6. Communication and Negotiation

What you’ll learn

  • Why communication is important for success
  • Keys to successful interactions
  • Your communication style
  • How to communicate with your landlord
  • Skills for effective negotiation

Communication matters!

Communication and negotiation are essential to all human interactions…including successfully accessing land.

All aspects of your communication – speech, facial expressions, body language, email and other written documents – lay a foundation for the quality of your relationship and the success of your negotiations. Communication that is skillful, positive, creative and goal oriented enhances relationships between buyer and seller, or between tenant and landlord. No matter how fair your proposal, how sound your business plan, or how solid your abilities, you won’t succeed if your communication isn’t understandable or sincere.

And while you don’t have complete control over the outcome of any negotiation, improving your communication skills and working creatively to reduce barriers sets you up for success. By being clear, thorough and responsive, you will build trust, which sets the stage for a successful lease or purchase negotiation – and a good working relationship for years to come.

In this lesson, you’ll learn about the keys to successful interactions, your communication skills and styles, negotiation skills, and how to communicate with your landlord.

Next section –  B. KEYS TO INTERACTION

Keys to successful interpersonal interaction

Listen. Clear communication requires good listening as well as speaking. The old saying goes, “you have two ears and one mouth,” so challenge yourself to listen twice as much as you speak. By listening carefully and respectfully, you communicate that you care about the other person’s perspective and are open to other points of view. You will also be sure to catch important details, and not assume that you already have a full understanding. Foster good listening skills by:

  • Being prepared to listen
  • Avoiding interrupting the speaker
  • Practicing active listening 

Take the time. Sometimes, especially during the busiest parts of a farming season, it can be difficult to commit much time to talks with your landlord or the seller of farmland that you are interested in. It helps to think of this time talking as an important investment in your relationship with that landowner and in the stability of your tenure or negotiations. This type of interaction may provide important hints of landlord or seller concerns that don’t emerge in more formal discussions and the landowner will feel better about the process if s/he feels that you are willing to invest time.

Avoid external interruptions and physical distractions. Communicate in an atmosphere that is comfortable, private, and non-distracting for everyone involved. Plan ahead before having significant conversations, and ask to speak at another time if a complex topic comes up in an inappropriate moment. This will not be perceived as rude if you make it clear that you value the other person’s time, and want to give the important subject the time and focus it requires.

Prepare. Invest the time to think through all the details, and write down all important information. Prepare for your conversations and negotiations by writing down your goals for the conversation, your questions, and any factual information that may be relevant (such as financial data, legal issues and conservation plans). It is an act of courtesy to others to let them know what subjects will be covered in the upcoming meeting and to share pertinent factual information ahead of time. Invite everyone who will be at the meeting to contribute to this agenda and distribute it to all in advance of the meeting date. This gives everyone the opportunity to take their time to think through the subject matter before having to discuss it or make decisions about it. Nobody likes the feeling of being ambushed by having a complex or sensitive issue brought up out of the blue and being expected to “think on their feet” about it. Giving everyone time to think ahead will engender trust and facilitate productive communication at the meeting.

Keep a record. Write down the date of your conversations, the names of the people that you speak with, and what you spoke about. By keeping an accurate record, you will be able to hold others to their word, and be certain that you are following up with any commitments that you make. It is a good idea to share meeting notes with the other participants to seek consensus on the subjects that were covered and the decisions that were made or the conclusions that were drawn. For very sensitive negotiations, it may be wise to have a disinterested third party present to take, and later distribute, notes.

Be dependable and take responsibility. Build trust by being consistent and taking responsibility for your own actions. The simple act of being true to your word will go a long way in building trust. Do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. This requires caution in making commitments. If you are uncertain whether you’ll be able to get back to them within a day, politely ask for more time, explaining that you need an extra day, and then follow through promptly at the agreed upon time.

Keep your eye on the prize. Conflicts arise in any relationship, and are to be expected in the process of negotiating terms of sale or lease, as well as in the ongoing relationship between landlord and tenant. The important thing is to stay focused on your ultimate goal of a satisfactory agreement, and not get lost in your desire to be “right” or “win” in the heat of the moment. If you notice yourself getting angry, frustrated, tongue-tied, impatient, feeling threatened or in any way that the discussion is going off-track you may need to take a break to cool down, reset your emotions and re-establish your priorities. Perhaps everyone needs a 10-minute break or that particular agenda item should be tabled until a future meeting. This can be an opportunity to think about what exactly you are upset about (is it actually the lease term under discussion, or is it that you felt insulted by an offhand comment made by your future landlord over lunch?)

Once you determine the underlying cause of your reaction, then you can productively move forward in the process. Disagreement does not have to be adversarial, and conflicts can be an opportunity for greater understanding and clarification of your agreements.

Remove barriers. A successful relationship strategy depends on effective communication. To identify and remove barriers to communication it helps to have a model of communication. The model consists of sender, message, receiver, channels, feedback, and effects. Problems with any one of the components of the communication model can result in barriers to communication. Some common barriers to effective communication are:

  • Unclear messages: The receiver remains unclear about the intent of the sender. The sender can interpret feedback to determine if the message is clear or unclear. The sender can rephrase the message if s/he suspects that it was not heard clearly the first time.
  • Stereotyping: Stereotyping involves either the sender or receiver developing a subjective impression that the other conforms to a certain mental model. This can be a barrier to communication when it substitutes for open, active, respectful communication.
  • Incorrect channels: Use of the correct communication channels assists the receiver to understand the nature and importance of the message. Choice of a channel is dictated by the urgency, complexity, and degree of formality of the message, as well as the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the receiver. For each communication, carefully consider whether a face-to-face meeting, phone call, email or another channel would be most appropriate for the issue at hand. Keep in mind that landlords might want a face-to-face meeting when it seems to the tenant that a written report would suffice. It is helpful to ask what the landlord’s preferred mode of communication is and to use that mode whenever possible.
  • Language: The sender’s words combine with the receiver’s perceptions of them. The relationship between perception and reality can be determined through interpreting feedback. Tenants should be cognizant of using appropriate language. Technical, complex or slang language may leave certain landlords confused and suspicious.
  • Lack of feedback: Feedback mirrors the sender’s original message, and may indicate a perception problem. It may occur in the form of questions, or nonverbal cues such as a frown or puzzled appearance. Prompt feedback, in which both parties play active roles, should be encouraged. Asking, “Do you know what I mean?” is not effective because the listener usually just obligingly says, “Yes.”
  • Interruptions and physical distractions: Communicate in an atmosphere that is comfortable, private, and non-distracting for both parties. Find the right time to meet with landlords. Relationships between tenants and landlords can be enhanced if the parties improve their communication skills, make communication goal-oriented, approach communication with a positive and creative attitude, and work to reduce barriers.

Know your communication style. In order to be effective communicators, we need to understand our own “default” communication style (ways of communicating that we tend to rely on, whether or not they are effective or appropriate) so we can utilize our strengths and learn to compensate for our weaknesses. By becoming more aware of communication styles, we can better understand the other people involved, and can work more productively with them. Of course, every individual is unique, and any system of categories has limitations. In thinking about your communication style, don’t feel that you need to fit yourself into any one box; just use the information to help you get more of what you want in your interactions. There is general consensus that using an assertive (as opposed to aggressive or passive) approach to communication and negotiation is best. Look here and here for two useful matrices that might help you understand the different communication styles found along the “passive-aggressive” continuum.


Communication skills

Practice active listening

Active listening lets the people to whom you are listening know that you really understand them. It involves hearing their story and reflecting back to them both the facts and the feelings that you receive from them (through their words and/or through their body language). If you don’t understand them, ask non-judgmental questions to make sure you are getting it right. This process is remarkably powerful and leads to people trusting you because they know you have really heard them. This leads to the possibility of changed behavior, not only for other people but for you.

As you listen to others, you can begin to develop an understanding of the situation from their point of view. Once they feel understood, they are more likely to listen to you non-defensively and be interested in your perspective. Together, you can begin to understand your complementary interests where you share common ground) and your disparate or exclusive interests (where your needs or wants differ).

Active listening requires EARS (Empathize, Ask, Reflect, Summarize)

  • Empathize: Set aside your own feelings for the moment, and put all of your attention on understanding what is being said to you and conveying that through your words and body language.
  • Ask: Ask open-ended questions that convey curiosity and genuine interest, not judgment or criticism. Open-ended questions do not require a yes or no answer and usually elicit a fair amount of information. They are non-threatening or relaxing because the person being asked doesn’t feel as if the questioner has an answer already in mind. Avoid using the word “why.” A “why” question often sounds as if you are asking for a justification or defense from the respondent. Here are some examples of open-ended questions:
    • Can you tell me more about ….?
    • Would you like to talk about ….?
    • Can you tell me what that means to you?
    • How would you like things to be?
    • What do you imagine would happen if….?
    • How do you see things changing?
    • Where would you like to begin?
    • What’s that like?
    • What’s most important for you now?
    • What have you thought of?
    • What does that seem like to you?
  • Reflect: Communicate your understanding by repeating back what has been said to you along the way, and include, when appropriate, what you are noticing in body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal communication. For example: “You don’t want a CSA on this property because you are concerned about the number of people who would be on the farm. It seems to be upsetting to you that I didn’t mention the CSA earlier in our conversations.” As a listener, paraphrasing what you understood to be the speaker’s message is very effective because you are taking the trouble to check with the speaker to make sure that you understood his/her message. It can be productive to have a mutual agreement for the listener to reflect back what s/he understands the speaker to have just said so that all involved get to correct misunderstandings on the spot.
  • Summarize: Recap the main ideas conveyed, continuing to refrain from judgment or response, and ask the speaker if you’ve got it right.

Tip: Wait to explain your perspective until the other person has been fully heard and understood. They will then be much more likely to listen to you effectively.

Non-verbal communication matters

Communication is more than words. The non-verbal aspects of communication impact us profoundly. Everything about the other person’s behavior, from appearance to body language, is influencing our perception, contributing to our feelings, and impacting our ability to successfully interact with them. Likewise, everything we do, from the way we look and move to our tone of voice, is impacting our listener and unconsciously influencing the way that they hear us.

Take the time to observe yourself and the way that you present information to others. If you tend to avoid eye contact or to fidget when speaking, you may be unconsciously communicating to your listener that you are not trustworthy. If you show up to a formal lease negotiation in your stained farmer clothes, you may be communicating disrespect and irresponsibility to your potential landlord. Although you don’t have control over all aspects of how you present yourself – or how you will be viewed – being conscious of how you present yourself can avoid barriers and increase your odds of success.

Written communication conveys more than what’s written

The style and appearance of written communication matters as well. The appearance, tone, and structure of written communications all impact the way content is received by the reader. A sloppy, stained, wrinkled note, or a hasty email with misspelled words and incomplete ideas is going to be received very differently than a clean, clear, and well-prepared letter or email. Written communication reflects how seriously and how much care you are willing to take in forming this relationship.


Negotiation skills

Negotiation is working side by side to achieve mutually beneficial solutions. We all negotiate, all the time, in the process of working with other people. The skills that we use to work with others to informally negotiate daily life are the very skills that will help us be effective in formal negotiations. We need to be clear about what we want and need and speak up for ourselves. But we also need to be willing to compromise to achieve mutual benefit.

Formal negotiations, however, do carry extra significance, because they are time limited, and will potentially result in long-term, legally binding decisions. Because of the importance of a formal negotiation, you may be nervous and less comfortable than you are in your daily “real life” negotiations. So take some time to prepare and set the stage for success.

Prepare for negotiation

  • Know what you want
  • Know what concessions you are willing to make
  • Know what your alternatives are if you do not reach agreement
  • Learn as much as you can about your counterpart and about the subject matter
  • Practice saying what you want, ahead of time

(Adapted from “Negotiate Like the Pros” by John Patrick Dolan) 

Formal negotiations. Formal negotiation can be initiated at any time, if and when a participant in a communication identifies the need for more structure, expertise, or guidance. You may find yourself on the receiving end of a request to participate formal negotiation, such as in a facilitated conversation, a mediation, or an arbitration, or you may be the one to initiate. Having third party assistance to help organize information, clarify goals, manage difficult emotions, track agreements and draft paperwork can be essential to success, particularly with the complexities involved in a farmland purchase or lease.

Sometimes people feel threatened by the concept of formal negotiation. “Why can’t we just work this out ourselves? If you want me to mediate this, you must really want to play hardball. If we can’t make these decisions without a facilitator, how will we ever be able to work together in the future?” This kind of resistance is based on fear. In reality, spending the time and money on appropriate professional guidance (such as facilitation, mediation, etc) can be more effective, more efficient, and promote more good will between participants.

If you are the one initiating, take some time to explain your reasons in terms of shared goals, to minimize the possibility that others will feel threatened by the suggestion. Make it clear that you want professional guidance in order to benefit everyone involved. For example, you may find that the landowner is saying contradictory things, you find the lease language confusing, and you fear the process will break down. You could say: “I really want this to work out, and I’d like to make sure we’re on the right track. I spoke with Ms. So and so, an agricultural mediator, who has worked with a lot of these situations, and she said she’d be willing to meet with us to talk through the details.”

If you are on the receiving end of a request to participate in a formal negotiation of some kind, don’t worry and don’t react defensively. Use your active listening skills to hear the other person’s reasons for wanting help with the process, and be ready to invest the time up front in successful communication. A clear, effective negotiation will yield benefits for years to come; having appropriate professional assistance can make all the difference.

Types of formal negotiation

Facilitated communication is structured communication, in which a facilitator provides leadership and guidance to the participants. The facilitator can help participants prepare effectively, can organize times and help set the agenda, and can run productive and efficient meetings, including follow-up on any decisions that are made. The facilitator could play another role in the process, such as coach or advisor, or could even be an interested party in a negotiation, as long as everyone involved feels comfortable with that person running the meeting. However, it may be most effective to have an independent, third party facilitate your meetings, so that everyone involved feels that the process is fair.

Mediation is a specific model of facilitated communication, managed by a neutral third party who creates a process for parties to negotiate their own agreements. Mediators are not decision makers or advocates. Mediators are trained professionals who are skilled in managing communication to help participants arrive at fair, effective agreements.

Mediation models

  • Evaluative Mediation is directive and agreement-oriented. Evaluative mediators have specific knowledge about the issues involved, and, if the parties agree, can give opinions about the feasibility and even legality of possible agreements.
  • Facilitative Mediation helps the parties communicate, brainstorm options and develop their own agreements. These mediators do not need to have specific knowledge about the issues involved.
  • Transformative Mediation is not agreement-driven but relationship-driven. The mediator works to help the parties communicate well and learn to work well together.

Arbitration is a private alternative to litigation, for circumstances in which participants have a dispute that they are not able to successfully resolve on their own. The arbitrator does have decision-making authority, and participants agree ahead of time to abide by the arbitrator’s decision. Mediation and arbitration are commonly confused; however, they are very different from one another. In mediation, the participants retain self-determination and work together to find mutually satisfactory outcomes. In arbitration, the participants argue for their individual positions, and then leave the outcome up to the arbitrator’s judgment.

A four-step method for successful negotiation

  1. Separate the people from the problem (focus on what you want to accomplish, not who wins or loses, or how you feel about the other people involved)
  2. Focus on interests, not positions
  3. Discover options for mutual gain (Invite collaborative problems solving)
  4. Utilize objective criteria to help overcome impasse (Such as a real estate appraisal or use of a mutually-agreed upon accountant to review financials)

Positions and interests. In order to achieve a mutually satisfying negotiation, it is helpful to understand the difference between positions and interests.

Positions are each person’s point of view, what they say should happen at the onset of a negotiation, their initial proposals or solutions to a problem. They often result in people feeling defensive and in need of justifying themselves. If the conversation gets stuck in people presenting their positions, there is little traction for creating a good agreement. In order to move forward, it is usually important to go beyond positions to interests.

Interests are the underlying needs of each person, the reasons for their positions. After identifying positions, work to clarify and probe for each person’s interests. This is best done through asking open-ended questions, and active listening. As you go through this process people tend to relax and speak more freely. If the two parties are able to hear each other’s interests, they are more likely to come up with creative solutions. Trust will grow if you can develop an understanding of the other person’s interests, even if he or she doesn’t or can’t understand yours. Furthermore, you may be able to find creative solutions to a perceived conflict, once you know why the other person wants what he or she wants.

Steps to move from positions to interests

  1. Identify each party’s position or point of view
  2. Clarify and probe to understand the interests of each party
  3. Reframe information to focus on interests and needs, rather than conflicting positions
  4. Restate interests as a joint problem in the form of a question

Moving through these steps can move people from a confrontational stance to a sense of collaborating on a shared problem. Once you stop fighting one another and begin to problem solve as a team, you may discover unexpected solutions. After struggling over the only orange in the house (“I need the orange, you can’t have it!”) we discover that you, in fact, only need the peel of the orange for the cake you are baking, and I only wanted the juice! A wise agreement can be defined as one that meets the legitimate interests of each side to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and takes community interests into account.

Next section – E. LANDLORDS

Communicating with your landlord

It makes sense to learn about one’s prospective landlord—his or her vision and goals for the property, opinions about agriculture, and plans. Before finalizing your lease agreement, take the time to exchange as much information as possible with one another, to avoid future surprises about values and farm practices. However, surprises are bound to occur, even with a well-crafted lease agreement. If a landlord is not farm-conversant, she or he might not understand why the baler is left in the field, or why there’s black plastic lying around. She or he might have unrealistic ideas about the uses or capacity of the land (e.g., how many animal units? Need for irrigation? Predator control?). Therefore, you will need to continue to learn about one another over time, in order to maintain a positive working relationship.

Who are farm landlords?

There are many types of farm landowners who lease out land. Landlords may be active or retired farmers, or their non-farming heirs. Investment companies or institutions (e.g., religious, or educational) may be landlords. Some landlords live and work in the city, while others live on the property and can see the farming operation from their windows. Some landlords come from a farming background, and some have no familiarity whatsoever about farming realities.  Some may have a dozen or more separate lease agreements, and many tenants have multiple landlords.

Cultural differences. Currently, in the US, nearly 90% of farm landlords are not farm operators. Some of these non-farming or non-operating landowners (NFLOs or NOLOs) live on or near the farm. However the trend toward absentee landlords is increasing. More absentee landlords are living farther away from the property(ies) they own and lease out. With an absentee landlord it’s even more important that you, as a farmer-tenant, actively work to understand your landlord’s perspective and to maintain open lines of communication.

Depending on your landlord’s particular circumstance, the content, method, and frequency of successful communication will vary. Notice what method of communication seems most effective with your landlord (phone, in person, email, surface mail) and which is most appropriate for the type of communication you need to complete. For example, changes to a lease should be in writing, not just agreed to over the phone.

It’s particularly important to touch base under certain circumstances:

  • Prior to finalizing a lease; prior to taking draft lease to your attorney.
  • Annually to review past year and plan for the next, especially noting any problems or changes in plans
  • A significant event (e.g., a death in either family, legal issues, financial crisis, disaster).

(Adapted from Managing Landlord-Tenant Relationships: A Strategic Perspective, Ohio State University Extension FR-0004-01.)

When you have a conflict (which is entirely normal, and to be expected in any relationship), pay attention to what factors influenced the conflict, and make a note to approach the situation differently next time. For example, if your landlord was shocked that you had made a change (erected a greenhouse, started an on-site farm stand, housed an intern, etc.) without prior contact, make a point to clarify the process for notification. What does the lease say? What was the implicit understanding? How do the parties want to handle this differently in the future? The happier your landlord is with your tenancy, the more successful your tenure is likely to be.

Keys to maintaining a positive landlord-tenant relationship

  • Communicate frequently and clearly with your landlord
  • Educate yourself about your landlord’s values and interests
  • Educate your landlord about agriculture, in friendly, engaging ways
  • Explain the various farm costs and any changes you are making to your operation
  • Provide reports about your progress, changes, and challenges
  • Maintain the appearance of the property
  • Treat you landlord respectfully, like your best “customer”

The nature of the relationship between landlord and tenant can have a significant influence on the success of the farm operation and the well being of the farmer. Sometimes cultural differences can strain communications. Appearance, dress, adornment, slang and lifestyle choices, for example, can influence a landlord’s perception. This doesn’t mean change your appearance, nor does it mean you should give up on the landlord. It just means be aware and perhaps address these perceptions directly. Similarly, check your own assumptions and perceptions about a landowner’s choice of lifestyle, profession, car or décor!

Next section – F. RESOURCES


Back to: Acquiring Your Farm

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