Giving without Misgivings: Modern Machiavellian advice for surviving the holidays

Dec 22nd, 2017 | By | Category: Articles

Christmas, the Season of Giving, can sometimes be filled with misgivings! how can you best negotiate the sometimes difficult terrain of exchanging gifts without inadvertently being trapped in a power struggle? How can you tell when giving too much might create resentment instead of good cheer? To handle these and other prickly questions that might arise on Christmas Day, I asked Troy Bruner, author of a new book, Modern Machiavelli: 13 Laws of Power, Persuasion and Integrity, for his advice.

 Question 1: Dr. Bruner, What advice does Modern Machiavelli have any advice on the topic of giving and receiving?

Answer: This book is about how to use smart, social tactics to optimize success within career and personal relationships. Giving and receiving is a critical theme in the book. It’s an art and a science, even at Christmas! The keys to giving and receiving favors include appealing to self-interest, appropriate expectations, setting limits, and timing.

One of our consulting clients, Julia, gave everyone at the office a copy of her favorite book for Christmas, My Story, by Elizabeth Smart. But this gift was a failure; over time she noticed no one really read the book. Her feelings were hurt. It was best-seller so what could have gone wrong?

Julia unwittingly ignored the above principles. She found the book compelling but failed to consider that others might feel burdened by the obligation to read it; yet others might not enjoy reading a compelling but terrifying story. Julia did not appeal to self-interest and her expectations were unrealistic. Her gift was politely appreciated when given, but later it remained unappreciated and unread.

Question 2: Is there such a thing as being too generous? For example, you give your sister a three hundred dollar pearl necklace. She’s unemployed. Her gift to you is a bottle of bubble bath. Is she going to appreciate your generosity?

Answer: Being overly generous is a critical mistake! Many good people like to share, give, and make others happy. No one ever intends to be too generous; it just happens over time. Maybe someone asks us for a favor; later, we need a favor too but there is no reciprocity. Maybe we say we expect nothing in return, but find ourselves ill-at-ease when we keep giving and giving and getting nothing or little back.

Here’s an illustrative Christmas story: I have a friend who suddenly came into a lot of money from selling some property to a large waste management company. He was very generous with his friends and family. For Christmas he bought an expensive sports car for his teenage son. His son drove it recklessly and crashed it. The attitude his son conveyed was, “Big deal.” Why? Because he didn’t fully appreciate what he got for free. He didn’t earn a sports car and he figured his dad could afford to buy him another one.

Take some other teenager and make him work a little to earn his or her first car – that’s when you are most likely to notice pride in ownership. This is a lesson for us adults too. If we want others to value our generosity, loyalty, respect, trust, time, energy, talents and affection, then we must treat them as valuable. Imagine that your resources and positive personal qualities are like jewels of great value that you carry with you everywhere you go. Do not squander them on those who will not appreciate your generosity. Do not devalue them in the eyes of others by giving them away freely.

Here’s a myth: “People will appreciate me if I’m generous.” Yes and no. If you give of yourself too generously, neither you nor your generosity will be appreciated. Do not assume that others will like or appreciate you more because you have good intentions and a generous heart. Generosity is interpreted through the eyes of the beholder. Many people believe that if you give something away, it must not have been valued very much in the first place. Others will think you are ingratiating or have a hidden agenda – or worse – that you’re just a sucker.

Question 3: What can you do to ease the situation if you find yourself given a much smaller present than you received – in the example above – and vice versa

Answer: Transparency is the answer. Did it make you uncomfortable? At the right time – not during Christmas dinner! – say something like, “You were really generous; the gift I gave you is small by comparison.” See how the other person responds. Note the context and the person’s character. Maybe it’s normal for your parents to be super-generous but it might be out of character for your sister. Finally, set some expectations. Some families set limits like, “Let’s get each other no more than two presents under $50 each.” That really takes the stress out of gift giving.

It’s important to avoid extremes: don’t be overly generous or stingy. Even small amounts of generosity can be helpful; for example, buying lunch for a possible future client may pay great dividends in the future. It is not selfish to look for ways to benefit when helping others unless you only help others when it is to your benefit.

Question 4: What types of personalities are likely to be bad givers/receivers of gifts?

Answer:  If you have been generous toward others will they will be willing to help you in your time of need?  The answer is, “it depends on what kind of person you are dealing with.” The “takers” of the world will not repay you, will repay very little, or will expect bigger favors from you than you did for them.

Let’s focus on narcissism which is becoming a cultural pandemic. “It’s all about me” social media and the fact that famous narcissists get rewarded has facilitated emulation. Narcissists believe they are superior to others and are therefore entitled to praise, favors, and special treatment.  They can be arrogant, grandiose, charismatic, and capable of impressing others (especially at first). Like one-dimensional characters, these traits are superficial facades that fall apart under scrutiny. Incapable of empathy, they pursue their own needs, even if it involves deception, manipulation, or actively harming others – usually emotionally and psychologically.

Narcissists are “takers” – a relationship with a narcissist is a giver/taker relationship. How do you protect yourself? Don’t demonize them. Look for a win-win scenario. If you can get something good in return, then you both get something. But let’s be careful: A win-win scenario is ideal but temporary because narcissists are often willing to be deceptive; even when they get their way, they always want more. Be assertive. Up your game. Do not be afraid to say “no” and do so boldly. Timid responses will be viewed as weakness. Be on the lookout for hidden agendas: you are expendable – a favor here and there can be part of a bigger plan to win at all costs. Finally, avoid private discussions. If something is written down or witnessed by others you will have evidence of what happened. Narcissists avoid scrutiny about their negative actions because they want praise and admiration from others.

Question 5: Sometimes you receive a gift, or maybe someone does something really nice for you at holiday time, and you really feel it is in the “holiday spirit.” But other times, you get a funny feeling, like it’s too much. What does that feeling mean, and how should we respond when it seems like generosity on the surface has an undertone?

Answer: There are many reasons people act too generously. Some hope that they will eventually be liked and appreciated; instead, other people sense their low self-esteem and desperation, which only makes them less attractive. Sometimes people project their values onto others, believing some version of the statement, “I appreciate generosity and others will appreciate it from me.” Sure, sometimes people appreciate the giver of gifts and favors, but only under certain circumstances – like when the gift or favor is unexpected and without any perception of strings attached.

But repeated acts of generosity lead others to believe that the giver has an agenda; worse, generosity becomes expected, and when stopped, resented – putting the giver in a worse position than if there had been no generosity in the first place. It’s a normal reaction. People are suspicious of saints, so it is not in your interest to act like one.

Question 7: What about intangible gifts?

Answer: Have you ever been generous with your time, loyalty or resources only to get burned? Life is NOT like a two-way street where our displays of niceness, fairness, favors, hard work, and respect will necessarily be reciprocated back to us from others. Giving and receiving is superficially simple, but in reality it is filled with complexities. Our book helps the reader maximize person and professional outcomes.

Other people are not selfless angels looking forward to doing favors for you. When you expect reciprocity, you give away your power by letting someone else decide whether they will return the favor while you patiently wait at their mercy. Instead, focus upon what is within your control when you do favors for others, and expect little or nothing in return. If some favor is requited, you will get a pleasant surprise; if not, you will not feel crushed and defeated.

In the big picture it’s a good idea to match your generosity to self-interest. Form a strategic intention to benefit from every action you undertake. Rather than willy-nilly helping others, ask yourself whether you can “kill two birds with one stone” by attaining some benefit in the process. In a way we do this without thinking. If my girlfriend asks me to pick up milk at the store, I’m going to think about whether I need something too. The critical thing is to consciously think about reciprocity in relationships.

Author: Dr. Bruner is a clinical psychologist who has helped many individuals and organizations over the last twenty years. He specializes in the areas of effective persuasion, personality dynamics, cognitive biases and optimal responses to antisocial behavior. In 2015 he founded a consulting business that promotes an ethical model of strategic interventions.

Question 8: Any final words?

Answer: Yes, if you found this advice helpful, why not share the wisdom by giving my book as a holiday present?

Author Website:




Modern Machiavelli – 13 Laws of Power, Persuasion and Integrity

Troy Bruner

Win at work and in life with smart, social tactics.

Paperback £11.99 || $18.95 Buy Now

e-book £5.99 || $8.99 Buy Now


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