“You Can’t Always Get You Want” The Principle of Symmetrical Reciprocity


symmetrical reciprocity, executive coaching orange countyWhile in graduate school in the early seventies, and when the human potential movement was at its peak, I decided to participate in an intensive, week-long Gestalt therapy program at the Esalen Institute. At that time, Esalen was the most avant-garde place for living and breathing the essence of the movement. The facilitator was Dr. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. During one of the sessions, while he was doing a one-on-one intervention with one of the participants, Dr. Perls raised the question, “What’s in it for you?” The session continued and then Dr. Perls came up with another phrase “You mean to tell me that you do it for nothing…nobody does anything for nothing…we all want something.” These phrases have stayed with me for decades and have influenced my approach in my consulting and coaching practice.

I have simplified these phrases into a perspective and thesis that any sustainable relationship is based upon what I call “symmetrical reciprocity.” Whenever we engage in a relationship, we want something out of it; there are no “freebies,” and when we start feeling resentful, taken for granted, used, or that we are treated unfairly, it is symptomatic that our needs, expectations, or fantasies are not being met to the extent that we believe they should be based upon what we feel when we give. Everything we do with others is an exchange, and when the exchange is perceived as “uneven” by either party, the unevenness will begin to undermine the relationship.

Often, the exchange is implicit and based upon our assumption of what is common sense. We are disappointed when friends come for dinner and they don’t call or send a thank you note to acknowledge the good time that they had at our house and how delicious the meal was. This “common practice” meets our need to be liked, to be recognized as a good cook, to be valued, to be included, and reciprocally invited by our friends. What we want back is often different in nature from what we give and often times it is not clear to us what “it” is until we don’t get it. At work, reciprocity is in play all the time. Whatever we do, we expect something in return and that something has to have meaning to us, and it needs to be “even” to what we feel we give. The rewards, the bonuses, the promotions, our compensation, the thank you notes, the acknowledgment of our presence, and the loyalty towards us all have to have “symmetrical reciprocity.” The nature of what we want in return as well as what we give, is based upon our own culture, history, psychology, economical situation, stage in life, and physical condition. In many cases, what we want back is not even possible or in the control or domain of the other person and that may lead to ongoing disappointment and an increased level of resentment.

When working with teams, I focus on the team members gaining greater clarity of each other’s “expected payback.” This work is often difficult and requires trust and a high level of intimacy. It is a vulnerable place for team members to share with others what they may want as “payback,” and they may fear that what they want will be perceived as “socially unacceptable,” and makes them appear weak, immature, too needy, oversensitive, or too ambitious. We don’t state what we want back for the following reasons—fear of being judged negatively, our lack of self-awareness in order to identify what we want, our assumption of what is common sense, a life script that may say “Don’t ask,” or “If you work hard to prove your worth, then the good things that you always wanted will come to you,” or simply because we feel we’re entitled to it.

I strongly believe that team or individual relationships are not healthy and sustainable without symmetrical reciprocity, and when this principle is not being practiced, it will result in leaving lots of unfinished business on the table that will undermine the sustainability and health of the relationship. Whether the relationship is between a husband and wife, parents and children, boss and subordinates, peers, team members, or friends, all of these relationships will be more satisfying and healthy if we consciously practice the principle of symmetrical reciprocity.

If you’re interested in reading more on a similar topic, please see an earlier blog post, “Sustainable Relationships at Work and at Home.”

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