Peter’s Law of Reciprocity

By Peter L DeHaan

Too many people, intent on maximizing their learning, have a self-centered, protective attitude about it. They want to receive information and insights, but are guarded, paranoid, or even disingenuous about sharing their knowledge. This is shortsighted; it is truly better to give than to receive. In this regard, I’ve developed a principle to guide me. It’s called Peter’s Law of Reciprocity, which states: “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t… so politely and tactfully learn what it is. Conversely, everyone you meet doesn’t know everything you do…so be willing to graciously share whatever you can when you are asked.” 

Over the years, this principle has served me well. When I have chosen only to receive information, my own closed mental stance effectively served to limit what I could receive. On the other extreme, when I opted to only share information, I quickly grew to believe that people wanted and needed what I had to offer. This was an unfortunate, patronizing attitude that I hope to never repeat.

When soliciting information, exercise discretion in what you ask. Certainly, some things are off-limits. Personal information (compensation comes to mind), trade secrets, and strategic plans are prime examples. Also, it is critical to be genuinely interested in what you ask. Insincere and devious queries serve to quickly short-circuit the pure and uninhibited exchange of information. Quite simply, if you don’t care about the answer, don’t ask the question.

When you are asking others for their opinions and ideas, it is acceptable to jot down notes for you to refer to later. Don’t rely on your memory; if you’re like me, you already have too much to remember. Some people assume that making notes is rude to the person you are talking to. This is not the case. Note taking actually affirms the speaker and their message. In effect, note taking conveys that their message is noteworthy, and you demonstrate respect by writing it down.

Likewise, there are guiding principles when sharing information. First, be careful not to betray a confidence or divulge a secret. It is critical to use discretion and common sense to protect and respect the privacy of others – if you don’t, people will stop sharing with you. It is also important to not offer unsolicited advice. The only outcomes of proclaiming unwanted counsel are either to be ignored or viewed as arrogant. Lastly, it is critical to not talk down to your inquirer, but instead treat them as a peer and an equal.

It’s human nature to share our communications with those we know and are comfortable with. This implies that we will naturally be seeking information from and sharing knowledge with our friends. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, except that after a time, ideas – even bad ideas – tend to get recycled. If something is repeated often enough it is believed and accepted, even if there is no basis or reason to do so. This is intellectual incest, a provocative, yet apt description of what happens when information is continually circulated among a small group of closely connected people. Certainly, we should talk with our friends at conventions, but we need to be aware of blindly accepting what is said without carefully considering its merits.

More valuable than interacting with our friends and acquaintances is interacting with those we don’t know. These are the people most likely to share something that is fresh, new, or innovative to us. This, however, is also much easier to suggest than to do. Nevertheless, most of my “aha!” moments have occurred when talking with someone I had just met.

If the goal is to learn and grow, then even more limiting than focusing our interactions on our friends is to restrict our attention to those we are traveling with – be it family or coworkers. Although this is a safe and natural tendency, it also prevents us from being exposed to the new thoughts and diverging viewpoints of others.

When I have traveled with coworkers, I often set prearranged limits on how much time we spent together in order to make it easier to interact with others outside our company. Yes, we would plan some strategic times to reconvene and share what we learned, as well as to just relax in each other’s company, but for the most part we would intentionally split up, sitting with, eating with, and meeting with others in order to maximize our exposure to new ideas and perspectives. Also, as it is much easier to connect with someone by themselves versus when they are part of a group, this served to spread us out to be more available and more approachable when someone wanted to talk to one of us.

Though it is often uncomfortable to talk to a stranger or ask them a question, those are the precise times when I am the most rewarded. Similarly, it is when I seek to freely share information that I unexpectedly receive the most benefit. Both instances lead to greater understanding and enhanced perspectives, which is what interacting with others is all about – a rich exchange of understanding and insights.

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