if-tis-better-to-give-than-to-receive-are-the-people-we-give-donActions have unintended consequences, whether that’s giving a gift or making an offer to resolve an issue. When planning a negotiation, you put yourself in the shoes of the other party and try to think about what the party wants or needs or what motivates the person. You may come up with a proposal that you think will address at least some of those issues and start building a bridge that will result in a final resolution.

But what we think another party wants, and what that party actually wants, can be two different things. As empathetic as we may be, and as hard as we try to imagine ourselves as that other party, we will never truly fit into the other’s party’s shoes because they are custom fit.

Do We Really Know What Someone Else Is Thinking?

One example of that is gift cards. About $118 billion worth of these cards were purchased during the Christmas season in 2013, according to the New York Daily News, but about $44 billion worth of cards went gone unused from 2008 to 2014. Why so much? One study about gift cards shows not everything goes as planned.

The more general the better when it comes to gift cards, according to a study from the University of Cincinnati (UC), which is covered by ScienceDaily. You may think you’re being thoughtful with a very personalized card for the person’s favorite food or store, but that card may just end up in the bottom of a drawer or sold on EBay. Givers often fail to understand that what they want to give is not necessarily something the recipient wants to get, says Mary Steffel, researcher and assistant professor of marketing in UC’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business. She has these tips:

  1. Avoid too much personalization.

More personalized gifts are less versatile than most recipients want to receive. You might think a good gift card for a friend who loves sports would be a card from Dick’s Sporting Goods. That person might prefer a more general card, like a credit card backed gift card, because it allows purchases of sporting goods, tickets to a sporting event or anything else.

  1. Trying to impress someone special? Think romantically, shop for versatility.

“(G)ivers try especially hard to be thoughtful and demonstrate their knowledge of their partner,” Steffel states, but this can backfire: Givers choose more specific, less versatile gift cards for romantic partners compared to friends. Recipients generally prefer more versatile gift cards no matter the relationship with the giver.

  1. Think about what the recipient would like, not the person’s characteristics, and his or her current wants and needs, not their traits.

“It’s a fundamental human tendency to focus on other people’s stable traits and personality when trying to explain their behavior and preferences, but…focus more on situational factors,” Steffel says. Givers may focus on recipients’ traits, buy gift cards to match those characteristics, but recipients focus on their wants and needs and prefer gifts with more versatility.

Just as we misperceive what kind a gift someone wants, we can misperceive what kind of offer the other party wants, perhaps because we’re thinking about the party’s traits or characteristics, not that person’s more immediate needs. Thankfully gift giving and negotiation are not the same thing.

You can avoid this problem with open communications with the other party. Although there’s the danger the other party may not be totally upfront or make a situation appear more dire than it actually is, communication is a key to successfully resolving issues. Find out what the other party wants and why. Might there be a way to meet the other party’s goals in a way that’s less costly for your client? Unlike gift giving when we might want to surprise someone, ideally there should be no surprises during a negotiation. Just the exchange between two parties trying to work out their differences in good faith.