We needed some extra tile to fully renovate the kitchen in our new vacation home, so we asked the seller about it, and he offered to sell it for around $800.
After doing some Internet research and asking the opinion of a flooring shop owner, I told the seller a flooring expert said it was worth only around $100. The seller indicated he would contact another shop and get back to me.
A few days later, the seller pulled an interesting move. He said he had decided to give it to us for free.
What happened? A classic example of what Arizona State University Psychology Professor Robert Cialdini calls the “Rule of Reciprocation.” In short, Cialdini, in his book “Influence: Science and Practice,” describes this as the feeling that “we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided to us.” Upon receiving some benefit from another, we thus feel “obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations and the like.”
In my negotiation, I thus felt a reciprocal obligation to repay his gift with at least an equivalent favor. I now felt like I owed him.
This also is the psychological tendency underlying much of the offer-concession stage of negotiations. It’s why we often believe parties should respond to an offer with a similar move. Then we go back and forth. In other words, we don’t like to “bet against ourselves” by making two consecutive moves. Instead, it’s “their turn” after we move.
So what should you do in your negotiations, understanding this tendency?
First, look for opportunities to “give things away” to your counterparts and to those with whom you may be negotiating in the future, especially if it doesn’t cost you much.
But keep a mental sense of what’s going back and forth. Maintain a decent balance. If it gets too far out of whack in the long run, relationships often suffer.
Second, analyze the relative value of all issues on the table and consider conceding on those of minor importance. But tie those concessions to reciprocal concessions from your counterparts on more important issues.
Third, be prepared when your counterpart invokes this rule with you. One response — pay for it now. Do not accept favors from individuals to whom you do not want to feel a reciprocal obligation.
Labor union negotiators must be sensitive to the perceptions involved in accepting favors from management. They don’t want to appear to their fellow members to be unfairly influenced by management. As a result, they will often either refuse “favors” or insist on paying for any benefit received.
Finally, don’t feel obligated if you feel the gift or favor is being offered to manipulate you. Everyone receives “free offers” in the mail or from telephone solicitations. These almost always come from strangers. Don’t feel any obligation to return them. They are offered purely to manipulate your purchasing behavior. Treat these favors differently from those that come into play when the parties have an ongoing relationship.
What did I do when our seller offered us the tile for free? Graciously accepted it. And then later offered him a relatively equivalent discount on an item he already had agreed to pay for. Fair is fair.
Published July 7, 2006 The Business Journal