Peter’s Law of Reciprocity
By Peter L DeHaan
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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