Negotiate 1-2-3

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Getting Them to the Table

Learning Objectives Est. time: 20 min.

  • Recognizing the importance of connecting with other parties on a personal level
  • Comparing alternative ways of getting other parties’ attention
  • Evaluating tactics used in the early stages of negotiation

How you can participate

  • Use the comment tool at the end of the module to add your insights and questions
  • Engage with fellow learners and share your best practices
  • Check regularly for comments from the creators of Negotiate 1-2-3


Persuasion only works if the person you are trying to convince is willing to hear you. To get a reluctant party to negotiate, the first step is winning their attention. In this busy world, sometimes you only have a few seconds to do so. Some people have the knack. Others do not.

Here are two instructive stories, one cheerful, the other tragic. They first appeared on my LinkedIn Influencer blog in late 2013. Both were widely viewed. For different reasons both stimulated many comments. Before we turn to those examples, though, we’ll consider where—ideally—you’d like to meet your counterpart, and how you feel about having other people at the bargaining table.

How to Make a Deal in 3 Seconds Flat

Now we'll analyze two real-life situations. The first involves a charismatic shoeshine vendor competing for the attention of potential customers. Read the short introduction below, then stop and consider the questions that follow. Then click to read the rest of the account. Do the same for the second story. Finish the module by reading the concluding commentary.

I’ve learned a lot about negotiation from my colleague Paul Levy. I’ve talked to him about huge deals he made while managing the $5 billion Boston Harbor clean-up. After that he worked out creative agreements with suppliers, doctors, and government agencies as CEO of one of Boston’s leading hospitals.

But Paul also has a keen eye for important negotiation lessons we can learn from everyday transactions. He once shared a story with me about getting a shoeshine in New York from the man pictured here.

Street Vendor
Street vendor in midtown Manhattan.

Midtown Manhattan is packed with street vendors competing to get the attention of pedestrians bustling down the sidewalk. Hawkers have just a few seconds to snag a customer before they rush by. Paul was mesmerized by this guy's technique. Take a minute to complete this quick survey before reading further.

As people strode by, the shoeshine fellow would look up from his current customer’s job, make eye contact, and cast out a line as deftly as a fisherman. Depending on how he sized up his quarry, he’d choose the bait for his hook:

“When are you going to do something about those shoes?” he might ask one prospect
“Don’t you love her?” he might ask another. “What about those shoes?”
“Are you selfish?” he would ask another. “Think of those shoes.”

Paul complemented the man on how good he was at reading different people. The vendor said, “You only have three seconds to make a connection.”

To get business, vendors like him must stop you in your tracks and disrupt what you were doing. Targeting a specific person is a key part of the trick. A classic social science experiment showed that if you’re lying on a crowded sidewalk desperately calling for help, passersby will ignore you and keep on walking. Your odds of getting help are far better if instead you say, “You in the brown coat! Help me. I’m having a heart attack.”

Likewise, when you’re trying to draw someone into a negotiation, you’ve got to make a personalized appeal. A hawker shouting, “Shoeshines. Get your shoeshines here.” would be wasting his breath.

This particular vendor knows that. He catches your eye. Then he makes maximum use of his limited time by how he frames his questions. He treats as a given the fact that you need a shine. (And he’s a pro, of course, so he would know.) Superficially, the words he uses vary, but they all boil down to a friendly challenge: “Come on, you’re not the kind of person who wants to be seen in scruffy shoes, are you?”

It’s not just what he says, but how he says it. He’s confident (it’s New York City, after all) but also engaging. He presumes that both of you know that you’ve neglected your shoes. His pitch is strengthened by doing it while working on another customer’s shoes. The message is, “I’m busy now because I’m great at what I do. Wait a moment and I’ll fix you up, too.”


Paul’s story illustrates three important rules for any negotiation, whether you have only a few seconds or all day.

  1. You won’t get anywhere until you have your counterpart’s attention. Even if someone’s sitting across the table from you, their mind may be wandering and not focused on what’s important to you. You’ve got to find the right bait to lure them into the conversation.

  2. Never ask questions that are easy for others to say “no” to. If the shoeshine vendor were simply to ask, “Wanna shine?” people would rush on by. Instead he makes prospects ask themselves why they would want to look anything less than their very best.

  3. To engage somebody else, you've got to be engaged yourself. Take another look at Paul’s snapshot of the man. See his knowing smile, his wide-open eyes, and the peace-sign he’s flashing. You can’t expect others to connect with you if you’re not engrossed with them.

These principles apply whenever you want someone else to pivot, to buy something from you—a product, a service, or an idea—that they weren’t even thinking about a moment ago. They also apply to situations where you are trying to stop someone from carrying out their intentions. In the next example, I’ll describe another three-second negotiation, this one with far higher stakes.

Reader Comments

LinkedIn commentators noted several themes in this story. One person said, “This is a great reminder that we are not selling a product, we are negotiating a relationship which will help our clients project ‘quality.’ ”

That sounds right to me. The individualized nature of the vendor’s patter is essential. If he were simply to say, “Anybody want a shoeshine?” or “I’m the best shoe-shiner in New York,” walkers would have just streamed on by. Instead, this fellow directs his comment at a particular person, not the general public. The seller is trying to forge a one-on-one relationship.

Another commenter took it a step further and suggested the vendor expand his business, perhaps by offering a drop-off repair service. “This guy isn’t selling shoe shines,” she wrote. “He’s selling Looking Sharp!”

Still another struck a different chord. He noted that although the vendor varied his pitch and his banter was cheerful, he was always trying to embarrass prospects into buying his service. “It takes a certain amount of courage to embarrass someone,” he wrote, “but make no mistake, shame is a powerful motivator.”

I responded by agreeing while noting that while the vendor was mocking prospects, he also expressed empathy. The underlying message was, “Let me shine your shoes and you’ll walk away with a spring in your step, feeling good about yourself.” And he is able to do this repeatedly with remarks that are shorter than a Tweet.

Still another commentator summed up the post by saying, “Now that’s how the phrase ‘street smart’ has come into existence!”

A quick postscript on Paul and the shoeshine man: As you likely guessed, Paul learned about the vendor’s technique while sitting in the chair getting his own shoes buffed. And exactly how did the guy reel my friend in? As Paul walked buy, the vendor just mournfully shook his head side to side and muttered, “Those shoes . . .”

Marines Don’t Do That: Mastering the Split-Second Decision

Street Vendor

Here’s another three-second negotiation. If you’re looking for something cheerful, though, maybe you should read it some other time. It’s a troubling story and far from most people’s experience. Nevertheless, it offers powerful life lessons.

Imagine that you’re a British marine commando in Afghanistan. Your unit comes across an insurgent, badly wounded but unarmed. One of your fellow soldiers, seething with rage, points his pistol at him and is poised to shoot. “Shuffle off this mortal coil,” he says. “It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”

You have mere seconds to act. You’re not close enough to restrain him. What would you say?

If you weighed your options for more than an instant, time’s up. It’s too late—as it was for the others at the scene. Before they could act or speak, the angry soldier shot the defenseless captive at close range, then turned to his fellow commandos and said, “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention.”

But word did get out in the following days. The whole incident had been videoed by helmet cameras. (The grainy picture posted here is from that film.) The soldier was found guilty of murder, the first such conviction in Britain since World War II.

Handing down a life sentence, the judge said, “You treated that Afghan man with contempt and murdered him in cold blood. By doing so you have betrayed your corps… [and] potentially increased the risk of revenge attacks against your fellow service personnel.”

It was a tragedy all the way around. For the victim, most certainly. Also for the convicted soldier who, for what it’s worth, had an otherwise unblemished service record. And likewise for the troops who witnessed the killing and anguish over what they might have done to prevent it.

There is no simple answer that would guarantee a different outcome, but some military experts believe that the murder might have been prevented if just one other person in that unit had the presence of mind to say four words: “Marines don’t do that.”


Replay that short sentence in your head as if it were directed to you. Note that it does not include the words stop, order, or wrong. The omission makes the statement all the stronger. Its aim is to put the spotlight on the person, not the act.

Marines is the most important word. It comes first and works on two levels. It tells the soldier, “Remember who you are. Don’t renounce your identity.” Uttered by a fellow marine, it also says, “Your brothers are here with you.”

You may think I’m reading too much meaning into that sentence. When I came across an analysis of the incident by an ethicist, Paul Valley, I forwarded it to a former student of mine, US Marine Corps Major David Dixon. David kindly gave me permission to quote his reply:

“Wow, this is extremely apropos. A few months ago I spoke at the University of Washington about how the Marine Corps teaches ethical decision making in situations exactly like this. . . . This is exactly what we teach: ‘Marines don’t do that.’ Verbatim, it is in my PowerPoint slides.”

According to David, every US Marine received this training in 2012, from senior personnel to the most junior enlisted troops. It’s more than a technique or a tactic. Instead it’s an expression of a deep sense of values and responsibilities.

David says that US Marines are taught poise, presence, and moral courage from day one in the service: “If the Marine next to you is falling asleep in class, you must have the moral courage to wake him up and motivate him to stay awake. If you are caught sleeping in class at boot camp, not only do you get in trouble for laziness, but the Marine to your left and to your right get in trouble for lack of moral courage because they should have corrected you when you were in the wrong.”

Now let’s take a big leap to see how the same principles apply if you need to persuade someone else to do the right thing. Perhaps you want another party to treat you fairly, even though they know you’re in a weak bargaining position. Or you might see a colleague about to trip up by padding their expense account. Don’t look away; have moral courage yourself.

Step one is summoning the better side of the other person’s nature. That doesn’t require sermonizing. Instead you might merely ask, “Would you be comfortable telling your children what you’re planning to do?” Start with the fundamental matter of character. After that—if you have more than three seconds—you can debate specific ethical boundaries.

Most important of all, of course, is having friends who will have the courage to challenge us if we seem to have lost sight of who we aspire to be.

Reader Comments

This post drew more than 150,000 LinkedIn viewers. It received many “thumbs up,” but also drew strongly felt criticism. Some readers thought the piece disparaged the UK Marines or that I believed I would have done better under the circumstances. That certainly wasn’t my intent.

Here’s what one person wrote:

As an ex British Army Officer, I have a lot of distain for this article and its inherent assumption that “if only the UK marines were taught the same as the US Marines” this wouldn't have happened. We are steeped in the Geneva Convention (as was shown by the soldier’s comments), many other factors went into this situation and a four word 20/20 hindsight analysis helps no-one.

And here’s my response:

Hello Andrew. I am sorry. It wasn’t my intent to compare training practices in the UK though I can now see how you might infer that. And to make doubly sure that I’m clear, I apologize as I have no basis for making such a judgment, and certainly no reason to start with that as a premise.

I went on to describe the origin of the post, an earlier story by a British military strategy consultant with an interest in ethics. I then concluded by saying:

Words matter, obviously. So is the poise needed to take effective action under great pressure and when the clock is ticking. I’m curious to know what others would do and whether certain kinds of training can help in such extreme cases. As for second-guessing others, not me. You don’t how you'll perform in high stress situations; you can’t know until you’re there. I understand that hoping to do right is one thing. Actually having the capacity to is quite another. I make no assumptions about myself in that regard.

I had no idea if or how Andrew would respond, but I wanted to explain my intentions. Having not expressed myself well enough the first time, I thought about how I should engage him now. I chose carefully the first three words after the salutation—“I am sorry.” That was the core of my message and I underscored my apology before going into any explanation. And I meant it.

I was surprised and touched by Andrew’s thoughtful reply:

Thank you for your considered response, and for taking the time to discuss my post.

The case generated a lot of interest over here, and as ex-Military I took special interest in it as well. Very complex debate about how the individual should be punished and one that engendered a lot of emotions. I follow your chain of thought and see how you are making a case about business ethics, that has been lost in the "storm" of comment about US v UK Marine training. I think that the training I received in the Army has helped me in the occasional situation, where what I’m saying is not what people want to hear and it has certainly re-enforced my general approach to how I conduct my business and personal life.

I’d pose the question, “is it nature or nurture?” Am I the kind of person that would be like that anyway, and thus was attracted to the forces, where those personality traits were enhanced, or did the Military training give me those strengths. If the first, then no amount of training will change people, if it’s the second then there are lessons to be learnt and that’s (I believe) the nub of your article.

It has been a fascinating few days and it is an article that has engendered a tremendous amount of debate, and I accept you did not mean any slight of the UK marines, so my apologies for “shooting from the hip” over that point.

I had similarly gratifying exchanges with a few other commentators. I hope other viewers saw how conversations that begin on an edgy note can sometimes morph into exchanges that beyond civil, even kind and warm. Such transitions require honest speaking and honest listening on both sides. They can’t be fostered unilaterally.


The two stories here about attention-getting took place half a world away from one another in terms of physical distance, and even further away in regard to the stakes involved. Yet they share common elements. In both instances, the central figure is called to disrupt what someone else is doing, whether that’s striding down the street or pointing a gun at an unarmed prisoner. And he must act almost instantly.

What the shoeshine vendor does, and what a US Marine is now trained to do, is invoke identity. Neither requests (nor orders) the subject to stop what they are presently doing. Instead, each tries to provoke someone to remember who they are. In the first case, it’s merely a light-hearted appeal to a person’s vanity about their appearance. In the second, it’s a plea that the person remember their core values and obligations. Either way, if you are trying to get someone’s attention, one place to begin is by reminding them of who they want to be.

Additional Resources

Next Module: Setting the Stage [20 min.]

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