Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Negotiation and the Bible

I once wrote to a client when he was negotiating with someone on a commission:

"…Don’t write anything back saying “agreed” or anything of the sort. Just ask questions, like, so, is __________ also ok with the staggered payment of the lease commission if we agree to the 4% commission to her? The distillation of my 19 years as an attorney is avoid making definitive statements. Just restate the other person’s position and ask if you understand them correctly. It generally goes better for you, and a question can rarely be used as a legal “admission.” Actually, it goes way back, to the Bible:

“19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1:19-20.

“8 Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” Prov. 17:28.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Prov 15:1.

It is a trap to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider one’s vows.” Prov. 20:25.

“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”  Prov. 11:14.

“‘It’s no good, it's no good!’ says the buyer-- then goes off and boasts about the purchase.” Prov. 20:14.  A principle of economics is that a person’s actions are better indicators of belief/values than his or her words.

Ben Franklin also thought this method was the best for argumentation: “But he soon learned how to be modest in argument: to say, “It seems to me,” or “I apprehend a thing to be so.” Also, he found one could often argue even more effectively by not making firm declarations, but by asking subtle and gentle questions. His opponents would soon make concessions from which they could fine no logical way out. Frequently, in this way, he could win an argument and yet not lose a friend.” Benjamin Franklin: Inventing America by Edwin S. Gaustad."

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of negotiation is between Abraham and God on the destruction of Sodom related in Genesis 18:22-23.  Abraham starts out with: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  God concedes that he would not destroy the city if 50 righteous could be found in it.  Abraham then goes back lowering the threshold, to 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally 10, each time gaining a concession that the city would not be destroyed if the lowered number of righteous could be found.  Much has been written on this interaction, and I wouldn’t attempt to add any more insight to those discussions.  I do observe, however, some interesting dynamics at play in this story.  The bargaining power between God and Abraham was obviously unequal.  Abraham knew who he was negotiating against, and his values.  He reminded God of those values and worked respectfully and tactfully toward the desired goal.  He also avoided the head on conflict and used more questions than statements.

Can we extract any principles from these?  Here are some, but I would love to here your thoughts:

  • Learn as much as you possibly can about what you’re negotiating about, what your goals are, what your best alternatives to making a deal are, your negotiating partner and his or her goals, values and best alternatives.
  • Listen more than talk.
  • Avoid head to head conflicts.
  • Ask a lot of questions.
  • Take time for reflection and obtaining advice before making a commitment.
  • Get good advice before making a commitment.
  • Keep in mind the long term relationship more than just the immediate transaction.
  • Commit to a win-win or no deal strategy.
  • Remember to question everything that the other person says keeping in mind that their actions are a better indicator of belief than are words.