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Managing Conflict at the Closing Table

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January/February 2001 - Volume 80, Number 1

by Jay R. Tombaugh, Ph.D.

It’s 3:30 p.m. You’ve got the McSullen closing scheduled for 4:15 this afternoon. The conference room is reserved; you confirmed with both Mrs. McSullen and that unreliable realtor of hers this morning, and even the mortgage officer said he’d be there. Early difficulties between Mrs. McSullen and the seller have been worked out and papers are in order¼ inspection reports, commitment for title insurance, contract and amendment, surveys, property appraisal and taxing authority information, settlement statement and addendum, truth in lending statement, deed restrictions notice, encroachment affadavit, closing compliance agreement, pmi authorization, and so on and so on. Everything is printed, copied, proofed, and ready to go. The coffee’s fresh and those cookies look delicious!

It’s 6:25 p.m. The mortgage officer was 40 minutes late. The realtor was a no-show. Mrs. McSullen prefers hot tea, thank you, and apparently is allergic to cookies with nuts. She has insisted on last minute contractual changes, which resulted in a rather spirited conference call with the seller and his attorney. Cooler heads pre-vailed, and finally, another successful closing is in sight.

You are dismayed, however, as Mrs. McSullen borrows your pen to write a personal check. You explain that only certified funds are acceptable at closing.

She says, "Certified check!? I’ve bought property before and they’ve always taken my personal check. What makes this so special that my check’s not good enough!?"

What Do You Say?

You want to strangle her! You want to cram pecan-laden chocolate chip cookies down her throat and dance with glee as her face swells and red hives pop up all over her body! You just want this to be over!

Causing bodily harm could be career limiting. You have to say something, though, so consider the following three possible responses:

Response 1:

‘"Well, it’s just one of those rules we have to abide by."

Response 2:

"I don’t know what you’ve done before, but we can only accept certified funds. There’s nothing I can do about it. Didn’t your realtor explain this to you?"

Response 3:

"I wish we could accept personal checks because I know how frustrating this process can be, but regulations require us to secure only certified funds to protect everyone involved in the sale. There’s a bank downstairs that’s open late¼I can finish preparing some papers while you go down and get the check."

Honestly now, which response do you think you might say? All of them have advantages. With the first response you can try to avoid explanation and hopefully squelch any further conflict. The second response makes your position clear, and helps lay the blame for any conflict at the doorstep of the realtor. Of course, will either of these responses likely diffuse the conflict that is brewing? Will Mrs. McSullen really accept this as a rule that she has to abide by? Does she care if her realtor should have informed her of proper procedures? What do you actually expect Mrs. McSullen to say?

Watch Out for Defensiveness!

How do you think you might reply to the second response? There are few among us who wouldn’t feel some sense of defensiveness if we heard this response. People get defensive if they feel they are being attacked or threatened. We can feel under attack for many reasons. We may feel like others are trying to "put us down" or assert their own superiority (at our expense, of course!). Sometimes we may feel like we’re being blamed for something or treated unfairly. Whatever the cause, defensiveness will likely result in our either fighting back or withdrawing and refusing to participate.

Defensiveness shows a lack of effective communication. We simply cannot have a positive exchange of ideas or perspective when one or both of us become defensive. If I believe you are attacking me and I attack back to "defend" myself, we each are now working very hard to win the conflict. If I withdraw and refuse to participate, a conflict remains unsettled and lingers. Either way, we fail to solve the original problem and reach a mutually satisfying solution. Our original goal is lost, and "winning" the conflict becomes more important.

What’s Your Goal?

To effectively communicate with someone, and successfully manage any potential conflicts, keep this question in mind: "What’s my goal?" That is, what do you want to happen as a result of your interaction with this person? More often than not, we’re looking for something from the other person. We may need information or assistance in solving a problem. We may need them to take action, or we may simply be looking for their input and feedback. Whatever our goal, it’s extremely important that we create a situation where the other person will react favorably.

Be Assertive!

So, how do we interact with people and do it in such a way that we are able to reach our goals? First, remember that defensiveness will almost always make the situation more difficult. A person who is defending herself from what she perceives as an attack is not likely to help you reach your goal. For this reason we should think twice before using a response similar to the second one in the previous scenario. While it might feel good to inform Mrs. McSullen in no uncertain terms about the policy regarding personal checks (and to point the finger of blame at her realtor), such an aggressive response is almost sure to bring defensiveness and a quick end to any hope of a positive, successful exchange.

Neither is the first response in the scenario likely to be effective. Such a passive response is designed to avoid any further conflict. It is doubtful the other person will be satisfied, however, and often the conflict lingers just below the surface. As a result, no one moves any closer to reaching their goals in the exchange.

Let’s look more closely at the third response. You attempt to show some empathy for Mrs. McSullen’s situation, recognizing the frustration of dealing with all the paperwork, rules, and regulations. You also explain why you can’t accept personal checks, and offer a positive and fairly easy solution to the problem. There’s no emotional attack, and you haven’t attempted to lay blame with anyone. You have shown respect for Mrs. McSullen’s position while suggesting a positive solution. You have moved closer to your own goal.

This type of assertive communication can be very effective when dealing with potential conflicts. Don’t become overly emotional, don’t attack or demean anyone, and focus on your goal. By carefully constructing your statements to the other person (in other words, think about what comes out of your mouth), you can avoid defensiveness and effectively deal with the conflict before it erupts.

9 Ways to Increase Assertiveness and Reduce Defensiveness

When facing potential conflict at closing¼when someone is angry or aggressive:

Remember your goal.

The objective is a positive closing experience for all participants. Anything you say or do should get you closer to that goal.

No school-yard games.

This is not the time to assert your superiority or feed your ego. Communicate honestly, but never with the intent of attacking or demeaning others. Never meet anger with anger.

Watch your language.

Try to use neutral and non-explosive language. Think about what you’re about to say, and how it might affect others. Will it get you closer to your goal?

Focus on problems, not people.

Don’t blame, evaluate or judge. State the facts as you see them and remain positive.

Show concern and interest.

Try not to overreact in the face of anger or criticism. Don’t immediately agree or disagree, or become defensive.

Get more information.

Show effective listening skills¼ seek additional information about the problem (generalizations and assumptions are difficult to work with).

Show understanding.

Try to agree with some aspect of the complaint. Don’t address specific issues, but show your appreciation for the other person’s concerns.

Shift the focus.

Seek ideas or suggestions for acceptable "next steps." This shifts the focus from the problem to a more positive solution. Show a willingness to cooperate.

Watch for "Trigger Phrases."

These phrases often trigger defensiveness, although we mean no harm:

You should have You’d better
You never (or always) You ought to
Why don’t you You make me
Why did you That’s not true
How could you I don’t believe that

Practice! Practice! Practice!

Effectively communicating and managing potential conflict doesn’t come easy for most of us. It takes practice constructing your statements and using assertiveness techniques. Below are four scenarios that might occur at the closing table. For each one, construct a passive response, an aggressive response, and an assertive response. Share these with others at your office and compare responses.

Scenario #1

The buyer’s attorney notes that certain objections to title must be met. He says to you, "Your office should’ve taken care of this before now." You would say:

Scenario #2

The buyer is alone, saying that his lender advised him that only his signature is required. He becomes belligerent when informed that spousal signatures are in fact required. It’s 4:30 on Friday, and the closing may need to be rescheduled.

Scenario #3

The buyer just learns of covenants that impact his planned use of the property. He becomes frustrated and says, "Hey, your office called me here because we were ready to close. What’s this about, anyway?" You would say:

Scenario #4

The buyer has just learned of previously undisclosed prepayment penalties. The lender is not at the table. The buyer says, "I’m not going to agree to this the way it’s written and I can’t believe you people are wasting my time like this!" You would say:

Jay R. Tombaugh, Ph.D. is vice president of SkillBuilders, an organization and management consulting firm. For more information visit . This article is excerpted from Jay’s presentation during the 2000 ALTA® Annual Convention in Hawaii.

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