Leadership - The Laws of Persuasion

In Robert Cialdini’s Influence: Science and Practice (2009), he describes the powerful rule of reciprocity as one of “the most influential dynamics of human behaviour, the reciprocation rule essentially states that if someone gives something to us, we feel obligated to repay that debt.”

Reciprocation, “the quality or state of being reciprocal: mutual dependence, action, or influence.” (Merriam-Webster dictionary)  “To be reciprocal it is something that is given, felt, or done in return, (of an agreement or obligation) bearing on or binding each of the two parties equally.” (Collins English Dictionary)

In Brexit negotiations, Theresa May has indicated that there could be an “implementation period” of up to two years after March 2019, in order to avoid a “cliff edge” that some have warned about. But some Brexiteers argue that this is too much and delays us leaving the EU.

Lets look at an everyday example of reciprocity which by the way translates perfectly across cultures, to understand the Brexit state of play. Take the example of going to a Moroccan Souk and you see a rug that would be just perfect in a particular location in your home.  The sales person starts high because of course he wants maximum price, but also within the Moroccan culture it is expected that you negotiate down, and this very fact is built into the price.  What happens when you show some hesitation or say “No” to the offered price?  You end up with a jug, pot or similar being thrown in, and all of a sudden you find yourself agreeing to the price with the pot included!  Did you want or need that pot?  Probably not.  It is simply that the deal looks fairer and therefore of more value.

Looking at Brexit negotiations where is the “rug” and where is the “pot”? 

The Moroccan sales person could easily be representing EU negotiators, metaphorically speaking of course!  Despite being offered various “throw ins” and communication going back and forth, you, the UK, decide it is time to walk away instead.  What would happen? Either he will come after you with the main concession of price, movement, trade etc, or will let you go in the confidence that you will return for that rug you so dearly want, because after all it is perfect.  This according to Cialdini’s (Six Principles of Persuasion) is rejection-then-retreat strategy of concession and as the rules of reciprocity further show, often this approach results in agreement to the deal you want, with the sales person adding even more “throw-ins” or concessions for future needs

At what stage are we in the Brexit negotiations in terms of reciprocity?  Clearly the EU wants the UK trade as much as the UK want access to the EU market. Are our wants and needs too far apart, or is the EU simply negotiating like a Moroccan rug sales man and therefore keeping our eye on the ball, is it time to walk away and see what happens?

We might ask the question - are we powerless to the strength of the rule of reciprocity?  Despite the rule’s unspoken influence, we have the ability to effectively discern, adjust, or simply say “No” to reciprocation.   We don’t need to reject the services, favours, or kindnesses of others, but we do want to evaluate intention, as well as our return concessions.  If we feel that we are being conned, walked all over or exploited, then Cialdini recommends that “we redefine the initial favour so that we no longer feel a need to respond with a favour or concession   (p. 49).” By knowingly engaging in the exchange of reciprocity, we can minimize the potential effects of exploitation.  “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!”




Cialdini, R.B. (2009).  Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.



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