are talking to, may be brought back on board by being asked what they think the consequences will be if the problem is not resolved; and asked how they might help to do so. If the message is kept positive and focused upon the practice’s overarching objectives and values, it will be difficult to argue with. This is a good approach to awkward conversations with the more senior contractor as well.

 

Stating facts and providing evidence rather than hearsay or opinion makes a problem indisputable. This is as true for conversations not only with your local contractors, but with family members as it is for colleagues.

 

Whatever the techniques used, I advise that the key is to isolate the real issue at the centre of the conversation, and not just talk about its symptoms. Difficult conversations need to find a cure for the malaise, not just offer a diagnosis.

 




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