How to Use the Power of Reciprocity to Win Over Tenants, Lenders & More

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You will catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as the old saying goes. And it’s true in more ways than just that being kind to others is more likely to make others be kind to you.

Reciprocation — or more appropriately the longing to reciprocate (both favors and wrongdoings) — is at the core of human psychology. Indeed, evolutionary psychologists refer to “reciprocal altruism” as the basis for human friendships.

It should, therefore. not be surprising that one of the best sales techniques out there is “the old give and take.” For a more in-depth discussion on this, I will turn to Robert Cialdini. Cialdini is probably the foremost expert on persuasion and the man Scott Adams refers to as “Godzilla” (the “Godzilla of Persuasion,” at least). In Cialdini’s extremely valuable book Influence, he discusses the power of reciprocation using the famous Regan experiment:

“A subject who participated in the [Regan] study rated, along with another subject, the quality of some paintings as part of an experiment on ‘art appreciation.’ The other rater — we can call him Joe — was only posing as a fellow subject and was actually Dr. Regan’s assistant. For our purposes, the experiment took place under two different conditions. In some cases, Joe did a small unsolicited favor for the true subject. During a short rest period, Joe left the room for a couple of minutes and returned with two bottles of Coca-Cola, one for the subject and one for himself, saying ‘I asked him [the experimenter]if I could get myself a Coke, and he said it was OK, so I bought one for you too.’ In other cases, Joe did not provide the subject with a favor; he simply returned from the two-minute break empty-handed. In all other respects, however, Joe behaved identically.

“Later on, after the paintings had all been rated and the experimenter had momentarily left the room, Joe asked the subject to do him a favor. He indicated that he was selling raffle tickets for a new car and that if he sold the most tickets, he would win a $50 price. Joe’s request was for the subject to buy some raffle tickets at 25 cents apiece: ‘Any would help, the more the better.’ The major finding of the study concerns the number of tickets subjects purchased from Joe under the two conditions. Without question, Joe was more successful in selling his raffle tickets to the subjects who had received his earlier favor. Apparently feeling that they owed him something, these subjects bought twice as many tickets as the subjects who had not been given the prior favor” (Cialdini 22-23).

Cialdini later notes that this was during the 1960’s, when the price of a Coke was only a dime. Even if the subjects had only bought one more ticket because of the gifted Coke, they had still over-reciprocated by 150 percent!


Related: How to Become a Better Landlord By Honing Your Influence & Persuasion Powers

Cialdini provides many further examples of how reciprocation can work, such as political campaign contributions, the books and other small gifts Hare Krishna members would hand out when fundraising on the streets, as well as the dreaded “free samples” many businesses provide.

He also notes that the same general principle can work with what he calls “rejection then retreat.” I would call this either “low balling” or “high balling.” Namely, make an extreme request, and then once rejected, come back with a more reasonable request (which was what the salesman wanted in the first place). This could be a lower price or a different item altogether. I discuss this concept more in my article on psychological anchors, which you can read here.

What to Know About the Rule of Reciprocation

First and foremost, I need to point out that the ethical lines with sales tactics are something we should take very seriously. Just because a certain method works doesn’t mean we should use it. And in this case, using this knowledge of the human mind’s longing to reciprocate to create wildly unequal exchanges is simply wrong.

So the first thing to know is how to avoid falling victim to someone who is trying to pull one over on you using the reciprocation. The major key is to be able to recognize it for what it is; a sales tactic. As Cialdini puts it, “…accept the offer of others but… accept those offers only for what they fundamentally are, not for what they are represented to be” (46).

Mindfulness is the key here. No, you don’t need to be rude and reject a simple favor being offered by someone trying to sell you something or negotiate with you. But you do need to proactively tell yourself that this could be used against you. “All she did was give me a cup of coffee, I don’t need to buy a car just because of that.”

I would add that in larger negotiations, if you can counter their small favor with a small favor of your own, that would be all the better (although the context won’t always allow for that). This would negate the psychological pressure on you to reciprocate on the big things by reciprocating with something small. But the most important thing is that you recognize what is happening.

Reciprocation for Real Estate Investors

Again, one needs to be very careful with any sales tactics as to not use them in a way that simply takes advantage of other people. That being said, I think understanding this rule is a great way to build a general sense of good will for everyone from tenants to employees. Here are a few examples:

  • Buy your employees a company lunch once a month.
  • Offer to buy lunch if you are meeting with a lender.
  • Offer a coffee or soda to a tenant when signing a lease.
  • Send out Christmas presents to key vendors and lenders each year.

These small acts create goodwill and a sense that such a person would want to reciprocate that goodwill. You’ll notice in the above examples, other than perhaps buying lunch for the lender, you’re not actually selling anything. But these small acts will make tenants think better of you and make employees happier. And happy employees are productive employees.

My brother does this in a bit of a reverse fashion when a maintenance issue goes sideways. When a lease is signed, he asks the tenant for their favorite restaurant. Then, if such a maintenance issue drags on or isn’t dealt with properly, he sends them a gift card for that restaurant. We have found that this more personalized gift does a lot to smooth things over and is a lot less expensive than a rent discount.

Some more direct ways to use this method might be offering a small gift to potential tenants or sellers just for viewing a property. We once did this with concert tickets in Oregon, and it was fairly effective. Some took advantage of it, obviously showing up for no other reason than the tickets. But most were genuinely appreciative.


Related: Become a Master Influencer Using This 2,000 Year Old Negotiation Principle

In negotiations, obviously the “rejection then retreat” method is almost a must. Never start with your best offer. As someone once told me, “If you aren’t embarrassed by your opening offer, you are offering too much.” While that’s not always true, of course, it’s not a bad rule of thumb.

People will always feel better and be more willing to follow through with an agreement if there were concessions along the way. So don’t start with your best offer. You know for sure that they won’t start with theirs.

No matter what you think of various sales tactics, they exist, and many of them are quite effective. At the very least, you need to be aware of them when others are using them on you. And while it’s critical not to take advantage of people, it’s also important to know how psychology works in whatever business you’re in, but particularly in real estate.

Do you use this tactic, consciously or without even knowing, in your real estate business?

Let me know with a comment!

About Author

Andrew Syrios

Andrew Syrios has been investing in real estate for over a decade and is a partner with Stewardship Investments, LLC along with his brother Phillip and father Bill. Stewardship Investments focuses on the BRRRR strategy—buying, rehabbing and renting out houses and apartments throughout the Kansas City area. Today, they have over 300 properties and just under 500 units. Stewardship Properties on the whole has just under 1,000 units in six states. Andrew received a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration from the University of Oregon with honors and his Masters in Entrepreneurial Real Estate from the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He has also obtained his CCIM designation (Certified Commercial Investment Member). Andrew has been a writer for BiggerPockets on real estate and business management since 2015. He has also contributed to Think Realty Magazine, REI Club, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Data Driven Investor and Alley Watch.


  1. Stephen S.

    Let’s say I go to a dealership to buy a new car. I meet a salesman and decide on a car. I saw to the Salesman: I’m not much of a negotiator and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time here – just tell me the lowest price you will take for this car. Do you know that number or do you have to go check?

    I’ll go check for you sir. The salesman comes back and says: $25,000.

    Wow; that’s more than I expected to pay – is that really the best price on this car?

    Yes; we’re not really making anything it’s such a low price.

    Oh; well OK then – thanks for your time.

    The salesman follows me to the door and says: You know: Maybe I can do something – let me go talk to the manager again.

    Afterwards he comes back and says: $23,000. If you buy the car right now.
    And my question for you now is this: Wasn’t the salesman trying to steal $2000. From me?

    I ask because that sure is the way I see it. And I wouldn’t buy a car from him. He’s a liar and a thief.

    Or can you tell the story so that it comes out to a different conclusion?

    • Andrew Syrios

      One of the things about sales and negotiating that we really need to stress is the line between good sales/negotiating and dishonest sales/negotiating. One of the major problems from the story you told is that the salesman saying “we’re not really making anything it’s such a low price.” From what I can infer from the scenario you gave, that is a lie and thereby morally unacceptable.

      That being said, negotiating a better price isn’t stealing since you’re simply bartering to come to an agreement on what to exchange. And starting high with the expectation that you will have to barter down to your strike price isn’t dishonest in my mind. Since the exchange is voluntary it isn’t theft. And assuming there’s no trickery, it isn’t fraud. Going back to your scenario, the lie the salesman told may not cross the line into outright fraud, but it is certainly dishonest and unethical.

      Where the line is is a tricky question that we should all be debating and thinking about. The temptation is to cross it to get a better deal, but I think this isn’t only morally unacceptable but will hurt your reputation in the long run. So it’s critically important that we as entrepreneurs, salesmen and negotiators constantly be thinking about it.

  2. Dede Christensen

    The article points out a good way to remediate my very sour relationship with my tenants, if it’s not too late. Small things count, which I wish I had done in the beginning. My husband does not want to renew them; I do. I’ve failed at working with them, because I did not think that my husband was also like a “customer” who needed to be treated with respect by the tenants, too. When they made snide remarks about an air conditioner that took a long time to fix, I reciprocated by taking $1500 off their last month’s rent. That created near hatred between my husband and one of the renters. After that, they were fairly pleasant to work with. That’s reciprocity, but at a great financial cost.

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