Outwitting the leopard: deception at the negotiating table

outwitting the leopard

The other day a friend emailed me the following joke, which has circulated widely on the internet:

A wealthy old lady decides to go on a photo safari in Africa, taking her faithful aged poodle, Cuddles, along for company. One day the poodle starts chasing butterflies and before long, Cuddles discovers that he’s lost. Wandering about, he notices a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the intention of having lunch.

The old poodle thinks, “Uh, oh! I’m in deep trouble now!” Noticing some bones on the ground close by, he immediately settles down to chew on the bones with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap, the old poodle exclaims loudly, “Boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more around here?” Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike. Terrified, he slinks away into the trees. “Whew,” says the leopard, “that was close! That old poodle nearly had me!”

Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. So off he goes, but the old poodle sees him heading after the leopard with great speed and figures that something must be up. The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the leopard.  The young leopard is furious at being made a fool of and says, “Here, monkey, hop on my back and see what’s going to happen to that conniving canine!”

The old poodle sees the leopard approaching with the monkey on his back and thinks, “What am I going to do now?”, but instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn’t seen them yet. Just when they get close enough to hear him, the old poodle says, “Where’s that damn monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!”

I like this joke. Not only is it workplace safe, it’s funny, builds suspense, and ends with an unexpected twist. Best of all, it inspires a lesson or two about negotiation.  After all, in negotiation, you have to be clever enough to spot trouble when it’s coming, and nimble to respond to change and new information. You also must be careful not to underestimate the resourcefulness of any of your fellow players at the table — as the monkey unhappily discovers.

In real-world negotiations, it’s a safe bet that none of us will ever have to outsmart a cunning poodle or a talking leopard and his monkey sidekick.  But how can we protect ourselves from those who would deceive us?  A recent paper considers deception at the negotiating table in “Was Machiavelli Right? Lying in Negotiation and the Art of Defensive Self-Help“. From the article:

…lawyers, businesspeople, and everyone else who engages in negotiation must learn how to carefully and purposefully implement strategies and behaviors to defend themselves against those who lie and deceive—no matter the reasons prompting it. I therefore conclude the Article by offering prescriptive advice (including examples) for minimizing one’s risk of being exploited in a negotiation should other parties lie. The advice is undergirded by the notion, expressed throughout the Article, that information exchange (or lack thereof) plays a pivotal role in all negotiations. Indeed, I argue that information is the lifeblood of any negotiation, and therefore that the various strategies and behaviors influencing whether, when, and how information is obtained and/or exchanged are extremely important in the process of defending oneself (or one’s client) against lying and deception.

The moral: it’s a jungle out there.

4 responses to “Outwitting the leopard: deception at the negotiating table

  1. John Shaffer


    I’ve been following your recent posts. It’s great to have you back on line. Your words were missed, as were you. Hope all is well. John

  2. Yes. I second & third John’s sentiment (“hi John!”). You’re really on a roll here with some great insights, Diane! As to protection against lying, as an old contract dispute litigator, I choose contracts as the best protections against deception. WHEREAS and condition precedent clauses do quite nicely to hold people to their representations, i.e., the agreement will be of no force and effect if any of the following representations of Party A are incorrect . . . . 1. 2. 3. 4. . . . . or even better, this agreement does not become effective until Party A has delivered the following (specific) evidence of the accuracy of the following representations . . . 1. 2. 3. 4. As Leigh Thompson has pointed out in the Mind and Heart of the Negotiator, when parties state their INTERESTS (motives, goals, needs, desires, fears) there is generally little reason to lie, i.e., in the classic “split the orange” story, no reason for Girl A to say “I need the rind” and the other to say “I want to eat the orange.” For this reason, protection against deception is not quite so important in interest-based as it is in integrative bargaining outcomes.

  3. I meant, not quite so important in interest-based as it is in DISTRIBUTIVE (zero sum) bargaining outcomes. Also, if the parties interests are genuinely SATISFIED (no splitting the baby) then enforcement is not such a great issue and the need for legal processes to force people to accept unhappy outcomes not so important. (I know this sounds kum-by-ya, but interest-based outcomes always leave my disputants far happier than tough competitive negotiations).

  4. Vickie, great points about principled negotiation. You’ve reminded me of a wonderful post by Ken Adams at Adams Drafting on contracts as a relationship building tool.