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The Power of Reciprocity: How Giving Leads to Receiving

After I graduated from college and settled into professional life, I realized that making friends as an adult wasn’t as easy as making friends as a student. I wanted to expand my social circle, but I wasn’t sure how.


Around the same time, I learned about Robert Cialdini’s research on reciprocity in his now classic book Influence. His research found that when someone gives first, they create an obligation in others to reciprocate with a similar behavior, gift, or service.


That’s when I realized that if I wanted more friends, I should practice offering friendship to others. Instead of waiting for others to befriend me, I began initiating conversations and inviting others to social gatherings. It didn’t take long before others reciprocated by inviting me to spend time with them.


In the process, I learned that if we desire more of something in our lives, we must first extend what we desire to others. And perhaps just as importantly, if we want less of something in our lives, we need to limit the energy we put into fostering it.


Reflect On What You Are Giving

Consider your interactions with others over the last day or week. Think about your words and even your body language. During your reflection you might realize that your behavior is shaped by those you surround yourself with. Perhaps you are giving back to others what they are giving to you.

Our actions can unknowingly perpetuate behaviors or attitudes that prevent us from getting what we desire. If our interactions with others include blame, cynicism, gossip, ridicule or shame, we shouldn’t be surprised when those behaviors come back to us. We must strive to recognize these negative patterns and make a conscious effort to break free from them. For example:


If you want peace, but you fuel disagreements, it might be time to practice more understanding.


If you want respect, but you belittle others’ efforts, it might be time to make a habit of appreciating the achievements of others.


If you want trust, but you build walls around yourself, it might be time to start building bridges.


Start Giving What You Want

The principle of reciprocity suggests that we give to others what we wish to receive ourselves.


What would you like more of in your life? How could you give more of what you want with the hopes that it will come back to you? I’ve included some examples in the table below with some actionable strategies you could take to achieve your goals.

Desire

Actionable Strategies

Approval

​Express genuine appreciation and acknowledgment for the efforts, achievements, and qualities of others. Offer assistance, guidance, or words of encouragement to help others achieve their goals.

Belonging

Join groups or communities with shared interests and nurture meaningful connections with others. Create environments where people feel welcome.

Compassion

Pay close attention to others’ feelings. Look for opportunities to provide assistance with a task or offer comfort during challenging times.

Fairness

Lead by example by treating others with impartiality, respect, and consideration, regardless of their background. Speak out against discrimination, bias, and favoritism when you observe these behaviors.

Kindness

​Start by undertaking small, thoughtful gestures such as complimenting a stranger, holding the door for someone, or helping a coworker with a task. Practice actively listening to others and demonstrating empathy.

In addition to giving to others more of what you would like to receive, be sure you are treating yourself the way you want to be treated. Pay attention to your inner dialogue. As you strive to extend approval, belonging, and compassion to others, it is equally important to direct these qualities towards yourself.


Stop Keeping Score

In your journey of putting out into the world what you would like to see more of, you may not always receive the same in return. However, the impact of your giving is not limited to immediate reciprocity. Your actions create a lasting impression on others, and they, in turn, might pass on that positivity to someone else.


Furthermore, whenever I’m not sure of what the world needs from me, I strive to put more love into the world. And while I don’t expect love to be reciprocated, it does have a way of finding its way back, sometimes from unexpected sources. As my understanding of reciprocity has grown, I’ve become convinced of two things:

  1. The greatest gifts are the gifts that you give.

  2. The most important thing is love: giving love and receiving love - in that order.


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