Written by Rodrigo Afanador
In order to master the art of negotiation, preparation and honing one’s listening skills are paramount.
Growing up in Colombia was an incredible experience—not only because I grew up speaking Spanish and was surrounded by a happy-go-lucky culture centered on soccer, family, and dancing, but because I also learned an important lesson: Everything is negotiable.
That might seem like hyperbole, but it was the reality within which I grew up. My dad was always reminding us, “You already have received ‘no’ as an answer, so go for the ‘yes’.” And yet, even with this mindset within the home as a child, negotiating in the real estate world refined my skills and opened my eyes to many things that I did not know. Looking back over the past seven years in the real estate world has made me reflect on what I have learned about negotiations. The most important lesson that I have come away with is that negotiating is a skill—a skill that can be learned, honed, and applied by anyone.
I want you to picture this: You are driving down the road and you glance at the car beside you. You see a guy pumping his fist up and down and laughing maniacally. That is a perfect image of what I looked like as I headed home from my first successful negotiation. At that moment, I recognized that I could survive in this business and that I could learn to negotiate. My first successful deal led me to my first coach, whose particular focus was on sales and negotiation. Teaching me, he would always emphasize “the tips, the tricks, and the things to say to get the contract signed when it matters the most.” He opened my eyes to the fact that negotiation is a skillset that needs to be sharpened consistently, or else we will inevitably lose our edge. And thanks to him, to this day, cold-calling is part of my weekly schedule because the importance of staying in front of prospective clients is instrumental to keep my skills honed.
During my first few weeks of receiving coaching, I focused on learning scripts. However, I quickly learned that scripts are only good when they are coupled with preparation regarding the actual deal I was involved with. That was evident in one of my first appointments with someone early in the foreclosure process. We had set up an appointment to discuss what selling her house before foreclosure would look like. As we sat down to talk about signing a contract, I was going through my scripts and going over the details of the process when, all of a sudden, she asked me about the foreclosure process. The foreclosure process?!? I knew nothing about it! There I was asking her to trust me and to sign a contract with me, and yet I knew nothing of what she was actually going through. Although that sale never came to fruition, I learned an important lesson: Prepare for the appointment so I can be the resource the client expects me to be.
As I explained above, my first deal was a big celebration. After all, it came after nine months of zero success and being ridiculed by most people around me. While working with my coach, I kept developing my negotiation skills and was able to achieve another milestone: buying my first rental property, which was owner-financed with no money down. I still consider this the holy grail of transactions: a house that can be purchased with no money down, on a fully amortized mortgage at current interest rates. This was only possible because after a few years, I learned two important lessons that go hand in hand: It is impossible to get something we are not willing to ask for and be comfortable with the silence that follows that question. Being willing to wait for 20, 30, 60, or 120 seconds for someone to answer a question feels like an eternity, especially when the question feels crazy. But we don’t know what someone else might be willing to do until we ask. Projecting our normalized perspective on someone else is never a good starting place for any negotiation.
Although being able to ask for what I want and to be comfortable with the silence that follows is important, the prerequisite is to only ask when all the decision-makers are present. There is nothing worse than thinking you have agreed to a deal, only to get a call later saying, “I could not get my husband/wife/sister/brother, etc., to agree.” Once I made the commitment to never discuss numbers without all the decision-makers present, I quickly learned that my side job was apparently family mediation. Recently, I was sitting at Ingles with seven heirs and an attorney, as they all attempted to agree on what the price tag would be. After an hour of insults, raised voices, rolling eyes, and more insults, we were able to slowly get on the same page when it came to the numbers. Without having insisted that we all meet in person, there is no way that deal would have come together. After all, they had been wanting to sell the house since 2005 and had never been able to agree on the details of the sale—until they were all sitting down together, albeit begrudgingly, at the same time.
Learning how to guide a conversation comes down to my ability to ask key questions. My experience has taught me that negotiations in real estate can evoke deep emotions. There are many reasons why people get attached to certain decisions or results. When emotions run high in a negotiation, knowing what to ask and when to ask it is what allows the conversation to continue and not be derailed. Part of learning to ask questions is being a great listener. Taking the time to read between the lines, to really know what someone is either concerned or excited about, is a key step. I struggle with being a great listener, as there are times I start thinking about where I want to take the conversation next, or as I work on wording my next question. But being a great listener is listening to understand, not to respond. It is also critical to be comfortable with asking questions that can be challenging. Part of being able to guide a client through a negotiation or being able to give good advice is having the full picture in view. It is impossible to understand the full context of a situation, especially the emotional triggers, without asking good questions. Indeed, an incomplete picture will simply leave me, and my prospective client, frustrated with the process.
We all live in a world in which negotiation is inevitable. Perhaps you only find yourself negotiating on a weekly basis, but I would be willing to bet that you are more than likely negotiating something with someone every day. While it may be true that negotiating comes more easily to some people, it is a learned skill that everyone can improve. I challenge you to think about which area of negotiating you are going to focus on improving in this next quarter. Will you prepare better for your appointments, making sure that you have done the research in order to properly advise and suggest alternatives during a negotiation? Or maybe you are struggling in this area because making the big ask is extremely challenging for you. Remember, you will not receive what you are not willing to ask for; be bold and be brave. And then, be willing to sit in the awkwardness of the silence that may ensue. Perhaps your negotiations keep coming to a standstill because the key decision-makers are not present, and the momentum and flow of the conversation is interrupted, when your client needs to consult with someone else. Commit to only discussing the numbers and making that bold ask, if and only if, every key player is present.
Finally, an area I’m sure that we can all actively improve upon is our listening skills. We need to be prepared to listen to understand the other person’s perspective fully, rather than simply listening in order to formulate a ready reply. A good listener will understand the other party’s hesitations and concerns better and will, in turn, be able to come up with a mutually beneficial solution much more easily. Personally, I will be focusing on my listening skills over the next many months, so be sure to hold my feet to the fire when it comes to my listening skills.
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