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Learning to be a great communicator.

Learning to Be a Great Communicator

Property manager Murphy Yates knew he was having a communication problem with one of his employees when he arrived at the office one morning 10 years ago to find a voodoo doll with his name on it.

"One of my people thought this would be a good way to let me know he was mad at me," Yates recalls. "The reason he was upset was because he felt that I hadn't listened to or understood an issue he had brought up a few days earlier."

Yates, who today manages a 10.5-acre mixed-use complex in Dallas, acknowledges that he could have avoided further communication breakdowns simply by firing the employee. However, the manager recognized that such an action would have had a chilling effect on the flow of ideas and discussion between himself and the remaining members of the staff. On the other hand, to do nothing would have left ill will to fester and, possibly, spread to others in the office.

"I decided the smartest thing would be to reopen the lines of communications-sit this fellow down and have a real heart-to-heart talk," says Yates. "And, you know what? It did the trick. He got a lot of things off his chest during that discussion, things I didn't even realize were bothering him. We both felt better afterward."

Good communication skills are essential in the property management feild. Success in dealing with property owners, tenants, contractors, lawmakers, inspectors, tax collectors, and even the media depends on one's ability to speak confidently and listen carefully. But, beyond that, success also depends on the ability to ascertain and address the information needs and communication-style preferences of others. This, say authorities on interpersonal communication, is where property managers often miss the mark.

"Good communication is something that has to be felt by both parties in order to be successful," says Carol Fisher, manager of the Portside Festival Marketplace shopping center in Toledo, Ohio. "I've discovered there's a real art and science to this process."

Communicating with style

According to experts, one of the keys to successful communication involves finding and playing into the so-called conversational comfort-zones of the person being addressed.

"Everybody has a particular style of communication that they rely on," says Betsy Gilbert, a presentation consultant whose company, The Corporate Image, is headquartered in Great Neck, New York. "The way people talk and like to be talked to is determined by their personality. There are three basic personality molds: the detail-oriented type, the action-oriented type, and the creative-oriented type.

"Each person fits into one of these three basic molds. But, the thing you have to be aware of is that there is no way to manipulate or intimidate another person into being comfortable dealing with you if you're coming at each other using different communication styles.

"So, what can you do to make the other person feel trust and affinity when communicating with you? Because you can't change his or her style, you have to change your own. Adapting your communication style to the other person's is a fundamental technique to successfully getting your points across and of being persuasive."

Deborah Achemah, a residential property manager in Los Angeles, has long applied the principle of style adaptation in her encounters with personality types of opposing stripe to her own.

"Several years ago, I was assigned to lease out an apartment building that was just finishing up in construction," says Achemah. "We were having an extremely difficult time with the construction contractor's superintendent. This person was very rude to people and not at all accommodating. It got to a point where everyone was afraid to approach him and make job requests because we all knew the hassle we'd be getting into.

"Finally, I reached within myself and made an all-out effort to establish a rapport with this person, getting on his good side so that when things needed to be done I'd stand a chance of being able to approach him without getting into a conflict. I showed an interest in what he was doing, and I used humor whenever possible to lighten things up."

Achemah says she tailored her tactics according to her perception of the superintendent's communication comfort-zone. But she does not believe the style she used for this occasion would have charmed an equally brusk inspector she encountered some time later.

"The building was about to have its swimming pool and patio area inspected by the county so that we could get a permit to open," she says. "I received word in advance that the inspector assigned to us was a real nit-picker and difficult to get along with. When she showed up to conduct the inspection, I could tell from a mile away that this woman was very self-important.

"To get on her good side, I decided not to ply her with humor, but to be really inquisitive about the workings of the inspection and permit-approval processes. My pretending to be uninformed allowed her to play the role of teacher, which completely catered to her nature. It softened her up dramatically, and we developed an excellent rapport in very short order."

Look for clues

Figuring out which communication mold the other person fits into isn't always easy. Experts say you have to pay close attention to things said by the other person - along with his or her body language - in order to pick up clues to where the individual's comfort-zone lies.

"Detail-oriented types are apt to lace their conversations with all kinds of facts and figures, and they're going to appear uncomfortable and uneasy unless you communicate in the same way," says Gilbert. "Also, detail-oriented people will often ask you to give them more opportunity to review information presented by you before making even simple decisions.

"Action-oriented types, on the other hand, want to reach a decision quickly. They're not interested in detail, but in topline summaries that give them a complete picture of the pros and cons up front.

"Action-oriented people communicate with few words. They may unconsciously try to control the conversation or move to cut off tangential dialogue if you stray from the topic at hand. They're inclined to grow impatient or even hostile toward you if you hit them with too much information. And they frequently glance at their watches or tap their fingers on the tabletop or armrest.

"Creative-oriented people like to play with ideas and engage in free-form thinking while you're talking to them. They like you to serve as a sounding board for them and to offer ideas of your own. Creative types find this kind of communication exchange very important because they understand how it can lead to highly inventive or synergistic actions or solutions.

"Creative types - like their detail-oriented counterparts - ask many questions, but these are usually 'what-if questions. Creative people like developing scenarios and exploring possibilities with you."

Build a bond

Gilbert suggests that helping detail-oriented people methodically evaluate information you have presented is the best way to build a bond with them.

"Point out facts and figures these types will find particularly germane or important," she says. "They appreciate this and will feel a sense of trust toward you."

When it comes to action-oriented individuals, you can win them over by keeping your communication brief and to the point, Gilbert says. "Entrepreneurs, including many people in real estate and property management, tend to be action-oriented types. Their problem is that they're too busy generating action and results to spend much time pondering weighty documents or discourses. They typically rely on others to boldface the salient points so they can reach a decision quickly."

In dealing with creative-oriented types, Gilbert recommends presenting opportunities rather than mere facts.

"If, for example, you're showing a lease space to a prospective tenant who is the creative type, you should be saying things like, 'Now, if we take this wall out and move it over here, we can create an entirely different look or use for this area. The creative-oriented person responds very favorably when you set up a dialogue where he or she can play off your ideas and vice-versa."

No more than necessary

Achemah feels that no matter which type of personality one is dealing with, it is never a good idea to offer more information than necessary.

"You may think that by volunteering information you're showing the other person that you're open and eager to please, but in revealing too much you may accidentally open up a can of worms," Achemah says. "Better to just give people concise answers to questions they ask."

Adds Fisher: "I operate on the theory of never allowing myself to be caught by surprise when communicating either to superiors or subordinates. In other words, I try to make sure I'm properly prepared with all the right responses to questions or objections that people are likely to raise in a conversation."

Yates, meanwhile, believes it essential to enter a conversation with an open mind.

"Don't jump to conclusions," he says. "You have to be nonreactionary when you talk to people because in 99 percent of the cases there's going to be at least two sides to every issue."

Anger, Yates says, must be suppressed. "If you find yourself getting mad during a conversation, make up an excuse to end the meeting and tell the other person that you'll have to check into the issues a little further and that you'll get back to them. This will give you some time to cool down. Because the worse thing you can do is have a conversation with someone when you're angry. You don't think straight when you're mad. You're likely to react in ways that will cook up more trouble in the long run for everyone."

Yates also asserts that it's important to back up words with deeds. "You can't just give lip service to people," he says.

Importance of words

Words and the ways in which they are spoken are just as essential to good communication as are comfort-zone strategies, according to Dr. Morton Cooper, a voice coach based in Los Angeles.

"It's not necessary to use $100 words in order to command someone's attention," says Cooper. "Actually, 50-cent words usually work best. But you have to make sure that your tone of voice is direct and honest in order for words to work. People misunderstand you when you use big words. You can also come across to people as snobbish by using big words, and that's a turn-off.

"Let me give an example of what I mean. You can say to someone, 'Let's be pragmatic.' But this isn't very appealing to the ears of a lot of people, so it isn't likely to be very effective. A better way to say this is, 'Let's be sensible.'"

Cooper asserts that tone of voice is more important than choice of words. It is, he says, the part of speech that people reach to most strongly.

"The tone of your voice can get you liked and listened to, or it can lead people to turn off to you," he says. "You'll find that people will accept a lot of what you have to say if your tone is not harsh or negative. Yet many people have very harsh, severe, trying voices. Unfortunately, they aren't usually aware that they have them."

It is not difficult for a person to learn whether he or she has a pleasing - or grating - tone of voice. Cooper recommends speaking into a tape recorder and playing back the results.

"As you play it back, ask yourself if that's the tone of voice you'd like someone else to use when addressing you," he says. "When you talk to someone, if your voice is harsh or judging or aloof or disinterested, the people who listen to you wonder why they should bother attempting to talk to you.

"In a business relationship, the voice that gets you liked and listened to has authority and assertion. But you don't need to be overpowering. When you speak, do it in a clear, strong voice. Don't shout. By the same token, don't mimble or speak at an abnormally slow pace. Try to avoid long pauses or going 'ah' while you gather your next thought. When listening to someone, you should make frequent and enthusiastic use of 'uh-huh' [to confirm] you are listening to what they say."

Gauge of effectiveness

Body language is something else to keep in mind while speaking, Cooper adds. "When you speak to someone, watch their body language to determine whether they truly agree or disagree with you, understand or don't understand what you're conveying. A person who shifts a lot in his or her seat while you're talking is telling you he or she does not understand you."

Yates, the Dallas property manager, agrees that body language is a highly reliable gauge of the impact of speech on another person. For that reason, he likes to do as much of his talking as possible in face-to-face encounters.

"There's no substitute for being able to watch the person you're talking to," says Yates. "It's the most personal form of communication."

However, Cooper cites studies indicating that as much as 80 percent of business communication today takes place over the telephone.

"This means that in the majority of cases, you're not going to be able to read the other person's body language," says Cooper. "To get around that, you have to listen very carefully to their voice for clues as to whether they agree or not. Listen for an energy surge in the voice - when people agree with you, there's more energy in their voices."

Where to seek help

Many successful property managers acquire good communication skills through years of experience in dealing with people. Others come by the skills only after taking specialized training.

For those interested in such training, there are numerous instructors and schools to which one can turn. Consult the Yellow Pages in the telephone directory for names of teachers and schools near you, or contact your local community colleges and university extension offices for information.

In case a formal training program is out of the question because of time or job constraints, countless self-help courses are available. Some of these employ lessons on audio tape cassettes, which can be played in the car during the drive to and from work. Prices range from under $10 for a single-cassette course on up to nearly $200 for a multitape lesson set: There also are video cassette and paperback versions of these learning aids, which can be purchased at many bookstores.

"The one thing that can be said about taking the time to learn how to be a good communicator is that it makes a world of difference to your career growth," says Fisher, the shopping center manager from Ohio. "Communication is a very powerful tool. I'd say it's probably the most powerful tool anybody in business can have."

Rich Smith and Rachel Ross are freelance journalists based in Los Angeles. Smith frequently writes on property management issues.
COPYRIGHT 1989 National Association of Realtors
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Author:Smith, Rich; Ross, Rachel
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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