How to get more of what you want

A few years back I was working with a business that had a receptionist who was so miserable that they made Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh look good. As I waited in the reception area, they would look up from behind their computer with disgust and say “Who are you here for? Well, have you signed the visitors book yet? You know I can’t do anything until that’s done”. This was often followed by a sigh and rolling of the eyes. Eventually they would disappear and reappear a few minutes later and say, “Well they’re not ready yet so you will just have to wait here”.

Over time I realised that if I wanted to have a more positive experience then I would have to take matters into my own hands. For the next 6 months I tried every trick in the book to get more of what I wanted, a happy and positive interaction.

Eventually I broke through the façade and was now able to have a respectful conversation with just a hint of a smile. This change occurred just for me, everyone else who walked through the door had to endure her constant scorn and dissention.

How did I do this? By using the Law of Reciprocity.


In 1974, Sociologist Phillip Kunz conducted an experiment. He mailed handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph of him and his family to approximately 600 people he randomly selected from the phone book, all of whom were complete strangers. Kunz received nearly 200 Christmas cards from complete strangers, all because he had initiated the process. All these people felt obligated to return the favour and, in some cases, continued to send cards for over 15 years. This is known as the Law or Reciprocity and is considered by many as the most powerful law of human nature.

“If you do something nice for me, I’ll do something nice for you. We are hardwired to reciprocate.”

The thing about reciprocity is that it happens below a person’s conscious awareness and is a great way of getting people to like you and in turn, get more of what you want in the workplace. (By the way, Narcissists and Sociopaths don’t play by this rule – in fact they will exploit this rule as much as they can).

Why does Reciprocity work?

50,000 years ago, our species wasn’t the strongest or fastest animals in the neighbourhood. This meant that individuals were essentially a free meal, but when we formed groups, we became highly effective killing machines. Being part of a group was essential if you wanted to survive the pitfalls of the wild. Now one of the best ways to join your group is to give you something like a piece of fruit. When I do this my favour bank becomes full and now you owe me some fruit. As most people don’t like owing people fruit, they reciprocate in kind by giving you some fruit back. However, the Law of Reciprocation also states that we over reciprocate, because you want your favour bank full, you don’t just give me one piece of fruit, you give me a bunch of fruit.

In the modern world this is happening all around us. Just like the sales representative giving away free food samples at the supermarket, their goal is simple, to get you to buy their brand of salsa. It’s like when your neighbour mows your nature strip, next week you find yourself mowing theirs. It’s even when your child says, “You look pretty mum” followed by “Can we have Maccas?”.

As we use this every day without out any thought, why not make a more conscious effort to employ the Law of Reciprocity to get more of what you want. Here are three strategies I use regularly, that are easy to implement and often get results quickly.

Recognise people as individuals

In a world where there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day, it’s easy to forget that customers and employees are individuals first. Sure, we can provide generic platforms for customers to access 24/7, or send out emails to all staff, this doesn’t really meet the inherent needs of people, to be seen as unique. Research clearly demonstrates to get exceptional customer service or higher levels of employee engagement and work satisfaction, you need to treat people as individuals. When you take the time to recognise that people are not just a cog in the machine, they are individuals who have different needs. When you do this, you will be rewarded in kind.

In my example I went out of my way to learn the receptionist’s name. I made sure that I used her name every chance I got. I would often apologise if I had to interrupt them saying something like “Sorry to interrupt you as I appreciate how busy it is, could you let John know I’m here when your free”. This was all about recognising them as an individual, the challenges they faced, and the time impact I had on them, as opposed to treating them just like a receptionist.

Give people your attention

Brian and I had a manager attend one of our leadership programs because of a 360-degree feedback process. The results stated that his staff felt he was aloof, disengaged with the team and downright rude. After a role-play we did where a staff member comes to their manager for a signature and the manager does this without taking their eyes of the computer, he exclaimed “that’s me!”. We provided him with just one tip, stop what you’re doing, turn around and give them your attention. Six months later he called us to say that he had done another 360 and the results were astounding. The team said that he was totally engaged with the team, spent wore time with them, and that he really understood them personally. He’d had a Road to Damascus. The only thing he changed was to give them his undivided attention. By doing this he was subconsciously saying that they were the most important person in the room. That everything else can wait because they needed his attention. This is extremely powerful and is often the first thing we forget when things get busy. If you want people to connect with you, want them to feel valued, then give them your undivided attention.

In my example I would always engage with the receptionist fully. Even if they didn’t look up at me the entire time, I would still maintain eye contact. I listened to what they said and looked for a ‘conversational opening’. Openings are those moments where someone is seeking some form of acknowledgement or recognition. In one circumstance after I had asked how their day was, they exclaimed, “It’s been full of interruptions and I haven’t been able to get things done”. To this I replied, “I’m sorry about that, it must be difficult for you when people keep coming in and out all day”. This was my way of giving her the attention she needed. They just wanted to be heard.

Be courteous

I grew up with traditional parents who had very high standards around how you should treat people. My mum used to say that “Good manners are what separates us from the animals”. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with the link to animals, she was onto something. When we engage in common courtesies like please and thank you, we are raising people’s status. Dr John Gottman’s world renowned research found that successful relationships have five positive courteous transactions to every negative one. Furthermore, when I’m nice to you, I stimulate a release of oxytocin, the hormone that underlies individual and social trust. Essential when I use good manners, I make you biologically feel a part of the group thus enhancing my chance of success.

In my example I would stack the conversation with common courtesies like please and thank you. I would always say good morning and goodbye. I went as far as to wait one day until they came back to the desk to say “thank you for your time today. I hope you have a great day”. Even when they were in the foulest mood I would always smile and be nice.

There is one caveat to using these strategies, you must believe that you are doing this is for the better. You must be authentic in your delivery. If they happen to see this as a ploy it will often have the opposite effect. Whilst this person was the hardest nut I have tried to crack, over time it worked. I ended up getting a positive and somewhat happy interaction, not something I thought was even possible.

It’s well known that we do more for people we like or who are like us than those we despise, and one of the keys to getting people to like us is through the use of reciprocation. If you find yourself in a position where you are not connecting with people or not able to influence people to see your perspective, it could be that you haven’t given them enough fruit. When you consciously apply the Law of Reciprocity, you are giving people a bowl of metaphorical fruit and engaging with the 50,000 years of embedded human behaviour. As the Law of Reciprocity happens at a level below our conscious awareness, most people wont even know your doing it to them.

Whether you are a leader trying to engage with your staff, dealing with customers, trying to work more collaboratively with stakeholders or even make a sale, using strategically the Law of Reciprocity will help you get more of what you want.

If you want to explore more about how Scott can help you with your professional development needs contact us today on 07 4772 3300



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