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Tactical Tuesday:  Reciprocity (You Scratch My Back...)

Posted by Andrew Hupert on Jan 18, 2017 10:44:00 AM
Reciprocity – You Scratch My Back – is so integral to the negotiating practice that many people overlook it as a tactic. You shouldn’t. It’s not a neutral process – you can turn it to your advantage and defend against dangerous ploys. 


Name: Reciprocity

AKA: You Scratch My Back, Give and Takereciprocity.jpg

Intent: One side makes a concession to pressure the other side to make a corresponding compromise.

Style: Should be Coll
aborative or Compromising – but sometimes can be quite Competitive. Also used by Accommodators – with limited success.

Counter: Offer a concession of your own of equal or lesser value. If you feel his concession was made in bad faith, you must call his bluff and demand a more significant move.

 Combinations: Reciprocity is useful in “log-rolling”  situations where you are trading concessions in different variables. Reciprocity is very important to relationship-builders.


Reciprocal concessions are at the heart of business negotiation.   Weak negotiators answer and react – but successful negotiators use concessions to take the lead. They use concessions to control the pace and timing, to guide the negotiation in the strategic direction they want to move, and to build significant relationships. The key is planning. If you use the GOBLINS system , then you have already mapped out your agenda, variables, and valuations before you open your mouth. When the time comes to start trading proposals, you know how and when you will make concessions. Skill use of reciprocity is one of the only methods to force Avoiders to engage.


The keys to use of reciprocity as a tactic are:


  1. Plan in advance whether you need a relationship or a transaction. Reciprocity is most effective in relationships, and you should look for ways to shape the scope of the deal in a way that favors your side. If you want a transaction, reciprocal concessions can still work, but you should emphasize the value of each move.
  2. Use relationship-building tactics  to determine what the other side values, and what he needs to walk away with. “Big talk” tactics  will get him to reveal what considers to be most important for his business.
  3. Figure out what is cheap for you to offer – but valuable to receive. Offer cheap concessions, and position yourself to receive valuable reciprocal counters.
  4. Acknowledge the process, and reinforce the collaborative nature of your business.  Be explicit about highlighting the value and progress gained through mutual concessions.
  5. Repeat.


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Reciprocity is one of the most persuasive moves in tactical negotiation. Robert Cialdini, in his excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion devoted a whole chapter to the process. Once someone gives you something, you feel obligated to return the favor. It’s not only normal – it’s the essence of compromise and give & take. What could be wrong with that?


What can go wrong:

Since everyone knows that reciprocity is such a powerful motivator, aggressive negotiators can make it work in their favor in a number of ways.


Bad Reciprocity #1: Bad faith. Some concessions are just cynical attempts to pressure you into a disadvantageous agreement. I learned a lot about negotiating in China at the open-air “silk markets” where vendors set prices for clothes and souvenirs at 400% of their reasonable market value (what locals would pay in shops 2 blocks away). Tourists would haggle them down by 25 or 30%, and congratulate one another for their China acumen, while still wildly overpaying. .

Bad Reciprocity #2: Bad variables. A great deal is only great if you want the asset in question. If your business needs raw materials or components for a specific process, then a fantastic price on the wrong product is still going to end up with you having the wrong product. Many times a clever negotiator will end up expanding the scope of a deal far beyond what you had intended with some artfully deployed price cuts and generous-sounding offers.

What if he doesn’t make a counter-concession?

One of the basic rules of negotiation is that you should never make an un-answered concession. Once you give ground – with a meaningful and good faith offer – you are within your rights to expect him to answer with a significant concession of his own. If he doesn’t, then you have a problem.

  • Don’t take the bait and respond emotionally or lose your composure. Many competitive negotiators want to see you get angry because it increases your engagement and forces you to make mistakes.
  • Take a break and consider the situation as it stands. If he has really hit his bottom-line limit, the he might not have any room to move. If, however, you suspect that this is a power play on his part, then you have to consider your BATNA or Plan B. If the deal on the table still has value for you, then you have to consider accepting the situation as it stands.
  • Call him out. Discuss the impasse and ask him if the concession you just offered has any real value to him. Use the “Why” counter to uncover his values and priorities. I was once involved in a negotiation where the other side made what they considered to be a valuable offer to share their technology. On my side of the table, however, we weren’t interested in new technology, but rather in rejecting their demands for exclusivity. We felt that what they were offering wasn’t a valuable concession, but rather a risky and potentially expensive entanglement.
  • Ask for a specific concession that has real value for your side. The key here is you must have a SMART variable prepared in advance.


Every negotiation involves give and take, and reciprocity is one of the cornerstones of compromise (and human society in general). But like most powerful tools, reciprocity can be used to aid or to harm. People know that concessions are supposed to come in pairs, and aggressive negotiators have been known to stuff their opening offers with plenty of “throw-away” variables and over-ambitious valuations so that they have plenty of room to make concessions and still make a killing.  

Topics: Tactical Tuesday, Tactics

Written by Andrew Hupert

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