Utilizing the principle of reciprocity seeking in progress-focused coaching and mediation

Human nature not only has a competitive side to it, which expresses itself through tendencies such as resource striving and status seeking; it also has an equally important, if not more important, cooperative side which expresses itself through tendencies such as fairness and reciprocity seeking and group identity seeking (for more about this read The dual human nature: competitive and cooperative forces).

Here, I want to focus on one of those cooperative tendencies, namely reciprocity seeking. The principle of reciprocity seeking, which has a strong impact how we behave in social interactions, implies that if someone else does us some kind of favor we want to give a favor in return to that person. Negative reciprocity, by the way, means that if we feel that someone treats us badly, we want to treat them badly in return. In other words, we tend to want to give back what we feel we get.

Reciprocity may be deliberately used for good or bad (or dubious) ends. To start with the latter category, when a salesperson gives you a small present (for example a free newspaper), you are likely to experience, to a certain degree, an obligation to do something in return (for example to listen to that person explain to you that he has a very attractive subscription offer for you and perhaps to even take that subscription). Even when we are aware of such manipulative tricks they may work on us.

In our progress-focused approach to coaching, we also deliberately utilize the strong sensitivity of people for reciprocity. But we try to do it in a way that is beneficial to the coachee. Since we ask many questions which may be hard and require effort from our coachees, we need them to give these questions their full attention. An important way in which we accomplish this is through giving our coachees our full attention and acknowledging everything they bring forward. By simply doing this, we make it more likely that they will return this favor and take our questions and remarks equally serious.

A specific situation in which this way of working is powerful is in mediation. In conflict situations the principle of negative reciprocity often stands in the way of the resolution of the conflict. When someone says something negative to us (an accusation, complaint, or criticism) we are likely to want to reciprocate by saying something negative back. It requires quite a bit of self-constraint not to do so. This explains, at least in part, why 'speaking our minds' in situations of conflict may easily lead to escalations.

When we do a progress-focused mediation session, we apply a technique which I have called Finding the plus behind the minus. Through this technique we can help coachees formulate what is important to them in positive terms. This enables us, in a mediation situation, to have the other person not to have to respond to negative things and, instead, to be able to respond to positive things (wishes, requests, good intentions, positive feedback, etc). This way, it is much easier for both of them, to calm down and start solving the problem at hand.