Mediation is not like a game of poker, but there can be similarities. In mediation as in poker, people do not always tell the truth. In my experience, bald lies are rare in mediations and different factual accounts are usually the result of failed memories, poor observations or honest differences of opinion – unlike poker. In poker, bluffing is an accepted and indeed essential part of the game. In mediation, though rarer, deception also takes place. It often happens at the outset, when initial bids can be, although not outright lies, what might politely be known as “optimistic”. There are very sound strategic reasons for “optimistic” opening bids. First, you might just get lucky and the other side accept your offer (although this would suggest you could have got more). Second, you want to anchor the perceptions of the other side, however, unrealistically, to a higher number. Finally, you want to be able to make concessions later. If you don’t leave yourself some wriggle room in your opening bids, then without the ability to make concessions later on you will be breaking that cardinal social norm: reciprocity. Of course, both sides have the same strategic imperatives and, therefore, both sides are likely to bluff somewhat with their opening bids.

But how can you tell when people are bluffing? In poker there is a significant literature on “tells” the physical signs that might reveal deception. These might include whether or not someone is flushed, shaking, how they are breathing, the pitch and tone of their voice, the way they look at or handle chips, their body language, eye contact and so on. Indeed, the revered “poker face” is the classic strategy for avoiding detection. However, away from the world of poker, in study after study, Dr Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology in the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, and his colleagues have demonstrated that most people perform miserably in tests to detect deception, scoring at chance levels or only slightly higher. Usually the best guide to veracity is history. Looking at what bids your rivals have made before, how have they reacted to your offers and their overall rate of change will give you good information about whether their current bid matches the historic pattern or seems a little odd.

In poker you can always call someone’s bluff, but this will cost you and if you are wrong may be expensive. In mediation, if you feel someone is bluffing, the first best response is to ask for more evidence that can support their position – what mediators call “reality testing”. Your next step will then depend on the strength of the evidence. You have three options. Normally, you will put in a counter offer. The size of your bid will depend on the history of bids to date and your beliefs about their offer. Sometimes, if the other side’s evidence is good, you don’t think there is more room for manoeuvre and their offer is better than what you might expect by going to court, you might accept. Finally, you might decide that their offer is unpalatable, yet you can’t improve your offer, in which case you are off to court or whatever the alternative is to doing a deal.

In poker, bluffing is an accepted facet of play. In mediation on the other hand, if a party is caught out lying, this will usually have very bad implications for the chances of settlement. By all means give yourself wriggle room, but outright deception carries significant risks, especially if your alternatives to settlement are poor.

The flip side of detecting deception is that it is equally important to detect the truth. Lie catchers can sometimes err on the side of distrust, overestimating the frequency of lying and missing instances when the truth is told. In another study, Dr Ekman and his colleagues found that the groups who did best in detecting lies were less effective in identifying truth tellers, scoring not much better than chance, and not significantly better than other groups. To be good in poker and mediation you need to develop skills at detecting both lies and truths.

© Dr John Clark