Rapport

Each of us already knows what rapport is. We do it instinctively and unconsciously. It is an integral part of the socialisation process that has accompanied our evolution from early-stage primates into cooperation within a tribal structure.

Rapport is that form of connection that establishes an atmosphere of trust, confidence and participation. It is a way of harmonising with another person that creates a sense of acknowledgment; we know when we have it and when we don’t.

When we have it, we come away from a conversation thinking ‘She is such an interesting person’ or ‘We just met and I feel like I have known him for ages’.

So why do we need to learn about something we already do?

These days, our interactions with people span a vast range of cultures and situations and a large number of people, many of them strangers. We need these interactions to work in order to be successful, and yet our natural instinctive rapport was developed within small tribal communities, where we knew everybody well and vice versa.

Note

There is a whole topic on Rapport since it is such a vital part of all human interaction. This page will therefore just cover the basics of the NLP approach.

We need to be able to establish rapport with strangers who we may never meet again and with people from outside our ‘tribe’ who may think very differently. In order to do this, we need a conscious understanding of the processes involved, so we can promote rapport when our tribal instincts cannot cope with the stranger behind the counter, the taxi driver, the new guy on the team, the person at a cocktail party or the businessman from a foreign country.

Fortunately, this type of rapport building is a skill that can be learned.

Matching to get rapport

The way we establish rapport is based on the fundamental premise that we like people who are like us. As soon as you detect some commonality with someone, you respond to them more openly. There is the comfort of sameness rather than the threat of difference. For example, when you are talking with someone and you discover by chance that they have the same hobby as you, support the same sports team or went to the same holiday destination, what happens?

So, if you actively want to promote rapport, you need to either consciously match the other person in some way or find some kind of common ground. This matching could include any of the following:

  • Body posture
  • Facial expressions
  • Breathing
  • Gestures
  • Animation and energy levels
  • Blink rate
  • Amount of eye contact
  • Clothing and appearance
  • Voice characteristics, such as speed, pitch, pauses, rhythm and tone
  • Language patterns
  • Common phrases
  • Idea chunk size, for example big picture or detail
  • Representational system
  • Stated values and beliefs
  • Personal history, such as holidays or places you lived in
  • Personal interests
  • Favoured causes, such as conservation or a specific charity
  • Mutual friends
  • Politics or religion
  • General likes and dislikes.

In order to establish rapport, you do not need to match all of these (fortunately!); in fact, matching only one is often enough to set off a mutually reinforcing rapport-building interaction. You see, at some level, the other person is also probably seeking rapport, so a little matching will go a long way as they unconsciously respond.

How to match

The best way to figure this out is via experiment and observation.

Exercise

Notice what is going on with the body postures when you observe two people interacting: a couple at a restaurant, a customer and retail assistant or perhaps two colleagues.

Do you think they have rapport, and why do you think that?

If you can, ask one of them after the interaction whether they felt as though they had rapport, and how they knew.

Matching to gain rapport is not mimicry and most people won’t even notice what you are doing. If they do notice, perhaps you are overdoing it. If someone you are with crosses their legs, you could do the same when it seems natural. If they sit down, you could do so – not immediately, but when there is a break in the conversation and it feels a natural thing to do. If they use mostly visual language, you can do so as well (see Representational systems).

There are some things you should not even try to match: for example, a breathing pattern that is simply too fast for you, or a tone of voice that is too high or too low. Never match a stutter or other speech impediment, accents or nervous twitches. (This is something that certain people, especially if they are auditory types and are also unconsciously good at matching, can find themselves doing unintentionally, to the great embarrassment of both parties!) You should also not match anything that is present in the other person as a result of disease or lack of health, such as an asthmatic’s breathing pattern.

It really is a matter of experimenting. Just try a little bit at first and see what happens.

Crossover matching

This is a subtle form of matching where you match the rhythm of something the other person is doing. For example, you could match their rhythm of breathing with a subtle hand movement, you could match their pacing with a tapping foot or you could match their frequent combing-fingers-through-hair gesture with something completely different.

Mismatching

This occurs when one or more things from the list above are very obviously and obtrusively not being matched. If someone is slouched back in their chair and you are perched on the front of yours with a ramrod-straight back, this could be enough to prevent rapport where it could otherwise have happened quite easily. Rapport can still occur where some things clearly don’t match, but it usually takes longer.

Mirroring

You will sometimes come across the term mirroring. This is simply matching a body posture, but in reverse, as in a mirror. For example, if the other person is stroking their chin with their left hand, you would do the same with your left hand to match them, while you would use your right hand to mirror them. In practice, there is little difference in effect between matching and mirroring.

Exercise

Have fun matching people wherever you see them – on a train, in a restaurant, at the pub and so on. Try different things, but do them without mimicry. It is actually amazing what you can do by way of copying and still find that people will never notice. For example, in a pub, sit in a similar posture to someone and take a drink from your glass at the same times. If you can, match their breathing rate and pattern as well.

Do not be at all surprised if a stranger you have been matching comes over and says ‘Have I met you before somewhere?’

Once you have rapport

Once you have rapport, the game changes. Getting rapport may take microseconds or minutes. It depends on how unmatched you are to start with, how keen each person is to gain rapport and whether you have met and established rapport previously.

How do you know?

Most people are aware of feeling rapport. When they are in rapport, the relationship with the other person feels different to the way it feels when they are out of rapport. There is no point in trying to describe this feeling as it will vary from person to person.

Exercise

Think back to a recent interaction and rate the level of rapport from one to ten.

Now think of many more interactions and do the same. What are you using to measure the level of rapport?

  • Is it a feeling?
  • Is it a sense of connection?
  • Is it a sense of mutual understanding?
  • Do you notice something about the other person?
  • Do you notice something about yourself?

As you enter into each new interaction, at the back of your mind, give it a rapport score.

Pacing and leading

Once you have rapport, you are usually able to lead the other person into a change of physiology, mood or state, or different ideas.

By this we mean that once rapport is established, if you change your posture, the other person is likely to follow by copying you. If you change the subject, the other person is likely to follow you into that new area. If you change your state, the other person is likely to move towards the same state.

Leading is one way of testing to see if rapport has, in fact, been established.

Tip

Gaining rapport and then leading is one way of interacting with someone who is angry. At first, you would match their level of energy, voice volume and some of their words and phrases. You do not even need to agree with them. They will feel acknowledged in their anger and that you understand, and this is the beginning of rapport. You can then calm your own state down and they will follow so that you can both be in a better state to discuss whatever is going on.

This process is called pacing and leading: pace, pace, and pace the other person to establish rapport, and then lead.

Maintaining rapport

You will find that once rapport is established, it will take little or no conscious effort on your part to maintain it. Of course, rapport can be disrupted if one of you says something which brings out a big point of difference or challenges strong beliefs. Maybe you discover that they have a view on global warming that is opposed to your passionately-held position, or maybe you just discover that they support a different sports team!

Story

There’s the story about the two Oxford dons, happily walking together along the banks of the Isis, disagreeing about absolutely everything except their absolute right to disagree!

If rapport is disrupted, then you have a rebuilding job to do if you want to continue an effective interaction. However, people can hold radically different views and beliefs and still interact with a deep level of rapport.

Rapport will spill over into your next interaction with the same person. You will pick up where you left off in terms of rapport. In part, this is due to Anchoring, as each person anchors the state of rapport to the other.

Breaking rapport

At times, you will need to consciously break rapport. A classic situation is when you need to end a conversation, but do not wish to be rude. Start making changes that are sufficient to disrupt the rapport. These could include standing up and fiddling with papers on your desk, combined with some standard hints, such as looking at your watch or walking them towards the door. If the rapport level is strong, they may well simply follow your lead, so breaking rapport can sometimes require quite large mismatches. An extreme way to mismatch would be to turn your back on the other person, perhaps putting your attention onto your desk and computer.

Exercise

This is a simple exercise to demonstrate the power or rapport. You will need to do this with a friend.

Have your friend tell you about a favourite holiday and why they liked it so much. Once they are in full flow, focus your attention elsewhere, perhaps by reading a newspaper or taking an intense interest in your fingernails. This is one way to break rapport. You can make ‘I’m still listening’ noises, but keep your attention focused on something else for 30 seconds to a minute. Then return your attention to your friend and have them finish their story.

Now explain what you were doing and find out what their experience was.

Do the same thing the other way around, with you telling a story and your friend removing their attention. Even if you know it is going to happen, it will have an impact.