Rapport is a connection or relationship with someone else. It can be considered as a state of harmonious understanding with another individual or group. Building rapport is the process of developing that connection with someone else.
Sometimes rapport happens naturally. We have all had experiences where we ‘hit it off’ or ‘get on well’ with somebody else without having to try. This is often how friendships start. However, rapport can also be built and developed consciously by finding common ground, and being empathic.
This page examines rapport and how it can be built, especially when meeting new people.
rapport n. relation: connection: sympathy: emotional bond: spiritualist touch. Fr.
Source: Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
Rapport, therefore, is basically an emotional connection with other people.
Building rapport is the process of establishing that connection. It is usually based on shared experiences or views, including a shared sense of humour. Building rapport tends to be most important at the start of an acquaintanceship or working relationship. The rapport created, however, can last for many years.
Why Does Rapport Matter?
Rapport is important in both our professional and personal lives.
Employers are more likely to employ somebody who they believe will get on well with their current staff. Personal relationships are easier to make and develop when there is a closer connection and understanding between the parties involved – i.e. there is greater rapport.
When we first meet someone new, we start to try to build rapport. Like it or not, this is why small talk exists: it is a way to try to find things in common with other people and build that shared bond. This bond is important because we all have a tendency to want to be with ‘people like us’.
It is much easier to build rapport with someone who is very like you, or who shares a lot of your interests.
You have shared ground, and things to talk about. You also have a shared frame of reference. This makes both building a relationship, and communicating more generally, much easier.
However, we have probably all found ourselves thinking:
“He/she is lovely, I’m sure, but we really have nothing in common.”
Under those circumstances, working together is likely to be harder, and communication more difficult, because you lack a shared frame of reference. You will need to work harder to build rapport and develop your relationship - but this is still possible.
Break the Ice
For many, starting a conversation with a stranger is a stressful event. We may be lost for words, and awkward with our body language and mannerisms.
Creating rapport at the beginning of a conversation with somebody new will often make the outcome of the conversation more positive. However stressful and/or nervous you may feel, the first thing you need to do is to try to relax and remain calm. By decreasing the tension in the situation communication becomes easier and rapport grows.
When you meet somebody for the first time, there are some easy things that you can do to reduce the tension. This will help both of you to feel more relaxed and communicate more effectively. These include:
Use non-threatening and ‘safe topics’ for initial small talk. Talk about established shared experiences, the weather, how you travelled to where you are. Avoid talking too much about yourself and avoid asking direct questions about the other person.
See How to be Polite for more ideas.
Listen to what the other person is saying and look for shared experiences or circumstances. This will give you more to talk about in the initial stages of communication.
See our page on Active Listening to learn how to listen effectively.
Try to inject an element of humour. Laughing together creates harmony, make a joke about yourself or the situation/circumstances you are in, but avoid making jokes about other people.
See Developing a Sense of Humour for more.
Be conscious of your body language and other non-verbal signals you are sending. Try to maintain eye contact for approximately 60% of the time. Relax and lean slightly towards them to indicate listening, and mirror their body-language if appropriate.
See Non-Verbal Communication for more information.
Show some empathy. Demonstrate that you can see the other person’s point of view. Remember rapport is all about finding similarities and ‘being on the same wavelength’ as somebody else. Being empathic will help to achieve this.
See our page What is Empathy? for more information.
Make sure the other person feels included but not interrogated during initial conversations. Just as you may feel tense and uneasy meeting and talking to somebody new, so may they.
Put the other person at their ease. This will enable you to relax and conversation to become more natural.
See our page Conversational Skills for more information.
Non-Verbal Rapport Building
Initial conversations can help us to relax. However, quite a lot of rapport-building happens without words and through non-verbal communication channels.
We create and maintain rapport subconsciously through matching non-verbal signals, including body positioning, body movements, eye contact, facial expressions and tone of voice with the other person.
Watch two friends talking when you get the opportunity and see how they sub-consciously mimic each other’s non-verbal communication.
We create rapport instinctively. It is our natural defence from conflict, which most of us will try hard to avoid most of the time.
It is important to use appropriate body language. We read and instantly believe what body language tells us, whereas we may take more persuading with vocal communication. If there is a mismatch between what we are saying and our body language, then the person we are with will believe the body language. Building rapport, therefore, begins with displaying appropriate body language. This usually means being welcoming, relaxed and open.
As well as paying attention to and matching body language with the person we are with, it also helps to match their words. Reflecting back and clarifying what has been said are useful tactics for repeating what has been communicated by the other person. Not only will it confirm that you are listening but also give you opportunity to use the words and phases of the other person, further emphasising similarity and common ground. (See Reflecting and Clarifying for more information)
The way we use our voice is also important in developing rapport. When we are nervous or tense, we tend to talk more quickly. This in turn can make you sound more stressed. We tend to vary our voices, pitch, volume and pace to make what we are saying more interesting, but it also has an effect on how we come across. Try lowering your tone and talk more slowly and softly. This will actually help you develop rapport more easily.
See our page on Effective Speaking for more information on how your voice can be used to aid communication.
Helpful Rapport Building Behaviours
There are certain behaviours that are particularly helpful in building rapport. These include:
If you are sitting, then lean towards the person you are talking to, with hands open and arms and legs uncrossed. This is open body language and will help you and the person you are talking to feel more relaxed.
Look at the other person for approximately 60% of the time. Give plenty of eye-contact but be careful not to make them feel uncomfortable.
When listening, nod and make encouraging sounds and gestures.
Use the other person’s name early in the conversation. This is not only seen as polite but will also reinforce the name in your mind so you are less likely to forget it!
Try to ask the other person open questions (the type of questions that require more than a yes or no answer). These questions are more comfortable to answer, because you are not being put on the spot to give a clear opinion (see our pages: Questioning and Types of Question)
Avoid contentious topics of conversation. It is much easier to stick to the weather, the last speaker, and travel arrangements than risk falling out over politics.
Use feedback to summarise, reflect and clarify back to the other person what you think they have said. This gives opportunity for any misunderstandings to be rectified quickly.
Talk about things that refer back to what the other person has said. Find links between common experiences.
Try to show empathy.Demonstrate that you can understand how the other person feels and can see things from their point of view. (See: What is Empathy? for more)
When in agreement with the other person, openly say so and say why.
Build on the other person’s ideas.
Be non-judgemental towards the other person. Let go of stereotypes and any preconceived ideas you may have about the person.
If you have to disagree with the other person, give the reason first, then say you disagree.
Admit when you don’t know the answer or have made a mistake. Being honest is always the best tactic, and acknowledging mistakes will help to build trust.
Be genuine, with visual and verbal behaviours working together to maximize the impact of your communication.
Offer compliments, avoid criticism and be polite. (See: How to be Polite for more information)
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be an effective communicator.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their communication skills, and are full of easy-to-follow practical information and exercises.
An Essential Skill
Developing rapport is an essential part of every relationship. Without rapport, you would basically not have a relationship at all!
Being able to build rapport consciously is therefore extremely useful both personally and professionally. As a skill, it means that you can build relationships faster, and improve communication more rapidly. Your working relationships will be more effective, and your personal relationships will be stronger as a result.