Reciprocity: give to get

Living in the world that we do—with its smartphones, transatlantic travel, ultra-high-def TVs and One Direction—it’s sometimes easy to forget that we are, at the most basic level, animals.

We have, over the course of human evolution (modern humans it’s generally agreed upon have been around for at least 200,000 years), carried with us various traits that helped our long gone ancestors to navigate and survive on this planet we call “home”.

In the modern world of communications these traits may seem of no real concern to us but the truth of the matter is that we still act and make decisions based on them.

The use of reciprocity, for example, can be a powerful tool to help create a reaction and a connection with your clients and customers. It can help build a deeper relationship, creating trust and loyalty.

At the most basic level, reciprocity is the exchange of something of value between two or more people. This doesn’t have to be as obvious as giving a present or receiving a birthday card: assistance, advice and contacts can equally be a form of reciprocity.

By and large we try to repay in kind what another person has given us; if we don’t, we usually have an overwhelming feeling of guilt—and there aren’t many people who enjoy that feeling. I know I don’t.

There are many theories as to where reciprocity comes from and why it’s a major influence over our lives and decision making. It has been theorised that it relies on a universally held belief of future obligation: if we give something of value away it won’t be lost forever but will be repaid to us in the future with something of equally valuable (or even more so). Humans for the most part will almost always strive to repay this “debt” even when the expectation of repayment is a vague one.

We can see reciprocity happening all the time in the online arena—take LinkedIn, for example. When we receive endorsements or recommendations from our clients or associates, most of us will respond in kind without being asked—we somehow feel compelled to do so.

When someone comments on one of our photos on Facebook, we will often comment back on one of theirs. Even if we don’t feel obligated, we would rather do this than not as it’s fundamental to our social success.

We can make use of this ancestral practice in a variety of ways.

  • Write free articles—not only will you be giving your readers knowledge for free but you’ll also be enhancing your position and credibility as an expert in the field in which you operate. The same can be said for coding. There are many developers who use reciprocity by giving away bits of code they have created: those who download the code feel obliged to either spread the word about the developer’s site, leave comments of thanks (usually praising the developer’s skills) or offering solutions or “bug fixes” for free.
  • Offer a free consultation—by giving away a bit of your knowledge and helping your potential clients/customers just a little it will instil the feeling that you’ve gone out of your way to help. It will enhance your reputation and increase the prospect of a more meaningful and prosperous relationship.
  • Compromise—by showing that you have the ability to compromise, your client will more than likely wish to reciprocate in kind, leading to a mutually beneficial outcome. This doesn’t mean that you have to become weak and go against your fundamental principles. Be strong, but always make room for compromise too.

It seems that even though we are moving full steam ahead into the future, there are certain traits that are ingrained in the collective human psyche. Don’t forget to use those traits—they’re effective, they work and they have done for at least the past 200,000 years.

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