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  • Terry R. Bacon

How to Be More Effective at Exchanging

Exchanging is influencing someone by offering to exchange something they would value in exchange for granting you what you want. Words that describe exchanging could include negotiating, trading, swapping, bargaining, bartering, dealing, and haggling.

Explicit Exchanges

Some exchanges are explicit, which means both parties know they are trading one thing for another. The transaction is apparent and aboveboard. Here are some examples:

You are shopping at a fruit stand. The seller’s sign says that apples are 59 cents each. You select an apple and pay for it. In this case, both parties are exchanging. The seller influences you by displaying ripe, tasty looking apples and indicating how much they cost. You influence the seller by offering to pay that price. You might also say that apples are just 49 cents at a stall a short distance away. The seller may agree to sell the apple for that much or may argue that his apples are better, or he may offer to sell the apple to you at a five-cent discount. However this transaction plays out, this is mutual influencing through an explicit exchange. In many countries, bargaining for goods and services like this is a cultural norm.

Your colleague’s son is in a school play on Thursday, and she doesn’t want to miss it, but she is scheduled to work the evening shift that day. You have four days off, and she asks if you would be willing to take her shift on Thursday so she could go to the play. It’s Fall and you were planning to drive into the mountains to see the Fall colors, although it’s still a little early for the colors to be at their best. Knowing this, she offers to take your shift the following Friday, which would give you a three-day weekend when the colors are likely to be at their peak. This seems like a fair trade, so you agree. Your colleague has just influenced you by offering an explicit exchange.

Commercial exchanges are typically transactional, where each side is seeking equal value in exchange for something the other party is buying or selling. We are so used to purchasing goods and services from retailers—and bargaining when we are buying or selling vehicles or houses—that we may not even think of these transactions as acts of influence—but of course they are.

Implicit or Social Exchanges

Exchanging is based on the psychological principle of reciprocity. When someone gives us something, we are inclined to give back in kind, to return the favor when someone does a favor for us. Reciprocity is the principle underlying human social cooperation. Without it, we could not have civilization, so children are taught to take turns, to say “thank you” when someone gives them something, and to treat others as they would like to be treated. We send Thank You cards when someone has invited us into their home for dinner. We send flowers to express our sorrow when friends lose a loved one, and they send flowers to us when we lose a loved one.

Reciprocity is deeply engrained in our psyche, and, for most people, so is doing good things for others without expecting anything immediately in return. When we do this, we are “paying forward” with an implicit understanding that if we are ever in need, there will be good Samaritans coming to our aid expecting nothing more than a thank you. The principle of reciprocity is at play in all social exchanges like these:

As you pass an acquaintance on the street, you smile and wave your hand. He does the same.

You shake hands with someone you have just met.

You are driving along a country road. As another driver starts to pass you coming the other way, she waves. You wave back.

As you are about to enter a store, you see a woman walking toward the closed door. You open the door and hold it open for her, and she says, “Thank you,” as she passes.

You ask your best friend to take a goofy selfie with you, and she readily agrees.

These social customs are forms of implicit exchanging. You are signaling good will, and the other person reciprocates. Sometimes you hold the door for others, and sometimes they do it for you. How is this influence? It maintains a peaceful, accommodating social order. When I smile at someone, I am sending the message that I am friendly and not hostile. They do not need to be afraid of me. Handshakes, waving at others, being polite—these are all forms of influence by exchanging.

Commercializing Reciprocity

Marketers understand the power of reciprocity, so they use a number of tools to intice (influence) you to buy their products. These tools include discounts, sales, special bargains, celebrity endorsements, alluring advertisements, humor, product packaging, memorable musical jingles, and messaging suggesting that their products are sexy, cool, hip, healthier, innovative, preferred, cost effective, time saving, and so on.

Bulk mail marketers send you free address labels, calendars, stamps, coins, and other gifts to create a sense of obligation. If you keep their gift, then you are more likely to reciprocate by donating to their organization, signing up for their newsletter, or subscribing to their magazine. Some pull at your heartstrings by showing you pictures of abused animals or starving children. For just a token amount of money, you can send a village a goat or a calf. I am not suggesting that these causes are unworthy. I am just pointing out how the designers of these appeals are trying to influence you through an exchange (you will feel better about yourself if you give—your enhanced self-image is the value you receive in exchange for your donation). I should point out that these emotional appeals also constitute appealing to values—another type of influence technique.

Exchanging is a ubiquitous form of influence in modern life. We engage in it constantly, whether or not we are aware of it. In its implicit form, exchanging is a crucial part of our social fabric; in its explicit form, it is the medium of value transfer in all commercial transactions.

Tips on Using Exchanging

Implicit or Social Exchanges

  • Adhere to the cultural customs where you live or work. The conventions of social exchange, like shaking hands, are deeply embedded in how people greet and treat one another in everyday life.

  • Do favors for others without expecting anything in return. When you do so, you build social capital, and most people will feel an obligation to return the favor sometime later. However, do not hold them to it or begrudge them if they do not or cannot reciprocate. Be okay with it if the favor is never returned. In social exchanging, reciprocity is not a game where you keep score. It is an inclination to support others as you have been supported, and it raises the social capital of everyone who shares and cares without an expectation of immediate return.

  • Always show gratitude for a favor received and return favors when the opportunity arises. Doing so enhances your reputation and makes people more inclined to support you (and be influenced by you) in the future.

  • Many social exchanges are simple agreements negotiated among friends, family members, or colleagues where the willingness to give and take is essential:

A: You want to go to lunch on Friday?

B: No, I can’t. Sorry.

A: Would another day be better for you?

B: Sure, how about next Tuesday?

Explicit Exchanges

  • Think of exchanging as problem solving. The person you wish to influence has something you want or value. What can you offer in exchange that would influence them to give it to you? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about what they would value equally in an exchange.

  • When you are bartering, be careful not to signal how badly you want whatever they have. That would give them more power in the exchange. You retain more power if you are willing to walk away if you cannot reach a satisfactory agreement.

  • If the exchange involves money, be the first to mention a figure. This is called anchoring, which is a cognitive bias where people rely too much on the first piece of information offered. The anchor is a reference point that biases subsequent considerations of price or value. Whether you anchor the price low or high, the final negotiated price is likely to be close to the anchored figure because, in everyone’s mind, that’s where the negotiation started.

  • One form of anchoring is to name a figure; another is to ask for more than you actually want. You expect the other person to haggle with you, but it will dispose them toward giving you less than you asked for but more than they might have given otherwise, and what they give you is what you really wanted in the first place. Beware f asking for too much, however. If your request seems outrageous to them, you risk creating resistance and a refusal to negotiate further. The other party should always perceive that you are negotiating in good faith.

  • Invoke the principle of scarcity. People value more what is in short supply. So if what you are offering to exchange is something the other person values and is hard oto get, they will be more inclined to give greater value or say yes to your request. A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby may be valuable to a book collector, for instance, but it is considerably more valuable if Fitzgerald signed it.

  • You can condition an exchange by getting other people to agree to something early in your interaction with them. Try to get them to agree to something less consequential than the final deal. Find agreement on goals, vision, values, desired outcomes, or other specific points where an agreement might be easier. Once they are disposed to say yes, they will likely be in a more agreeable frame of mind when you discuss what you are seeking to exchange.

  • You can also condition an exchange by using the Benjamin Franklin effect. Franklin had an antagonist, someone who spoke ill of him when he was running for office. Franklin knew that this man could become a formidable opponent, so he sought to win him over. He did it by asking to borrow a rare book he knew the man possessed. The man agreed, and Franklin returned the book a week later with his thanks. Because the man had done Franklin a favor, he began to think more favorably about Franklin and soon became a friend and ally. Franklin, who was adept at human relations, remarked that, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another.” So if you want to predispose people to say yes to your requests, ask them for a small favor first.

  • People will more readily agree to an exchange if they are comfortable with you. So, if you can, dress as they do. Find ways to find commonality with them. Maintain good eye contact (without staring). Be positive. And in a subtle way, mirror the other person’s body language. Do not mimic what they are doing. Just observe them and adopt a similar posture and attitude. The more comfortable they are with you, the more likely they will agree to an equitable exchange.

  • As with all influence techniques, one way to prepare to influence someone is to use the simple test. The simple test means asking yourself why this person would say yes and why they would say no. In exchanging, think about what you want from them. What could you offer in exchange? Imagine approaching this person and trying to effect an exchange. What would compel this person to agree? Why might they disagree? In considering those possible outcomes, you may discover that you are not prepared to offer enough, that they would not find your offer acceptable. Or for other reasons they might not be disposed to bargain with you. Maybe not now, maybe not ever. Or they might agree if you offered something more or something else. Or maybe exchanging is not the right approach. The simple test is a great way to think through an influence attempt before you actually try it.

How to Resist High-Pressure Selling

If you are on the receiving end of a high-pressure sales pitch, you know how challenging it can be to resist—at least for most people. Whether you are the target of a live pitch or a telephone pitch, the person trying to influence you speaks quickly, offers many incentives, and paints such a compelling picture that you feel pressured to buy. In a non-commercial setting, friends, family members, or colleagues may pressure you to agree to what they want. In both cases, here are some tips for resisting an exchange you are not really interested in.

First, recognize that the other person is applying more pressure than you are comfortable with. In the heat of the moment, it is sometimes hard to step back and gather your wits, but this is an important first step. Do not be overwhelmed by the pressure. If you can, literally take a step back. Say you will think about it and end the conversation, hang up the phone, or turn your back and walk away.

People who try to pressure you into an exchange are generally applying the pressure because they do not want you to think about it. They want you to concede because the pressure is unnerving or because the deal is not what it appears and they do not want you to realize that. So your best defense is time and space. Get away from them and consider their offer when you have time to think about it in peace. If they offer literature, you might accept it and say you need time to study it. If they try to set a time to call you back, tell them that you will call them when you are ready.

Sometimes, they will pressure you by saying that this is a one-time offer, or that other people are ready to buy and they have only a limited number of what they are selling. They pressure you to buy NOW or lose some of the great benefits of the product or deal. This is another ploy to force you to make a decision before you have carefully examined it. No matter how good the deal looks, it is still best to walk away. Most such deals have hidden costs or conditional benefits (and the conditions are rarely right for you), or loopholes that make the deal—once you have signed—actually less valuable than it initially appears. Resist. Say no or not now. Think about it. Do your research. And then make a decision.

Remember the old adage that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. When your internal barometer tells you that you are being pressured, step away, lower the temperature, and thoroughly examine the offer before making a decision.

For a more in-depth discussion of this influence technique, see Chapter 4 in Elements of Influence (AMACOM Press, 2012). This book is available at and other online retailers.

Photo credits: Woman and man negotiating across table: Photo 22692721 / People © Wavebreakmedia Ltd |; two best friends creating moustaches with their hair: Photo 27751694 / Friends © Isabel Poulin |; used car salesman: Photo 20672978 © Lunamarina |

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