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Want To Succeed At Negotiating? You’ll Need To Fight Your Natural Instinct First

by HardTalk™ Team | Perspiration


Human beings like to reciprocate. We love it. It’s part of what makes us human. It makes the world go round – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; tit for tat; give and take; quid pro quo – society wouldn’t work without it.

The reciprocity principle is one of the basic laws of social psychology: It says that in many social situations we pay back what we received from others. In other words, if John does you a favor, you’re likely to return it to him.

This cultural norm is instilled in us from an early age and for good reason. But there’s a problem. It goes into effect whenever we receive something – even if it’s something we don’t want. There are lots of studies showing this and it explains a lot of marketing behaviour. For example, in the 1970s the Disabled American Veterans decided to send potential donors personalized labels in the mail, while soliciting donations.  They told people to keep the labels even if they didnt make a donation. After they did this, the number of people who made contributions nearly doubled—jumping from 18% to 35%. Even though these people did not ask for or, presumably, want address labels.

One of the first and most famous studies on the rule of reciprocity was the famous “Coca-Cola” experiment conducted by Professor Dennis Regan at Cornell University in 1971.  In this experiment, Regans assistant, “Joe, played the part of another research subject taking part in an experiment about art. Joe left the room and in some cases returned with a can of Coke, saying “I asked him [the experimenter] if I could get myself a Coke, and he said it was okay, so I bought one for you, too.”  At the end of the experiment, Joe asked the subjects if they would buy a raffle ticket from him to help him win a prize.  The tickets were a quarter each. The subjects who received a Coke from Joe bought twice as many raffle tickets as the ones who hadnt received a Coke from him. And what they paid far exceeded the value of the Coke.

Behavioral scientist David Strohmetz found that including a couple of free mints with dinersbills increased tips by up to 23%. And sociology professor Phil Kunz sent 578 Christmas cards to random strangers from the address book.  He received 117 cards back from people who had no idea who he was (some even included long notes and photos of family members and pets).

This can be very dangerous in negotiation as we can find ourselves reciprocating when we shouldn’t e.g. by giving away something of value to the other side even if what we’ve received isn’t of equal value to us. The research suggests that:

The return gesture often outweighs the freebie. “The response is often disproportionate – you get a free chocolate and a bottle of water, you decide to buy the expensive necklace. You get a ten cent mint you increase your tip by a few dollars.

The moment of the gift is when we are most susceptible. We don’t like the feeling of being “in debt” and so well take the first action presented to us to get rid of that uncomfortable feeling of owing someone. 

Targeted and personalized gifts, and the element of surprise, are key. Studies have shown the more personal and targeted the gift is, and the more of a surprise and delight it is, the more effective the trigger. So a free lotion sample received anonymously in the mail is not as strong as a personal connection.

Less often considered is the way we can reciprocate in terms of our behaviour. We have a tendency to reciprocate here too and this can be both positive and negative.

For example, we tend to try to match the body language of the person with whom we’re trying to build a relationship, with whom we want rapport.

We also tend to respond in kind to the way we’re treated. That’s fine – if we’re doing it strategically but not if the executive brain has stopped working It’s not about whether the treatment is reasonable or not, or whether it feels good to reciprocate,   it’s about whether it gets you the results you want.

Consider a scenario we heard about recently: a relatively senior guy was at an “all hands” meeting when a tricky question was asked by a member of the remote audience. The CEO took the opportunity to throw the guy under the bus, metaphorically, on a live (and recorded) webinar. It seems this wasn’t the first time he’d behaved like this and, as the guy saw it, the criticism was unfair. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation he responded angrily, visibly reddening, jaw clenching, the (sadly private) video shows his face and body language imitating that of the CEO. His voice higher than usual and louder than it had been he made his case. Of course, he was seen as a “hero” by the people below him in the hierarchy and even some others.  But that isn’t his “purpose” – he wants to be perceived as calm and in control but is now seen as rash by those who matter (to him).

So how can you make sure you don’t fall foul of the law of reciprocation?

1)  First, get your brain back on track. Lots of different ways of doing this but ultimately it all comes down to self-awareness and self-monitoring. Remember that the research suggests the moment of the gift is the most dangerous so be aware of this and, where possible, the researchers say “take a break”.

2)  Remember your preparation and your purpose.  Although a HardTalk scenario may sometimes take us unaware, it’s always possible to stop and ask “what am I trying to achieve here?” or “what is my purpose?”. Where possible, preparation will help you to remember in your “hot state” what you wanted to achieve in the “cold state”.

3)  Stay curious. Remembering that the other person’s impact does not necessarily equal
their intent and wanting to find out more about what they want is key to listening well and listening well is key to all HardTalk including negotiation.

4)   Reflect. Help the other person to move back down the ladder of action reflecting back to them what you see and hear.

5)   Acknowledge. If the behaviour came from you e.g. if you were at fault or frustrated the other person, albeit unintentionally, deal with this by acknowledging and apologising if appropriate.

We’re never going to get rid of the law of reciprocation, and we do need it, but arm yourself so that it doesn’t steer you away from the end you have in mind.



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Dawn Metcalfe is an executive coach, facilitator, trainer and leadership advisor. She is also the author of Managing the Matrix (published in both English and Arabic) and HardTalk™. Dawn is the founder of Dubai based PDSi, which helps individuals and teams get even better at what they do, and has worked with business leaders around the world to change the way they see the world, their behaviour and their impact on others.