A Q+A with Capricia Marshall: How to Negotiate

Capricia Penavic Marshall, President Obama's former United States chief of protocol, has seen and done a thing or two — all with extreme diplomacy and grace (two important pillars of Protocol, which happens to be the title of her new book). Here, she explains why protocol matters whether you’re dealing with visiting dignitaries or friends and family, and offers her best tips on how to negotiate.

By Didi Gluck


You've described protocol as a negotiation superpower. Can you explain what skills are involved in protocol?

The nuances and details of every engagement, no matter how small, when compiled can have a major impact. Many of these details are imperceptible within the negotiation, such as adjusting your own mindset or influencing your counterpart’s thinking for a winning outcome or setting the vibe of a meeting space to meet your goals — hence a superpower! There are a variety of skills in protocol that can tip the playing field in favor of a successful engagement, and they fall into three categories: mindset tools, physical tools and communication tools. A critical mindset tool, for example, would be a commitment to invest in the relationship. Also, being fully prepared, which also allows you to be nimble and change direction when elements shift, which they inevitably do. Physical tools include things like food, which literally brings people to the table and keeps them there (you do not want to be negotiating with a hangry diplomat or colleague!). The setting for a meeting — indoors or outdoors, intimate or official, casual or formal — is another physical tool you can wield to move the needle depending on the relationship you’re building. Finally, an ability to communicate with the utmost clarity is a skill that will pay huge dividends. Clarity, in diplomacy and life, is so important in order to avoid misunderstandings and to build bridges with those you’re trying to collaborate with. Communicating who you are — strategically of course, you want to highlight the positives! — and being precise about your goals allows your counterpart to respond in kind. Part of good communication is also making an effort to understand who the other person is and expressing curiosity and respect for their culture. And using language and etiquette that is considerate and civil communicates a graciousness, which ultimately moves everyone in the right direction. 

In a time when we're repeatedly told that "nice girls finish last," can you explain why etiquette matters in the workplace?

I have heard this question multiple times and always wonder why would you not want to present your best self? Etiquette helps you do just that. Knowing and executing good manners also relieves you of the stress in the moment of knowing how to act — you don’t have to wing it or accidentally make an error if you simply follow the proper codes of conduct. And once you practice them, they become reflexive, and it frees you to focus on your work at hand. I do want to make a distinction between being nice and being a pushover, however. Some of the most successful and powerful women I know are also some of the kindest and most respectful. They treat everyone, from the intern on up to the CEO, with graciousness. That doesn’t mean they don’t stick to their guns in a negotiation or give away their power. They win points with elegance and respect.


In terms of protocol, what are the three most important things you can do to make sure a meeting goes in your favor?

First, do your homework. Researching beyond the cursory bio to learn more about the participants backgrounds will provide insights into your road map for the engagement. You won’t be caught off-guard and you’ll come across as invested in the engagement. Second, if you have control over the venue, find the proper place to hold the meeting and then set it in your favor. For example, if you want to shift the relationship from one that is formal to one that’s more intimate or invested, you may want a setting that feels special — perhaps a familiar restaurant. If you want to convey power, holding a meeting in a venerable boardroom or another space that is usually reserved for exclusive gatherings can send the right message. Then, make sure the elements of the set-up for the meeting are created in a way to give you edge, from table décor — perhaps you choose a centerpiece that echoes your message — to chair placement, to the food served. Last, but not least, the introductions you make and agenda can set the tone of the meeting. Addressing people with their proper title and outlining the agenda at the top of the meeting sets a welcoming and respectful tone.


What are some of the best tools of protocol and diplomacy one can use for successful interactions at work and home?

Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” noted that to persuade your counterpart to your side of the ledger, you want to get them to want what you want, rather than forcing them to do something they don’t want to do (aka hard power). “Smart power,” which he also coined — and which Secretary Clinton popularized — is using a mix of soft and (if necessary) hard power tools, as well as creativity and ingenuity. At work, hosting an anniversary dinner for a colleague or inviting a new client to a concert (post-pandemic, of course), can allow for an exchange of ideas and a getting-to-know you experience that brings you closer to a shared goal. In your personal relationships, too, you can use soft power to bridge gaps and strengthen bonds. Gifting wine, flowers or a fruit basket to your neighbors to show appreciation for dealing with a loud renovation (something I did recently) can keep things copacetic and fertile.

Using language and etiquette that is considerate and civil communicates a graciousness, which ultimately moves everyone in the right direction. 


Have you ever inadvertently breached protocol? How did you recover?

In my book, I felt it was really important not only to showcase when protocol went right, but also when it went missing. The unintentional mishandling of the flag of the Philippines during the 2010 US-ASEAN summit in New York had dire consequences. A flag is an important symbol for a country and hanging it properly — as in right side up, for starters! — is a reflection of respect. Our protocol team (and I blame myself for not being the last set of eyes on the flag) had inadvertently hung their flag in a manner that appeared as if it were upside down, and in the Philippines, an upside flag signifies that the country is at war. This happened right before President Obama was about to enter an important bilateral with the Philippine president — he would now be at a disadvantage after such a huge protocol breach. It was a five-alarm fire. But we avoided any major fallout, and here’s why: We addressed it right away and in the proper way. First, the protocol team and I corrected the error, then I apologized fully to their Ambassador and issued a formal apology through State Department channels. Correcting the error immediately, acknowledging it, and then authentically apologizing for it helped us keep the critical relationship intact and moved our negotiations forward. It was also a huge learning moment for the entire protocol team, and I was so proud that no one threw anyone else under the bus.

There's a chapter of your book called "Negotiating While Female." How does our gender both hold us back and help us during negotiations?

I wanted to include this chapter to address the inequity women still experience at the bargaining table. Women are in a constant state of negotiation in this male-dominated world, no matter their position. Having a few well-crafted tools in our pocket can help us successfully navigate the murky waters of gender discrimination here at home and abroad. For example, setting an equalizing mindset – a “can do confidence” that we deserve to be in the room and at the table. As in other situations, being extremely prepared and knowing the rules of engagement shows everyone at the table that you belong. And while I revile tokenism, we should take advantage of the moments when we are put into a token-like situation. I tell women I mentor, “If you’re asked to be ‘just’ the moderator, instead of on the panel, that’s OK. Grab that moderator position and use it to control the conversation!” Also: Sit down in the seat of importance at the table, request making the keynote at the presentation, and step into the space normally reserved for a male colleague. Showcasing our talent is empowering for ourselves and sets an example for every woman — and man — who is watching. 


How can protocol and diplomacy be used to advocate for change in cases of racial injustice?

Protocol creates the foundation for diplomacy and for other important discussions to take place, whether those discussion are about racial equality, gender equity or another movement for justice. Protocol is the framework that allows for the engagement to move forward, giving everyone a seat at the table and a voice. Protocol doesn’t tell the players what to say, but it importantly provides the opportunity and the roadmap for the engagement. Protocol enables productive discussions. The structure allows for uncomfortable and difficult conversations to take place with respect, civility and an empathetic mindset. We need protocol now more than ever in order to heal, unite and move forward together.

The Plum's audience is composed of women over 40 — largely GenXers. How can we harness the powers of protocol and diplomacy to get along optimally with our millennial counterparts in the workplace?

I agree, there's quite a cultural divide! We have different ways of communicating the same meaning, but unless explained, there are misinterpretations of the underlying meaning. These misunderstandings can lead to a deal undone, or just bad relationships. Like a culture of another country, we need to invest in understanding the cultural differences in generational perspectives. One of my smartest, dearest millennial friends told me: Younger people want you to know that you can learn from them, too. Ask them about themselves and allow them to share their strengths with you. The shoe goes on the other foot, too: I have my mother living with me, and at times I am so perplexed at her point of view … and at other times, I am enlightened. By taking the time to ask the critical questions and to learn what divides us, and then determining how to bridge the difference, I find that we, at minimum, begin to unravel the mistaken beliefs we have, and at maximum, we create a critical connection.

Capricia Penavic Marshall’s new book Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You is available on Amazon now.


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