Communication Theory for Landlords

As landlords, one of our greatest tools is communication.  Our words, our expressions, our tone, our gestures, and even our posture convey a great deal of information to the residents of our properties.  We often inadvertently create misunderstandings, many of which go unrecognized.

Let’s use the following example of a simple misunderstanding as a starting point to explore some of the fundamentals of communication:

I was working at a property and we had been spending the last few days trimming excess brush from trees and bushes throughout the site.  On this particular day, we were using a truck to pick up the piles of brush and haul them to the dump.  I was working with a staff person who had not been closely involved in this project.  I pulled the truck up near the garage and asked her to go get the brush that was located nearby and put it in the truck.  I may have waved vaguely over in the direction I was referring to, I don’t remember exactly.  I went to do something else and then came back to see if she was done. When I got back to the truck she was holding a large push broom and the pile of brush was still where I had left it.  Confused, I asked her why she had not gotten the brush and she looked at me with an equally confused expression and said she had.  It was only then that I realized the broom she was holding did in fact look like a large brush and she had gotten it from the garage which was in the direction I had waved towards.  We both had a good laugh about our misunderstanding before we continued on our way.

Luckily the above miscommunication was harmless and it was fairly simple to explain.  Let’s take a moment, however, to explore why it took place.

There are three elements of communication that took place in this situation-the ambiguity of language, different assumptions, and different communication styles.  In this case, the word “brush” had two meanings.  It could have been referring to a pile of branches on the ground or a broom with a brush-like appearance.  The word itself is ambiguous.  Many words that we use everyday fall into this category—“soon”, “a few”, “clean”, and “quickly”—all mean different things to different people.  If you tell a tenant he can fix his car in the parking lot provided it only takes a few days, he may think this means three or four, when you were really meaning two.

Again, referring to the above example, I assumed that my co-worker would know what I meant when I said “the brush over there” because I had spent the last few days cutting and picking up branches.  Because this was a new task for her, she did not share my assumptions about the meaning of brush.  We frequently make assumptions in our communication with tenants.  We assume that they can hear us, that they understand what we mean, and if they don’t that they will ask questions.  We think to ourselves: “If what I am saying makes sense to me, it must make sense to them as well.”  What we fail to realize, however, is that our communication comes out of our own particular constructs that exist only in our heads.  In this example, there was a misunderstanding between co-workers who shared the same work environment, were the same gender, and were similar ages.  Think of all the increased potentials for misunderstandings between landlords and tenants of different genders, ages, occupations, and educational backgrounds.

Another important element in communication is communication style.  In the above example, the communication style I used was quite vague.  I did not specifically point to the pile or clarify with her that she knew what I meant.  I used a rather indirect approach, when it might have been more appropriate to be specific in my communication.  Many of us use a wide range of communication styles depending on the situation, our mood, our personalities, and the other people involved.  When it comes to understanding, the style in which information is presented can be as important as the content of the message.  Anyone who has tried to read an insurance policy knows that even the simplest idea can be made complicated just by altering the style of presentation.

The ambiguity of language, assumptions, and communication styles are a few of the key elements of communication that will be important for you to understand as a landlord.  Because we all too often assume that other people understand what we mean when we communicate with them, we frequently attribute conflicts to other causes rather than to failed communication.  Instead of thinking “He or she may not have understood what I said,” we think “He is being difficult,” or “She must be mad at me,” or “He is always trying to get out of paying rent on time.”

Taking the time to carefully choose your words and presentation will go a long way in easing your communication with your tenants.  Also, don’t hesitate to ask them to paraphrase back to you what they heard.  That way you can check immediately to see if they understood your point.  Remember, it is in your best interest to learn to communicate in a way that your tenants can understand.

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About Learn to Be a Landlord
I currently am a real estate investor in Spokane, WA. I own and manage 79 rental units. My background is not in business, but in social services and community organizing. I also had way too much liberal arts education. Somehow that all fits together to make me a landlord!

One Response to Communication Theory for Landlords

  1. quickpatch says:

    Very good points Jessica. I have a saying “Thank goodness we have the English language to handle all our verbal communication needs”. This is a joke I use when I say one thing and the person I am talking to takes it to mean something totally different. Even long term relationships are not immune to the quirks in our language. Even now I say long term thinking about my wife of almost 40 years and you could be thinking about your friend that you have been dating “like for ever, practically the whole month of August”. Having the person paraphrase is an excellent way to avoid these misunderstandings which can be quite costly and time consuming. Thanks for pointing this out in an excellent post.

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