Musings on Reciprocity

There’s this thing that’s been bothering me lately. Maybe because I overanalyze others’ intentions. Maybe because my expectations for communication praxis are based on unattainable ideals. Maybe because I catch myself red-handed too often for comfort. Maybe because I could repay my college loans with the sheer number of times I’ve complained, “I’m so sick of the lack of reciprocity! Relationships are a two-way street!” over the past month.

It’s funny how I first thought of writing this post. I was on the phone with a close friend, and had just finished telling her about my first week of work and next week's Thanksgiving plans when I returned to the topic we had been discussing briefly before I called her to chat. Instantly I spun into a frustrated, self-righteous rant about my latest bout with reciprocity. “So-and-so has no concept of reciprocity! I got so exhausted from trying to spur conversation that I gave up because so-and-so wouldn’t even engage in my life!” I kept going on, Neer neer neer!, until she said she had to go soon, she was having dinner with her family and then had plans with a friend.

And then it hit me.

I had just spent the past fifteen minutes of our conversation wrapped up in talking solely about myself that I hadn’t even thought to ask how her week was going or what plans she had for the holiday. I had fallen prey to my most recent pet peeve and had not spent a single minute intentionally engaging her in meaningful conversation.

We all do it. We get caught up in our rants and excitement and own selves and forget that a functional relationship requires input from both sides. Sometimes we’re oblivious to the fact that maybe the other person wants to be known, wants to be appreciated. And oftentimes empathy and curiosity are the cure for that relational gap.

First, it takes empathy because when we’re caught up in discussing ourselves (and I mean the ego-centric conversation that blots out mutual consideration of the other), we lose sight that, while the other person might be enjoying what we have to say, they also want to be part of the conversation. Have you ever had a one-sided conversation with someone that completely drains you of all energy and desire to even be around them anymore? I’m sure we’ve all been there. Sometimes that’s how it feels being on the other side while we’re going on and on and on and on and on……….about the dish of the day. Don't get me wrong, sometimes it’s necessary to take up the spotlight (e.g., devastating breakup, death of a family member or beloved pet). But in normal conversation, it is not only polite, but also of utmost consideration for the relationship, to engage in a two-way, rather than one-way conversation.

Curiosity is the strongest tool to breaking into reciprocal communication. Though no one would admit it openly, we all love talking about ourselves. To foster two-way communication, all you need is a bit of curiosity. Ask open-ended questions. What makes this person tick? What insight does she have into this topic? How is his research coming? It’s amazing how a simple question can stoke a conversation that – hopefully, ideally – includes both partners.

Of course, there is one caveat: you cannot manufacture another person’s interest in your life. I have no control over whether so-and-so gives a flying monkey about this blog I pour my energy into. With that said, we must take our relationships in stride, remembering to keep our end of the bargain. If you’re close enough to discuss it with your communication partner, then bring it up. The other person will never know what expectations you have unless you address it (as much as I hate to admit it, no one can read minds, so it is well worth the conversation, no matter how awkward it might be. Just remember to be gracious). If you’re not close enough to express your concerns…you might have to cut your losses. Or keep putting in your 51 percent if that is your decision.

Every relationship is a two-way street. It exists to serve both partners, and so it therefore requires mutual input and commitment.

Maybe what I perceive to be a lack of interest is not the other’s intent (known in the communication world as attribution error). Maybe my conversation partner doesn’t know that I appreciate when others take a genuine interest in my experiences, passions, and insights. Maybe I need to be more gracious, allowing wiggle room for others – and even myself, more often than not – to not always follow the law of reciprocity. Maybe I need to apologize to my friend for hogging the entire conversation (don’t worry I already did! And I apologize for all the times I haven't put in my share of consideration). One thing is certain: reciprocity is the backbone of every relationship, and we benefit from cultivating it.