Robert Cialdini’s legendary book The Psychology of Influence coined the Law of Reciprocity. This law is everywhere but largely a secret in that so few people capitalise on its power. The law states that people feel an indebtedness, and will go to great lengths to repay what another person has provided. It means you can actually obligate people to return and ‘pay forward’ favours in the confidence that what you have done will not be lost.

Webster’s dictionary defines reciprocity as a mutual or cooperative interchange of favors or privileges, as when actions taken for the benefit of others are returned in kind. It’s an often unspoken but universal principle of mutual give-and-take. As an example of reciprocity at work, research involving restaurant staff giving customers mints BEFORE the bill led to a larger tip.

The worldwide networking organisation BNI was built on the mantra of its founder and ‘the grandfather of modern networking’ Dr Ivan Misner: Givers Gain. Whether you’re giving help, referrals, introductions, resources or simply encouragement, it turns out that it really pays to give first. Specifically, giver’s gain is actually the principle of giving without the expectation of an immediate return.

To help you build stronger relationships, accrue social capital and leverage the connections you already have, here are my 14 rules and applications of this most powerful of networking laws. Digest and apply to your own situation to build even more powerful relationships and network at higher levels.

  1. Think relationship, not transaction. Although talk of influencing and intentionally applying universal laws to people might seem manipulative and cunning, this is simply about building relationship capital to benefit all parties. Good begets good. If somebody doesn’t reciprocate like you thought they would, then it’s their issue, not yours.
  2. How you give is crucial. In one experiment, a waitress provided one mint (before the bill), started to walk away, and then stopped and said, “You’re so nice. Here’s an extra mint!” Her tip increased by 23%.
  3. Make any gifts personal. Something they will like. For instance, I once gave some flowers to a lady only to find out she was not a lover of flowers (though she did like potted plants. Doh! Do your research.
  4. Don’t expect it back directly. The person you gave to won’t always be the one who gives back to you. Whether you call it karma or ‘what goes around comes around’, the idea that putting good stuff out there will benefit you in the long run is not a bad way of living.
  5. Play a long term game. Your return might not be immediate, and you must be patient. Having given first, the advocacy, word of mouth, influence or goodwill you receive in return might take a while to flow back. And your requests might be not easily answered. Take a long term view.
  6. Go first. If you want a particular favour from a particular person, consider doing something for them first. Don’t leave it too long before you ‘call it in’ as people have bad memories! And don’t move too fast to claim your prize of help back, as people will see right through your tactic.
  7. Guilt can be useful! When people don’t reciprocate, they risk social disapproval and feelings of guilt. That’s why any favors or help offered in public situations puts your good deeds on the radars of others, as well as the response.
  8. Gain buy-in, acceptance and negotiation power. You can increase the likelihood that people will do what you want them to do by doing something for them first. If you think your request might result in a ‘no’ or even a ‘maybe’ you can sway the odds in your favour with a ‘pre-emptive strike’ of goodness and gifting!
  9. Reciprocity often induces unequal exchanges. Individuals often agree to requests to substantially larger favours than what they have received. In other words, you don’t have to give big to get big. The fact that you give up front magnifies the impact and worth of your actions. Play on that.
  10. Giving up is as powerful as giving. A similar outcome can be achieved by making an initial concession which stimulates a return concession. In the world of negotiation and favors, what you are prepared to give is sometimes just as powerful as what you are prepared to give up.
  11. How to make big asks. Sometimes you give first, and want to make a big ask that you know will probably get rejected. In this situation, an advanced influence technique is rejection-then-retreat. So issue a BIG request, get rejected then fall back to a smaller request, which is incidentally your desired outcome all along.
  12. When people use reciprocation on you. If you feel this law is being used on you, the best defence is to NOT accept the initial gambit! If you see you’re being played or softened up, be firm and turn down. Otherwise could be lined up for the sucker punch. Bear in mind though that if you do turn it down, it’s unlikely they’ll help you in the future.
  13. Give graciously. This lowers the expectation of return. Be humble when they thank you. The worse worst thing you can say is ‘now you owe me one!’ Equally disrespectful is ‘no big deal’ as it implies you didn’t really go out of your way. A great response to lock in the value you’ve given is something like ‘My pleasure – I’m so glad I could help you. And if I needed any help from you, I’m sure you’d do the same thing.’
  14. Be open to opportunities to give first. It could be a divine encounter, something serendipitous. You’re more likely to have a chance to sow some good deeds if you’re looking out for opportunities to do so.

Networking Checklist 32 Ways to Give rob brown networking coaching academyThe strategy of reciprocity can work for building social capital that you can trade for a range of rewards. It needn’t be for a particular favour or an ask from certain people.It’s a phenomenal networking secret that few people deploy really well. But when done right, this will give you a huge advantage in creating business and career opportunities through the power of your networking.

How about committing to a season of goodwill – putting good stuff out there randomly for all kinds of people? Whether they’re influential or not, whether they can help you in return or not, giving first is not a bad way to live your life.

I’ve prepared a very special and mega-useful one page Networking Checklist especially for the people who receive my Networking Nuggets Newsletter. If you want a copy, contact us here (opens in a new tab) and we’ll personally put you on the list AND give you a free copy of this checklist! Now go do some giving!