I recently watched a friend do something she really didn’t want to do, not because of any arm twisting by someone else but the internal pressure of a sense of obligation. We’ve all been there: Someone does a favor, often unrequested, and then you feel a sense of obligation to return the favor in some way that involves an investment of time that you really can’t afford. This podcast episode should you break that hold.

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Scientists have studied cultures the world over and the concept of “reciprocation” exists in most of them. It is s a powerful social norm. Some people even felt obligated if they didn’t want the favor or disliked the person offering it. You now understand the bind the friend I mentioned earlier was in.

Now fast forward to a work situation and its power is multiplied. How do you think you would feel if I came back from my break and gave you a drink or a little treat I know you love… That’s right, you would feel obligated if I asked a favor later on. Taking it a step further,some people feel the pull of obligation stronger than others and may tend to over-compensate. The psychologist Dennis Regan demonstrated this in an experiment where an office mate provided a small gift that was unexpected and then asked the person receiving it to purchase a small item of similar value. What he found was that the receiver returned several times the value of the original gift.

Reciprocation has great social value because it helps develop feelings of trust. But what happens when like my friend you find yourself overwhelmed doing things you really don’t want to do to the point that it begins to decrease the things you need or want to do?

One way around this is to manage your sense of obligation without creating bruised feelings. The following are a few techniques that can get you going in that direction:

Let some time pass
obligation 1Studies have shown that the urge to reciprocate is strongest right after an encounter. Allowing a little time to pass decreases the desire to respond or at the very least allows you to put your response in perspective.

Pre-offer a return favor
Failing to return a favor can create bad feelings. But if you have a set response to a favor it gets you off the hook before the giver has a chance to set the tone of expected commitment. Keeping little bags of candy or other small items available allows you to instantly return a favor closing off an open commitment. Bigger items can be addressed by offering something like a lunch date of your choice or bringing in something the next day that equals your obligation. This meets the time requirement by giving you 24 hours to review the actual value of the original favor.

Gracefully deflecting a favor
This approach requires a little work to skillfully carry off but will pay dividends in that it allows you to deflect a favor on to someone else. For example someone brings you a nicely wrapped box of candy. You instantly thank the person and say it is such a nice gift it should be shared with the entire office and give everyone in the office one of the candies. Now, the gift is not just for you but for the group as a whole. You can also pretend being allergic, on a diet, or just had one of whatever it is offered while thanking the person and then adding but “I know Jane, or the office would love it. Would you mind if I shared this with them?” Again, you have been gracious but deflected the obligation on to another person or group who may not have the same relationship with the giver and will not experience the sense of obligation you might.

Learn to tactfully say “No”
So let’s say despite your best efforts you have been given a small gift and are now subject to a favor request that you feel is either inappropriate or does not fit with your plans for the moment. I’ve done a previous post “Saying No without using the word No” that will give you a number of ways to skillfully handle saying no without bruised feelings or making a big dealobligations 1 of it.

Using an alternative “No” does require you to be consistent in your response. If the gift giver knows that with a little persistence you to will cave then your “No” will fail. Try falling back on some of the mentioned techniques but if all else fails move to what I call the “recorder” approach: Just keep repeating the response you have given on your inability to honor the request at this time. For example:

“I would love to do it but I can’t get away from the office right now.”
“I know it is important but I can’t get away from the office right now.”
“I really do understand but I can’t get away from the office right now.”
“Maybe another time but I can’t get away from the office right now.”

This approach is effective because it tactfully acknowledges the request while taking into account that in communication there has to be a back and forth exchange, usually with new information. If the same information is sent each time then communication is effectively stopped even though the two of you are still talking.

Assume the moral high ground
Effective networkers understand the value of doing a favor so being on the giving end of a relationship gives you the moral high ground later on; however, every small favor should not be given with the idea of getting something back. Now that you understand how others may view a favor you can consider the potential good or minefield that can result.

These tips I hope have provided a means of being socially responsible with a lot less guilt to free up your time for the things that matter.