Making Sure What You Say is What They Hear

As exciting as it can be to buy or sell a property, it can also be a little stressful, even when things are going just fine. There are a lot of details to manage and many different people involved in the transaction, from buyers and sellers and their agents to lenders, inspectors, insurance agents, and others.

In today’s world of digital communication, I worry that information sometimes gets lost in translation. Way back in 1960s, before computers were in every home and cell phones were in every pocket, a UCLA researcher named Professor Albert Mehrabian conducted studies to see how much tone and body language influence communication. He concluded that for inconsistent or contradictory communications, body language and tonality appear to be more accurate indicators of meaning and emotions than the words themselves. He attributed 55 percent of influence to body language and 38 percent to tone, leaving only 7 percent to the words themselves.

Fast-forward to today, when people communicate via text, direct messages, and email before moving on to snail-mail, voicemail or a phone conversation—you can see how misunderstandings might ensue. None of these communication methods allow the people involved to see each other, so there can be no clues about meaning picked up from body language.

If people use precise language, give adequate background information and context, and use lay terms instead of industry jargon, most communication will not get muddled. But how many times have you wondered what people meant after reading an email, or worse, a text message? As a real estate professional, I highly recommend meeting face-to-face when holding sensitive conversations about a real estate transaction, so you and the other parties involved have the best opportunity to understand all the issues.

One way to swing the door wide open to miscommunication is to use sarcasm. At a basic level, sarcasm is a terrible form of communication and its downsides are amplified exponentially in written form. With no tone or facial expression to accompany it, it’s very easy to misinterpret—in fact, it’s easy to believe the exact opposite of the intended message.

Since buying or selling real property usually involves a significant sum of money, you don’t want your Realtor to misinterpret your sarcasm as fact. You could say, “Oh yeah, we have a huge lawn,” assuming the Realtor knows you have a postage-stamp-sized lot. When the Realtor enters “great yard for kids and pets” into the property description, potential buyers may be a little frustrated when they arrive to find what should have been described as a “small, low-maintenance yard.” Oh yea the P & F was great.

Clear, concise communication is the best way to go. Then your Realtor can create advertising and write up disclosures that attract the right buyers and protect you from legal trouble. Speaking of legal trouble, if you have verbal communication of any significance during a real estate transaction, I highly recommend following it up with written correspondence to confirm what was said. Not everyone remembers discussions the same way, and selective amnesia often occurs when problems arise. Without an historical record, it becomes a “he said, she said” problem for the courts to sort out.

And if you’re a real estate professional, remember that most clients know almost nothing about the real estate world. Do not assume they know even the most basic real estate terms. You might say, “I’ll get this to BAREIS,” and your client hears, “I’ll get this to Barry’s,” assuming Barry is a member of your team and not realizing you’re about to share all the information about their property on the multiple listing service.

Pay attention to how others respond to what you say. If you get a quizzical look, stop and clarify. If you aren’t sure others are following, ask them to share what they understand. You’ll be glad you did.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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