The 4-Step Reciprocity Loop for Better Relationships

Recently I overheard a conversation where an individual mentioned the kindness of a friend. She said whenever she goes to her friend’s business that friend never charges her for whatever services she provides. While the woman said she appreciates the friend’s generosity, she has a strong desire to do something in return for her friend in recognition of the kindness. The problem is that her friend usually refuses any return gesture. This refusal to receive creates an awkward imbalance in the relationship.


Social scientists agree that all human societies raise their people according to the rule of reciprocity. Reciprocity describes that natural feeling of obligation you have to give back to those who have first given to you. 

In most societies the conditioning for reciprocation starts in early childhood. It’s a good bet when you were young, and someone did something nice for you, your mother or father looked at you and said, “What do you say?” At that point you turned to the other person and responded with, “Thank you.” 

Although not formally told, “You have to do something in return for people after they do something for you,” you quickly picked up the subtlety of what your parents were teaching you. When someone does something for you there’s an expectation that you’ll recognize their kindness by doing something kind in return. It might be as simple as saying, “Thank you,” or it could be more significant depending on the generosity of their act.


Sometimes giving occurs outside of any relationship. For example, someone might give you a free sample at a grocery store. At a minimum you thank the person. Sometimes that little free sample causes you to buy when you might not have otherwise.

Quite often giving occurs within a defined relationship.  When that’s the case, and the recipient isn’t afforded an opportunity to reciprocate, it creates an imbalance. If you’re like many people you may think, “Someone doesn’t have to repay me for my kindness.” With genuine kindness that’s true, you’re not doing it to get something in return. 

Here’s the catch; you need to consider how the other person is feeling about the relationship. Remember, there’s a societal expectation to return the favor. More importantly, if it’s true that “It’s better to give than receive,” then not allowing someone to reciprocate deprives them of an opportunity to do something that makes them feel good in much the same way that you felt when you first gave to them.


I’ve noticed for whatever reason; some givers are not comfortable receiving. Something prevents them from receiving and graciously saying, “Thank you so much.” If you’re that person, pause to consider for a moment the people you interact with. You give to those people because it feels good and you see it creates happiness for them. 

Understanding this; doesn’t it make sense that their giving back to you would allow them to feel good and create a little happiness for you at the same time? Don’t deprive people of this opportunity because the good feelings we have about other people is part of building strong relationships.

The 4-Step Loop

With good reciprocal relationships there’s a willingness to give and receive from both parties that follows this pattern: 

  1.     A sincere willingness to give,
  2.     The willingness to receive on the part of the other person,
  3.     A desire to reciprocate, and
  4.     Your willingness to receive.

That’s the behavior loop that allows everyone to feel good as opposed to indebted. The next time you do something kind or generous for someone, and you sense they want to go beyond a mere thank you, allow them to do so. In some ways it will be another act of kindness on your part because you will allow them to get out from under the feeling of obligation, they’ll feel good about their giving, and they’ll get to see the joy on your face when you receive their kindness.

Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach, and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s first book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was named one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by BookAuthority. His new book, Persuasive Selling for Relationship Driven Insurance Agents, was an Amazon new release bestseller.  

Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses on persuasive selling and coaching have been viewed by more than 370,000 people around the world.


5 replies
  1. Jeff Wasserstrom
    Jeff Wasserstrom says:

    Brian – You raise an excellent point. It’s critical to allow others to receive that special feeling of knowing that they did something good and made a difference. If you don’t allow them to return the favor, you are depriving them of that feeling of gratitude. Here is a quote that I have seen and shared: Feeling Gratitude and not expressing it – Is like wrapping a present and not giving it.

    Have a Terrific Thursday!

  2. joK
    joK says:

    would love to see what you have to say about friendships where one of the people are very comfortable receiving, but almost never reciprocate. Not wanting to have a tit-for-tat relationship with people, I give kindnesses because it does make me happy, but there does come a point where you begin to feel more uncomfortable with a very low reciprocation factor. How would you approach this with a friend?

    • Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
      Brian Ahearn, CMCT® says:

      That’s an age old problem. Two choices come to mind. First, you could stop putting yourself out there for those who don’t reciprocate. Sooner is better than later so resentment doesn’t build. The second choice would be an authentic conversation. The might feel uncomfortable for you but it will likely be more uncomfortable for the one who doesn’t ever reciprocate.


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  1. […] couple of weeks ago, I wrote about The 4-Step Reciprocity Loop for Better Relationships. The gist of the post was that some people don’t allow others to do for them in return. I pointed […]

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