The Godfather Technique & Your Next Conversation

Suppose one day in December, you receive a holiday card — or, even worse, a gift — from someone not on your list.

Uh-oh. You must reciprocate, right away. That's the law.

Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"
Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"

"Someday," warned Don Corleone in "The Godfather," after granting a favor, "I will call on you to do a service for me."

Behavior gets repaid. Even baboons know that. A male baboon will distract the alpha-male while another romances a desirable female. Later, the favor is returned (Wikipedia).

But wait. What if the holiday card is from your dentist, or from someone acting entirely out of self-interest?

I polled a few colleagues: "If my dentist sent a holiday card," said one, "I'd be forced to switch dentists."

"It would be more impressive," said another, "if my dentist sent a threat—maybe a set of broken teeth.”

Sincerity beats manipulation.

Here are three ways to use reciprocity in conversation, but remember, your intention counts (unless you're a baboon):

1) Conflict. The next time you disagree with someone—and the conflict's going badly—try something radically different. Listen.

Sound painful?

Suppose, at home, you're arguing with a loved one. How likely are you to say, "Honey, let's forget about me. I really want to understand you and your perspective."

But if you listen carefully, and with an open mind, you create the expectation that, later, the other person will do the same.

2) Feedback. If you're a manager, you give feedback. What about getting it?

The first time you ask employees, "What's one thing I could do better as your manager?" it probably won't work. They may not trust you.


Eventually, they'll open up.

Plus, they'll be more receptive to your feedback.

3) Rapport. If you want to get to know someone, a little self-disclosure goes a long way—even if the person doing the self-disclosure isn't, technically, a "person."

"How do you feel about death?" a computer might ask you, in an experiment done by Youngme Moon ("Intimate Exchanges").

You'll reveal more if the computer goes first. "Most computers," it might say, "only last a few years. Soon my time will be up."

Well, time's up for today, and almost for the year.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Tip: To build influence, model the behavior you want returned, but without expecting it will be.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (, Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to