Trust Tip 35: Reciprocity, Sales and Suicide Hot Lines

In his classic best-seller Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,  Robert Cialdini lists the main forces or dynamics which explain how we come to be persuaded to believe what another tells us or asks us to do.

Chief among them is the idea of reciprocity: if you do for me, I will do for you.

For those in sales or advice-giving roles, It’s tempting to read this as a suggestion to exchange favors.  But it would be wrong.

Michael Lindemann tells of his experience on a suicide prevention hotline in Manhattan.  Earnest volunteers, eager to help those in arguably the greatest need, must be trained to contradict their instincts.  Those instincts are to persuade and convince the person of the value of continued life.

Turns out, those instincts are what drive jumpers to jump.  The average call lasts twenty minutes—that is, if you spend the first ten minutes listening, which is what volunteers are trained to do.  Listen, then offer advice.  Only then. Reciprocity.  If you listen to me, I will listen to you.

Thomas Friedman (New York Times columnist, author The World is Flat),  said in his commencement address at Williams College in 2005,  "people often ask me how I, an American Jew, have been able to operate in the Arab/Muslim world for 20 years, and my answer to them is always the same. The secret is to be a good listener… Never underestimate how much people just want to feel that they have been heard; once you have given them that chance, they will then hear you."  Reciprocity.  If you listen to me, I will listen to you.

John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says “understanding must precede advice. You have to let your partner know that you fully understand and empathize with the dilemma before you suggest a solution.”  Reciprocity. Let me know that you have heard me, and I will then listen to you advice.

Reading Cialdini, it’s hard to doubt that the principle of reciprocity is at the heart of trust, influence, and successful selling.

What’s easy to miss is the most common and powerful form of reciprocity—listening.

Want to persuade/sell/influence someone? Then stop trying to persuade/sell/influence them.  Just listen.

Then let nature take its course.

5 replies
  1. Philip J. McGee
    Philip J. McGee says:

    It was great and since then I’ve learned that people often don’t know what listening really is.


    The first and most important sales training course at Xerox back in the day was "Effective Listening."  It was great and since then I’ve learned that people often don’t know what listening really is.


  2. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    The mistake a lot of people make is fake listening, in which they’re half listening but mostly focused on when they’re going to get the opportunity to jump in and start talking.

    Sometimes I hear sales folks say, "It was a great meeting, we got through the whole presentation and they had some good questions," and give no indication of whether they ever "allowed" the prospect/client to speak in proactive (‘here’s my situation…’) vs. reactive mode (‘does the product come in blue?). Rule of thumb: if you’re doing more than 50% of the talking, it’s not a good sign. 


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