Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Be Clear When Agreeing

Specificity is an essential ingredient of any agreement. After more than a half a century as a pastoral counselor, and frequent mediator of disagreements and misunderstandings, I have learned how important it is for parties to an agreement to talk out and spell out the details before signing on the dotted line. As the familiar saying goes, "The devil is in the details".

Failure to be specifically clear often comes back to haunt careless parties. This not only happens in matters of business which can end up in civil court; it also happens in marriages which end up in divorce court.

In 1991 Clark Clifford wrote an engaging memoir entitled, "Counsel to the President". He recalled how, as a struggling young lawyer, he taught a course on contracts at night law school. He said that he stressed to his classes the importance of reaching a complete understanding between two persons before entering into a contract. He emphasized how often people thought they had such an understanding until they were ready to execute the agreement and then discovered that each had a different notion of what the contract meant.

Clifford had a favorite story he used to illustrate that point. He said that he had told that story to every president he ever knew. This is the story.

A man walking down the street noticed a sign in the window of a restaurant that said, "Special Today -- Rabbit Stew". He said to himself, "That is a favorite of mine", and he went in and ordered the stew. After he had taken a few bites of the stew, which did not taste quite right, he asked the waiter to call over the proprietor. The customer asked, "Is there any horse meat in this rabbit stew?" "Well, now that you ask, there is some", the owner replied. "What is the proportion"? asked the man. "Fifty-fifty", came the reply.

Now, most people would have felt that no further questions were needed, that there was a clear understanding on the matter. But this man pursued the issue. "What do you mean by fifty-fifty?", he asked. The proprietor replied, "One horse to one rabbit". That additional question brought a whole new understanding about the contents in the stew!!

This is a good anecdote to remember next time you are about to enter into an agreement with someone. It could save you lots of grief.