If you’re talking rapport building and what the research says, John Gottman is one of the kinkier researcher’s around. He has a ‘Big Brother’ type set up in his lab which involves couples staying in an apartment for a few days, wired up to measure their heart rate and so on, and with cameras all over the place tracking their every move. Definitely sounds kinky, doesn’t it? It’s also some of the most brilliant research around conducted on relationships. And after 30 years of research, by listening to just five minutes of a couple conversing at the start of their relationship, Gotmman’s team can predict with over 90% accuracy whether they will divorce. Impressive stuff.
Gottman’s research tells us a lot about what makes marriage work, and one of the things couples who stay together do is maintain rapport. Even when they’re arguing, they are in rapport. This is vital for staying connected, building understanding and trust, and finding resolution. And it doesn’t just apply to marriage – it applies everywhere. Whether you’re a parent, a business professional or leader, a community leader or simply having a conversation with a friend, knowing how to build and maintain rapport is a phenomenal skill to master.
What exactly is Rapport?
Rapport is probably the most natural communication skill in the world (we all do it all the time!) and yet it is often also the least understood. Ironically, the situations when rapport is not happening easily are often quite important situations – such as in a job interview, in disagreement with our partner, or dealing with an unhappy customer. Understanding the mechanics of rapport allows you to create connection with someone when it’s not there yet, or when you’re in conflict, and to ultimately enhance all of your relationships.
As you may have guessed, the word is French. The Oxford Dictionary definition is:
Noun. A close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.
In a training or coaching room when I ask ‘what is rapport?’ the answer is often something like “When you get on with someone really well, talk about the rugby, that sort of thing.” Yes, rapport is usually present at a time like that – we feel a sense of flow, ease and connection with the other person, but rapport itself is the deeper level feeling of ‘being on the same page as someone’ that runs underneath the conversation. That sense of connection can be present even when you are disagreeing with someone.
How does Rapport happen?
Rapport happens naturally because of a clever part of our brain called the Broca’s area. In this area of the brain are mirror neurons – discovered in 1995 at the University De Palma, Italy. Mirror neurons are our hard-wired way of connecting with each other to experience empathy and a sense of ‘You get me, I get you.” It explains why couples and best friends often match each other’s body language and finish each other’s sentences – they are like mirror images of each other. We do this automatically because (to go big picture for a moment) it’s how we experience a sense of connection in order to get together, mate, and procreate. Survival of our species depends on this chain of events!
We learned to do rapport as babies – the moment we mimicked Mum or Dad to make a sound to hold a spoon, we were ‘doing rapport’. But as adults we don’t necessarily understand the mechanics of rapport, to be able to more proactively create it when we need to.
How do you do rapport?
So if we are hard-wired to do rapport, why is it not always present, and what can we do about it? While the finer aspects of rapport skills are beyond a brief article, here are some of its key elements. Firstly, matching body language – including the way someone is sitting or standing, breathing and gesturing. That means sitting back in your chair if the other person is doing so, crossing your legs in the same way, and so on. You see people doing this all the time.
Sometimes rapport is broken by accident because we don’t realise the importance of our verbal or physical response. For instance, we might be sitting across the couch from our friend or partner with our body language mirroring each other. Then when they raise an issue, we might react by sitting back, turning away, or even getting up from the couch and walking around, and suddenly we’re out of rapport. The conversation is often more difficult and resolution takes longer because we are essentially not in sync with one another. If we can remain seated and match body language and even breathing, we are likely to stay connected and hear each other more fully. Even standing over someone’s desk to discuss an issue at work can hamper good rapport.
Voice is also part of matching for rapport – volume, pitch, tone and speed. Speaking quietly to someone who is angry will often incense them further – mainly because you are such a mis-match to them. After all, if you are so calm, you clearly don’t get how important this problem is to solve! You don’t have to get outraged too, you simply need to raise your voice a little to match theirs and match their body language when you respond. You are simply using behavioural flexibility to match them and connect. In other words, you can sound a bit louder without having to feel angry or stressed, for instance. As we match (or pace) we can then lead into more resourceful communication. In the case of someone raising their voice, we can match their volume (aim to be slightly below their volume) and as we do that and they feel we’re on their wavelength, their voice (and mood) will adjust down and soon return to normal.
Here’s an example when an upset client calls with a problem:
Client: “WE NEED TO KNOW TODAY WHEN IT’S GOING AHEAD!”
Manager: “I REALISE THIS IS A MAJOR CONCERN, LET’S SEE WHAT WE CAN DO”.
Client: “OK, WELL WHEN CAN YOU GET THE INFORMATION?”
Manager: “I WILL NEED TO ASK JIM AND GET BACK TO YOU. PROBABLY IN ABOUT
TEN MINUTES. How does that sound?”
Client: “That sounds ok, I’ll be on this number. Thanks.”
And now we are back at normal speaking volume.
Pacing and leading into more ‘normal’ conversation can sometimes take a few minutes or longer, but hang in there because when we don’t match and pace well enough, we don’t get there at all.
Rapport is one of the most valuable communication skills I teach in coaching and training, and applies to all areas of life and relationships. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. The wonderful thing about practising rapport is that you get instant feedback as to how it’s working, so you will quickly learn what influence you can have on good communication.
Rapport building can take us out of ‘muddling along together’ and into true connection and understanding. Imagine what we could do together then.
Get in touch if you’d like to learn more about rapport skills for you or your team.