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Building Relationships Through Reciprocity

flower, building relationships through reciprocity

Real relationships transcend anonymous downloads, views, and connection counts. Meaningful interactions can be regular social media posts that leave your followers a bit better for reading, a personal card you send, helping someone’s kid with a school project in your area of expertise, or sending a meal during someone’s low point in life.

These meaningful interactions, genuinely offered without “gotchas” or strings, deepen relationships and widen your circle of influence. That circle of influence, in turn, will give back to you.

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist and author Dr. Robert Cialdini details the rule of reciprocity. This rule is so fundamental to human behavior, Cialdini notes, that it is baked into our DNA. The rule of reciprocity states that when we receive a gift without strings attached, whether it is a favor, a gift, or an invitation, we have a natural tendency to want to return the favor in some way with a gift of our own. In other words, giving is an essential and inescapable aspect of who we are as human beings.

One key aspect of building relationships through reciprocity, though, is that your giving must be genuine and free of strings. Giving with a "catch" gives off an odor that people can sniff from miles away.

When you genuinely seek to give to others by assisting them in their own journey and celebrating them and their work, and you do all that without expectations of a quid pro quo, you trigger the desire for reciprocity in others. Your clients and your broader network of connections will seek to help you in ways that you can’t begin to imagine.

The rule of reciprocity is so powerful that its pull overcomes short-term self-interest, one’s own needs, and even cultural differences, time, and geography. One powerful example Cialdini offers in Influence is a gift that Ethiopia made to the people of Mexico in 1985 after a devastating earthquake. What made this gift so surprising and unexpected was that Ethiopia was arguably the most impoverished nation in the world at that time. Years of drought and civil war had fostered a situation in which thousands were dying of starvation and disease. Despite a myriad of their own problems, however, the government of Ethiopia sent aid to earthquake victims in Mexico.

Upon further research, Cialdini found the rule of reciprocity as the motivation for this unexpected gift: Ethiopia remembered a gift that Mexico had made fifty years earlier. Mexico sent aid to help the struggling nation defend itself when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. This gift was so important that Ethiopia remembered.

Do you want to be remembered similarly? Of course you do; all of us want to be remembered so that we will receive assistance in our own journeys. This type of reciprocity is not demanded or expected. On the contrary, this powerful rule of reciprocity is triggered when you give first.

Your giving and the value you share must be offered without expectation. You cannot give with one eye on what you “deserve” or with the expectation of a quid pro quo. Otherwise, you are not planting seeds of reciprocity, but seeds of resentment.

If you build relationships by seeking to serve first, you will be seen as a professional of value. When that is your reputation in the community or niche you seek to serve, that community will organically and naturally give back to you in powerful ways that will help you build your business.


Business consultant and coach, author, and podcaster John Ray advises solopreneurs and small professional services firms on their two most frustrating problems: pricing and business development. John is passionate about how changes in mindset, positioning, and pricing change the trajectory of a business and the lifestyle choices of a business owner. His clients are professionals who are selling their expertise, such as consultants, coaches, attorneys, CPAs, accountants and bookkeepers, marketing professionals, and other professional services practitioners.

This post is adapted from John's national bestselling book, The Generosity Mindset: A Journey to Business Success by Raising Your Confidence, Value, and Prices. The book covers topics like value and adopting a mindset of value, pricing your services more effectively, proposals, and essential elements of growing your business. The book is available at all major physical and online book retailers.


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