Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about how housing operators and landlords communicate to tenants – whether it’s through email, letters, texts, or in person. As a renter I received some pretty funky communication from past landlords. Emails were confusing and often left me feeling vulnerable and annoyed. Not a great combination. One landlord never spelled my name correctly (or used spell check), and what he communicated often felt harsh and foreboding. Don’t get me wrong, our landlord was a really nice guy – he just wasn’t great at administering important information with care.
When I began co-leading at Co:here I realized quickly that very often our language gives us away in terms of communicating our particular position or desired outcome. Logically, we know it’s important to choose language and words carefully, especially when conveying critical information (e.g., rent, responses to maintenance requests, complaints, safety concerns), but it is often easily overlooked, especially when we communicate quickly.
In a previous blog I wrote about how for some landlords, it’s been easier to choose language that implies wrongness than it is to choose language that implies kindness. (Not ALL landlords do this. Shout out to those who craft thoughtful communication! Keep up the good work). I want to follow-up by expanding on this idea, offering some practical tips, with the hope that it might be a potential balm for a toxic habit of “communicating wrongness” that can make us – and those we work with – uncomfortable, even sick. Most of this thinking came from my writing Salsbury Community Society’s (SCS) Communication Policy.
Being thoughtful about how we communicate and choosing language that drives connection is an intentional choice. At Co:here, our commitment to careful communication with one another flows out of a SCS core value of grace.
Grace is often understood in a religious sense. Although the concept of grace is indeed found in several religions, on a basic level it means “courteous goodwill”. I strongly believe that, as landlords, if we start from this place of generosity, it will inevitably shape our actions.
SCS’s Communication Policy identifies different types of communication (email, in-person, templates, internal, instant, letters, documentation, forms, posters, social media) and outlines expectations and accessibility considerations. It felt good to put pen to paper and pull together the ideas that had been swirling around in my head from countless conversations with tenants and staff about how we communicate.
It’s a big jump moving from policy to practice, so how do we see this playing out in real life? Here are some practical tips on how to weave connection through your communication.
Develop a communication policy: Create one that reflects your values and refer to it regularly with staff and stakeholders.
Normalize proof-reading: Foster a culture of reading each other’s work as well as asking tenants for feedback before and after sending important information.
Templates are your friend: Use templates to capture the essence or tone for specific issues. What core concept do you want to get across each time you communicate with tenants about rent, or maintenance, or complaints?
When miscommunication happens, get curious: A teachable moment may be yours! Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:
If you wanted to communicate again, without needing to prove to anyone that you’re right, would you say it the same way?
Rather than asking the common question, “How can I solve this situation?” ask yourself, “How can this situation be mended (or healed)?” While the language of ‘mending’ and ‘healing’ will not resonate for all people and therefore may not always be advised, the principle still holds that our language influences the level at which our conversations take place.
Equipping ourselves (and staff) with practical tips that give the authority to be kind is an important step. And it means having tools ready for when mistakes happen. SCS recognizes that we won’t always “get it right” with tenants and stakeholders, but our Communication Policy and our practices aim to reflect a growing culture where staff, volunteers, and tenants learn from one another. An example of our commitment to learning is emphasizing the importance of clarifying and confirming information (e.g., “Is this what you mean?”) and making a thoughtful decision about whether virtual or in-person communication is the appropriate option.
Cultivating kindness through communication is creating culture (practice, ritual, social norms). It’s done over a long period of time, iteratively. Our communication to tenants is just one opportunity to connect, knowing that there will be other opportunities in the future.
Strengthening connection through communication is a craft we practice, not a finish line we cross. Let’s keep practicing.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this – reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org