Knowing how to build rapport is a cornerstone skill for emotionally intelligent working. Indeed, all effective communication has rapport at its core – without it, it’s hard to inspire people, encourage stakeholders to listen to the message you want to communicate or create a positive space to influence them.
For most of us, rapport – defined as “a harmonious relationship in which people or groups understand each other's feelings or ideas and communicate well” – is largely subconscious.
However, by bringing it to our awareness, we can become more skilful at creating it with others, enhancing our ability to hear and be heard. We look at five simple ways to create rapport quickly and authentically – and improve and empower our working relationships.
Show them the end
Head of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program Robin Dreeke suggests a rather unusual approach to helping people open up. In his book It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone, he recommends establishing artificial time constraints when engaging someone in conversation.
This rapport route has its roots in the idea that when approached unexpectedly for anything, our first evolutionary reaction is to assess the interaction for threat. He cites the example of someone striking up an unexpected conversation with you, and how that in turn makes you feel awkward or in discomfort.
The discomfort, he says, is induced because you didn’t know when or if it would end – and as such he often begins his own conversations with limitations along the lines of, “I’m on my way out but before I left I wanted to ask you…” For Dreeke, setting these limits early on allows people to relax and open up.
“The first step in the process of developing great rapport and having great conversations is letting the other person know that there is an end in sight – and it is really close.”
Listening is the simplest way to validate others, and indeed we spend 60 per cent of our communication time doing it. The only effort it requires is to hold back from interrupting or overriding with our own points, thoughts and ideas. All of which sounds deceptively easy – but when was the last time you really listened to someone without formulating your response as they talked?
For most of us it’s a natural reaction, but it also means that we are never fully present with someone while they are trying to communicate with us. To mute your inner chatter enough to actively listen requires being mindful of letting the person finish their full sentence.
If you’ve interrupted somebody, that’s a telltale sign that you’re not doing a good job of listening and jumping ahead a little too much. In his TED talk, Five Ways To Listen Better, Sound Consultant Richard Treasure talks about the art of conversation being replaced by the dangers of ‘broadcasting’, or one-way communication, particularly in the digital age, and recommends an approach he calls ‘RASA’ – receive, appreciate, summarise and ask.
By doubling back and demonstrating you have understood what is being said, you can ensure that the other person feels heard – fundamental groundwork for more productive communication.
Get into the mindset of curiosity about the person and what they are saying, and focus on the quality of your listening by asking questions that allow them to tell you more. These kinds of questions will generally begin with a “what” or a “how” and can really help curb the impulse to jump in and share or ‘solve’.
Curiosity and a willingness to spark information flow is something that Dreeke also emphasises: “One of the key concepts that every great interviewer or conversationalist knows is to ask open-ended questions that don’t require a simple yes or no answer.
They are generally questions that require more words and thought…a great conversationalist will use the content given and continue to ask open-ended questions about the same content. The entire time, the individual being targeted is the one supplying the content of the conversation.”
Look for the similarities
It is the things we share that create rapport; this simple truth forms the basis of what authors Claire Raines and Lara Ewing call the ‘Titanium Rule’. In their book The Art of Connecting, they suggest that even in the face of profound differences there is always something that connects us – and can bridge the gap to create rapport. To do this, we need to employ empathy, and get to know people as individuals, observing their preferences, whether that be in organisational style, focus, outlook or decision-making.
Once we have an idea of these, we can adjust our own words and behaviours where appropriate to create connection. By taking the view that it is not if we connect, but what we can connect about, we can maintain the persistence to find connection.
Again, Raines and Ewing cite curiosity as a key to unlocking this communication, arguing that rapport is extinguished by assumption – if we think we already know all that we can about a person or a situation, that tends to be exactly what we will get in return.
In his influential book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In Harvard Law School negotiation expert Roger Fisher outlined a basic strategy for building long-term relationships – based on being unconditionally constructive. It’s a powerful idea that posits that no matter what others do, we should avoid emotional reactions or blame and remain constructive in our response. Importantly, it means keeping where we are trying to take our interaction uppermost in our mind.
This can be used to highlight common ground and allow us to progress even difficult negotiations with a deeper and more effective dialogue. Good agreements, says Fisher, focus on the parties' interests, rather than their positions. “Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide. Defining a problem in terms of positions means that at least one party will ‘lose’ the dispute.
When a problem is defined in terms of the parties' underlying interests, it is often possible to find a solution that satisfies both parties' interests.”