Provision #540: The Reciprocity Factor

Laser Provision

It takes a village, they say, to raise a child. That’s because it takes a village to do just about anything. Human beings, as well as other animals, are not lone rangers. We depend upon each other for the meeting of needs. That’s why empathy is so important: it helps us to understand the needs and it moves us to action. But life is not a one-way street. There’s a give-and-take that we best heed if we hope to not only survive, but to thrive. We call that give-and-take the reciprocity factor. Read on to see how it works.

LifeTrek Provision


It’s only appropriate that I would move from empathy to reciprocity, the third factor of Optimal Wellness, on the weekend after the US holiday of Thanksgiving. The story of Thanksgiving is fundamentally a story of empathy (the respectful understanding of feelings and needs) followed by giving and reciprocity (the respectful exchange of goods and services). The fact that such a story could take place between two radically different cultures with different languages and different values should come as no surprise to those who have been following our series on evolutionary wellness. They are literally built into our genes.

For those readers outside the USA who may not know the story, Thanksgiving all goes back to the early seventeenth century when English settlers were seeking to establish communities in North America. Long before those settlers were numerous and strong enough to take what they wanted by force of arms, they had to rely on the natural human tendency to empathize and to reciprocate accordingly.

That happened most dramatically with the Pilgrims in 1621 in what is today the State of Massachusetts. With the help of Squanto, a Native American and former British slave, they learned how to catch eel, grow corn, and communicate with the Wampanoag people. Immediately after their first harvest, the Pilgrims held an autumn celebration of feasting and thanksgiving. They invited leaders of the Wampanoag to join them, which turned out to be a wonderful albeit fleeting moment of cross-cultural celebration.

Other such early celebrations underlie the modern US holiday of Thanksgiving which, since 1939, has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. It’s a meaningful (and sometimes stressful) time of reunion for family and friends, regardless of how the past year has gone. In good and bad times, one can always find reason to look up, give thanks, and sing. To quote the blind musician, Ken Medema, in his stirring 1994 song “Dance in the Dragon’s Jaws“:

Ever since the dawn of creation people dance in celebration
In the good times and in the bad seasons
People dance for a thousand reasons
So, get out of your seat, get up, upon your feet
Don’t worry about your circumstance, just dance

At which point Ken slides his way into a rousing version of the Hokey Pokey. That really is what it’s all about: to find reason to give thanks, no matter what. To empathize with feelings and needs, whether in joy or sorrow, and then to reciprocate with the goods and services that will make life more wonderful for one and all.

Reciprocity, at its best, has nothing to do with incurring or satisfying a debt. It’s just a matter of remembering to scratch the backs of those that scratch our own. Apart from such social networking, there is no chance for sustained health and wellness. That’s because everyone lives in and is the product of environments. When those environments are characterized by empathy and reciprocity, life is good. When those environments lack such life-enriching dynamics, everything becomes much more problematic, stressful, and difficult. In the end, even our physical health gets compromised and ground down to increasingly low levels of functioning.

Human beings are not the only animals who demonstrate empathy and reciprocity. Consider the following passages excerpted from Frans de Waal’s recent book, Our Inner Ape:

“Mutual dependence is key. Human societies are support systems within which weakness does not automatically spell death. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre opens his book Dependent Rational Animal by pointing out the extent of human vulnerability. During many life stages, especially when we are young and old, but also in between, we find ourselves in the caring hands of others. We are inherently needy.”

Too often that neediness is acknowledged only as a weakness. “During a public debate about the future of humanity,” for example, “a respected scientist ventured that in a couple of centuries we would gain full scientific control over our emotions. He seemed to be looking forward to the day! Without emotions, however, we would barely know what life choices to make, because choices are based on preferences, and preferences are ultimately emotional. Without emotions we wouldn’t store memories, because it’s the emotions that make them salient. Without emotions we would remain unmoved by others, who in turn would remain unmoved by us. We would be like ships sailing past each other.”

But that’s not how life works. Human beings, as well as other animals, do tend to move each other (empathy) and to make life better for each other (reciprocity). De Wall continues with an illustration and an explanation:

“Let us say that I helped you move a piano down the narrow stairs in your apartment building. Three months later, I’m moving myself. I call you to explain that I have a piano, too. If you wave me off with ‘Good luck with it!’ I may remind you of what I did for you, even though this would be aggravating. If you still don’t offer any help, I may explicitly mention the idea of tit-for-tat. I would find this most embarrassing. But if your response is ‘Oh, but I don’t believe in reciprocity!” this would be truly disturbing.”

“It would be an out-and-out negation of why we humans live in groups, of why we do each other any favors at all. Who would ever want to deal with you? Even if we understand that repaying a favor is not always possible (for example, if you have to be out of town the day I move, or if you have a bad back), it’s hard to understand anybody who openly denies quid pro quo. The denial makes you an outcast: someone lacking a crucial moral tendency.”

“When Confucius was asked if there was a single word that could serve as a prescription for all of one’s life, he arrived, after a lengthy pause at ‘reciprocity.’ This elegant, all-encompassing principle is a human universal, and biologists have a long-standing interest in its origins.”

De Wall goes on to describe numerous examples of reciprocity among chimpanzees and other animals, in both the positive (rewarding) and negative (punishing) senses. In every case, he notes the differential dynamics of in-group and out-group behavior. What is expected within the group (taking care of each other) is largely ignored or even contradicted outside the group. Getting beyond such narrow boundaries and tribal loyalties is, de Wall notes, “the great challenge of our time.” It is a challenge that may ultimately impact our very survival as a species.

If we hope to meet that challenge, it will be on the basis of empathy and reciprocity (what de Wall calls “the moral emotions”). These tendencies, developed over millions of years of evolution, are the very ones that can move us to caring, concern, and community.

In many ways, the connection between empathy and reciprocity is illustrated in this week’s Resilience Pathway by Christina Lombardo. It speaks of one person reaching out to another with gratitude and grace. That is what life looks like, at its best. You help me. I thank you. We all feel great. And then we do it all over again. May that be the spirit in your heart, not only on Thanksgiving Day, and not only with friends and family, but with every being on the planet.

In her Pathway, Christina mentions the International Coach Federation’s Annual Conference which took place this year in Long Beach, California. One of our keynote speakers was Zainab Salbi, a 37-year-old woman who was herself the victim of war and violence in Iraq and the United States. But she did not remain a victim, she did not become vindictive, and she did not think only of herself. Instead, she saw her path of development through empathy and reciprocity with all women everywhere who suffer through the scourge of war and violence.

That solidarity led her, at the age of 23, to found an organization known as Women for Women International. She had no money when she started this organization, but it is today a $20 million-a-year operation that assists women in war-torn regions to “move from victim to survivor to active citizen.” You can read about the organization, lend your support, and join the movement by visiting www.womenforwomen.org. I encourage you to do so.

Salbi’s story is but one of many examples that epitomize what it looks like to take to heart de Wall’s counsel about “the great challenge of our time.” It is, in the end, not only the best way to live. It may well be, the only way to live.

Coaching Inquiries: How can you make life more wonderful, both for yourself and for others? Are there people who would appreciate your gratitude or assistance? How could you reciprocate in ways that everyone would celebrate? What could you do to make life more wonderful?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


In last week’s Provision, Pay Attention, you mentioned that your lawn mower blew up and that you then proceeded to buy a new one. If you switched to a mower that did not contribute to carbon emissions, you would never have to deal with one blowing up again. Or perhaps you might grow food or trees instead of a lawn. Before we understood the interrelated nature of our world, lawns became fashionable. When you think about it, putting drinking water on a plant you can’t eat that you burn fossil fuels to maintain and, God forbid, pesticides, no longer makes sense. For my part, I live consciously, so that the choices I make reflect my values. This has meant considerable lifestyle changes, for example: using much less air travel, driving alone in a car as infrequently as possible, and being a careful and minimal consumer. I would encourage you and your readers to do the same. (Ed. Note: Thanks for your concern, commitment, and compassion. I, too, live consciously and seek to follow your example.)


In Provision 495, The Resolution Revolution, you state: On a related note, 40% of all resolutions are successful the first time around while 17% will take at least six tries to reach success. I’ve included this statistic in a health column I’ve written, and the editor is asking for a source. Would you share the source for this statistic? (Ed. Note: That statistic comes from 1997: Click for Article. Let me know if you come up with anything more recent.) 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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