8 ways to stop your home improvement project going wrong, according to a psychologist

What are your options when you feel a home improvement project is going off the rails? We give some psychological tips about how to manage that difficult conversation with your builder

Photograph: Alamy

Sometimes building projects go wrong. Work isn’t done as you expected, you feel the standard isn’t high enough, that care isn’t being taken… or worse. As soon as you start to worry, it’s time for a conversation with your project manager or builder. But how should you talk to them?

Go in softly and you may feel that you’ve been taken advantage of with a substandard job. Go off the deep end and you risk destroying the relationship, delaying works or even causing the builders to walk off site permanently, leaving you with a half-done job.

There are no hard and fast rules – builders are people, and different people respond to different tactics. Think about if the roles were reversed, how would you like to be approached? Chartered psychologist Brian Turton gives some insights into how to manage that all-important moment when you approach a builder with a problem…

1. Find your stop button

The thing is not to get angry – at the point you do, your behaviour will change and the builder will know you are attacking. If you feel yourself getting angry, you need to be able to push your own internal stop button, which means being aware of your emotions.

2. Practice makes perfect

Stick to your position, say that you are not happy and also explain that you’re not attacking them. It’s worth coming up with a number of stock phrases, such as, “I’m sorry but this is not what I wanted…” or “I’m afraid I’m not happy with…”. Work out phrases you feel comfortable saying and even practise them the night before.

3. It’s not about confrontation

Try and reframe the conversation so it’s not confrontational. In family therapy, I’ve asked parents why it is that they have a combined age of 60 years yet have a three-year-old running circles around them. With a builder, make the conversation about you being unhappy rather than trying to get them to do something. It then becomes their choice to rectify the problem.

4. Take the down position

Think about saying things like, “I know I’m not a builder but…”. I call it taking the down position. While you’re not an expert, you do have the advantage as the customer. Again, you need to explain that you’re unhappy and to ask the builder how they can help.

5. Time out!

Don’t agree to anything if you still can’t resolve the problem. Say you’ll come back to them the next day. In fact, it’s a good idea to do that anyway if you’re getting angry.

6. It’s not what you say

It’s all in the non-verbal communication – like anyone, builders will pick up on what kind of person you are from what you don’t say as much as from what you do. Ideally, you want to give out the message that you’re not a person who’s going to be messed around. You gain confidence by standing up for your self and asserting what you want.

7. Prepare for the worst

Consider your bottom line – what is the worst that you can put up with? People don’t tend to think about the fact that whatever they agree to they’re going to have to live with for many years. The builders might walk off the job but that’s always a risk. They do have immense power so you need to be prepared.

8. And finally

Never threaten legal action, never tell them you understand and never back down.

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