Conditioning Your ‘Mental Skin’

Communication is such a fundamental human activity that we often fail to see it happening. Or, we fail to analyze why we have such reactions to different types of messages and the means by which those messages are communicated. As a hobby of mine, I have been studying how people react to messages, both personally and professionally. In order to gauge what people are thinking and what their honest reaction is to the message, I monitor something that I call their “mental skin.” Mental skin consists of body language, eye movements, skin coloration and/or moisture level (sweat), and of course the verbal response to stimulus. So why should we designers and contractors care about the state of our mental skin? Because it is our personalities and professional expertise that provide us our livelihoods. If we think of ourselves as performers on stage when we meet with clients, it can help alleviate much of the stress that comes from dealing with different personalities. Most actors prepare for the roles they play. They understand the motivation of their character along with the motivation of those characters with whom they are performing. If we think of our professional persona as a role we play rather than our identity, we can perform to a higher level. For example, I have had both homeowners and contractors reject designs which I have created for their projects. In the past, I would turn that rejection inward and start to shut down in those situations. In fact, my mental skin would be itching to respond with sullenness and road blocks for their solutions. It took me many years to get over this and realize that I cannot take professional rejection personally. It is my design that is being rejected, not me. My role as designer is being criticized, not me. It used to be that if I was having a bad day, that mood stuck with me regardless of what I was doing or whom I was seeing. I since have learned how to leave that mood in the car before client meetings. There’s no sense in taking the entire ship down over one aggravating morning commute, confrontation with a customer service rep or argument with a spouse. If we can segment our lives into the roles that we are playing, we stand a better chance of success. As for how to control our mental skin, it comes down to awareness of our own behaviors, speech and body language. It takes a great deal of conscious effort to be aware of these things. However, we’ve survived all these years just letting our natural reactions take care of business. But sometimes our natural reactions can sabotage our best intentions. When analyzing mental skin, remember that the client has it too. You may be sailing along in your presentation and not notice how the client is distracted or annoyed by something that you said or did. Look for the clues. Have their facial expressions changed? Have they suddenly become very quiet? Are they looking at their watch? If so, stop the presentation and take their temperature. It’s OK to ask them if there is something bothering them. Perhaps they have concerns of which you are not aware. Maybe you have totally missed their primary objectives and need to be steered in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to correct course. The client will appreciate your sensitivity to their needs and your ability to pick up on their signals. One of the interesting aspects of mental skin is that it can become toughened due to conditioning. I remember being annoyed when I first got cable television and realized that it was not commercial-free. Since then commercials have cropped up all over the place, including on the Green Monster at Fenway Park! Now I can block out those intrusive ads and stay calm. Except in the case of the Green Monster…my mental skin broke out in a rash.