Building Rapport

See also: What is Charisma?

Rapport is a state of harmonious understanding with another individual or group that enables greater and easier communication.  In other words rapport is getting on well with another person, or group of people, by having things in common, this makes the communication process easier and usually more effective. 

Sometimes rapport happens naturally, you ‘hit it off’ or ‘get on well’ with somebody else without having to try, this is often how friendships are built.  However, rapport can also be built and developed by finding common ground, developing a bond and being empathic. 

This page examines rapport and how it can be built, especially when meeting new people.  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.

The first task in successful interpersonal relationships is to attempt to build rapport.  Building rapport is all about matching ourselves with another person.  For many, starting a conversation with a stranger is a stressful event; we can be lost for words, 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.

Break the Ice

When meeting somebody for the first time some simple tips will help you reduce the tension in the situation enabling both parties to feel more relaxed and thus communicate more effectively:

  • 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, 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 - so 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 ease, this will enable you to relax and conversation to take on a natural course.

See our page Conversational Skills for more information.

Non-Verbal Rapport Building

Although initial conversations can help us to relax, most 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 that appropriate body language is used; 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 verbally and what our body language is saying then the person we are communicating with will believe the body language.  Building rapport, therefore, begins with displaying appropriate body language - being welcoming, relaxed and open.

As well as paying attention to and matching body language with the person we are communicating with, it helps if we can also 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 tense and stressed.  We can vary our voices, pitch, volume and pace in ways to make what we are saying more interesting but also to come across as more relaxed, open and friendly.  Try lowering your tone, talk more slowly and softly, this will help you develop rapport more easily. (See Effective Speaking for more information on how your voice can be used to aid communication.)

Helpful Rapport Building Behaviours

  • If you are sitting then lean forward, 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.

  • Smile!

  • 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!

  • Ask the other person open questions.  Open questions require more than a yes or no answer. (See our pages: Questioning and Types of Question)

  • 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, acknowledging mistakes will help to build trust.

  • Be genuine, with visual and verbal behaviours working together to maximize the impact of your communication.

  • Offer a compliment, avoid criticism and be polite. (See: How to be Polite for more information)

Advanced Communication Skills - The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

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