Closing The Deal

Feb 10, 2009 |Alex Chediak
Closing the Deal

Don't sacrifice integrity just to get a good deal.

It killed me to finally sell our condominium for about $10,000-$15,000 less than I was hoping for.

For eight months I had tried selling it by owner, then we used a half-way discount broker, and finally we had a full-time realtor known for selling similar properties in the area. I spent about seven months trying methods one and two — and never found a legitimate buyer. The last method took only one month, though the price I had to swallow was painful.

Negotiation. For some of us, the word itself sends chills down our spines. We want to run the other way. Just accept whatever they offer; avoid conflict at all cost. For others, it evokes an excessive glee: time to push someone around. I'm going to win; you're going to lose.

As Christians, we probably know that both of these reactions are wrong, even if we sometimes fall off the horse on one side or the other. The question remains: How do I bring about a resolution that is fair for me, and also for the other person?

How do I approach my boss when I'm fairly certain that my salary doesn't match what I could get elsewhere, or what my work is worth to my employer? What do I say to my landlord when the time comes to renew the lease and she wants to jack the price up? Just leave — go somewhere else? Sure, that's one option. But what if I like my job (or my apartment)? You've got one choice if you want to deal honestly with your concerns: negotiation.

Separate the people from the problem.

If I'm negotiating with you, it is possible that we will have a difference of opinion on several matters, and we may need to wrestle strenuously to try to resolve our differences while we both seek to satisfy our own interests. But we can do so maintaining the highest level of respect for one another and courtesy toward one another.

As Roger Fisher and William Ury discuss in their almost 10-year-old, but still best-selling, book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, we can be "soft on the people" and "hard on the problem." I can care about your concerns, try hard to understand them, recognize I'm fallible, consult you on possible solutions, and maintain a gracious (rather than threatening) demeanor.

But then regarding the substance of our disagreement I can ask direct questions:

What is the house worth? Let's look at the relevant factors. What are the property taxes? If the house were to be rented, how much could be obtained? For what price have similar houses sold?

We can both go after the relevant questions, come up with answers and supporting rationale. If we disagree, we can graciously try to convince each other. We're both trying to solve the problem and neither one of us is the problem.

The "default" position for many as they approach a negotiation is that it is a necessarily adversarial relationship: There's a fixed, finite "pie," so the more you get, the less I get (and vice versa). Whether we're conflict-avoidant or conflict-seeking, approaching negotiations this way is fundamentally flawed.

While it is true that sometimes a dollar more for you is a dollar less for me, there are generally deeper (and more important) factors. Philippians 2:3-4 tells us to "do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." We are to combat jealousy and arrogance by considering the importance of other people (our example being Christ, who regarded saving us as more important than avoiding excruciating pain and privation).

This does not mean, however, that we have to be a doormat and let others mistreat and abuse us. Notice that Paul accepts it as a given in verse 4 that believers would (naturally) look out for their own interests. Elsewhere Paul affirms that "no one ever hated his own flesh" (Eph. 5:29). Indeed, the very commandment that we "love our neighbor as ourselves" assumes we love ourselves, and are looking out for our well-being.Though a detailed discussion would get us side-tracked, most scholars agree that Jesus' command that we turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) rather than escalate violence should not be taken as a categorical rejection of self-defense.

Negotiate on objective merits, not subjective preferences

This brings us to another principle: As Christians, we should always look to objective, external metrics for rendering our judgments. Prov. 11:1 reads, "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight." If you go to a supermarket, you'll probably pay for numerous items by the pound. And a pound has an objective value — it is not whatever the store's manager can get away with. The implication for negotiation is that we're trying to persuade one another on the substantive matters based on facts and sound reasoning rather than inflexible, unsubstantiated positions and emotional flexing.

We're saying things like, "Graphic artists in medium sized companies with three years of experience are typically paid somewhere in the $40-$45,000 range. Given that the cost of living is higher in the New York City area, $50,000 seems reasonable."

We're not saying things like, "I paid $250,000 for that house five years ago, and I'm not going to accept less than $320,000 for it; I need to make a profit." Of course, basic self-interest dictates that I would like to obtain as much money as possible for my property, while you (the buyer) would presumably like to pay as little as possible for the property. That goes without saying. So if we each get bent out of shape and try to bully one another, we get nowhere. Even if one of us "wins," the relationship is probably damaged, and we have failed to show Christ-like love to each other.

It's much better for us to both set our minds (together!) to discussing the objective question: Regardless of what price you or I want to sell or buy the house, what is the house worth? Not only is asking this question more productive, it is far more likely to preserve the working relationship and maintain a Christian witness.

Don't sacrifice integrity just to get a good deal. At least be forthright with the other party about the possible downside for them. If you're selling a used car, be truthful about the car's shortcomings. It's one thing to negotiate aggressively (though still ethically) if you're dealing with a bank or an insurance agency — organizations which you know look out for their own interests (and have a lot more lawyers). But it is another thing if I'm dealing with a friend (or even a stranger) who trusts me and simply hasn't done his homework. You wouldn't take candy from a baby (which is not easy to do, by the way), so don't accept or propose an offer that you believe is harmful to another person.

Brainstorm creatively to identify mutually beneficial solutions OK, so both parties have stated their needs, and there's an impasse. The landlord wants $1,800/month and you want to pay $1,600/month. Here's where the temptation can be to get stuck in a rut, each party insisting on getting their own way, negotiating on just the issue of rent.

We're often so focused with what we want that we fail to remember that the other party will never agree to what we're proposing unless they perceive it to be beneficial to them. But if we step back and really listen, there are often other interests (on both sides) besides just money.

A landlord-tenant negotiation, for example, has several dimensions besides the rent price. The interests of the tenant probably include a fair price, a flexible lease, assurance the rent will not dramatically increase, quick turnaround time on maintenance issues, and privacy. Landlord interests generally include longevity of the tenant (turnover is labor-intensive), quality of the tenant, cleanliness/wear-and-tear, and an ability to raise the rent in order to maintain the property.

It's time to get creative and look at other aspects to the potential agreement. Does the landlord prefer a long lease, while the tenant prefers a shorter lease? If so, that represents an opportunity to trade length-of-lease for price. Might the tenant be willing to assume the expenses of some of the minor upkeep needs of the apartment in exchange for a lower rent? Might the landlord agree to a faster turnaround time on maintenance issues in exchange for a slightly higher rent?

The key here is that if we respect our negotiation partner, we take time to understand their interests and to seek to satisfy them, while also respecting our own needs. The buyer who eventually came forth with an offer on our condominium offered $16,000 below the asking price. After I recovered from a near heart attack, we were able to counter-offer about half-way back to the asking price, noting the comparable properties in the area. We were able to resolve the last few thousand dollars of difference by trading money for time: It was more convenient for us to move promptly, so we agreed on an earlier closing date in exchange for a lower price.

Know when to walk away

Once we go down the path of negotiation, are we somehow obligated to close the deal, to achieve agreement at any cost? Absolutely not. There is a time and a way to walk away. As Fisher and Ury explain, knowing our "best available alternative to a negotiated agreement" (BATNA) can give us a sense of peace and focus as we navigate the waters of negotiation.

The time to identify this alternative, however, is before we even start negotiating. Our BATNA sets a lower boundary on what we will accept. We don't necessarily need to reveal our BATNA; if your alternative to accepting a particular job offer is to go to a homeless shelter, you might not want the prospective employer to know that (especially if you know nothing about his character). But if you really do want to stay with your present employer, and you will leave if they cannot give you a $5,000 raise, then it wouldn't hurt to tell them that you have another offer.

But you have to be willing to leave, or don't even play that card. You lose huge credibility if you go around threatening to leave, and then don't.

Which brings me to how you walk away. You always want the relationship to stay intact. There is no reason to create animosity. If you respect the fact that your negotiating partner has interests, just like you do, then you'll understand if they cannot raise your salary, or lower your rent, etc. It doesn't have to be personal.

Conclusion

Looking back on the experience of selling my house, the only regret I have is that I didn't go with a knowledgeable, hard-working, competent realtor sooner. I was neither marketing my house in an advantageous manner nor advertising a reasonable price, and I was doing a lot more of the legwork myself. But I'm glad I counter-offered with factual data based on comparable listings, and the solution of moving in the closing date worked well for both parties.

And that's what we're striving for — two winners, no losers, and an untainted Christian witness.

Copyright 2009 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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