Rapport – can it be too much of a good thing?

By Lynda Russell-Whitaker

I’ve seen rapport described as ‘trust + responsiveness’, though this is primarily amongst NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) practitioners. One dictionary definition says rapport is ‘sympathetic relationship or understanding’. However, I believe good relationships develop over time and that rapport is an important part of building a good relationship.

Establishing rapport starts with a genuine interest and curiosity about the other person, along with mutual respect and trust. It doesn’t always mean collaboration or co-operation, and it certainly isn’t about capitulation or acquiescence.

Rather, good rapport implies a willingness to stand in someone else’s shoes; when present, we experience being ‘in sync’ with another person. It may be that you have intangible things in common, like values and aspirations. Or you may share a similar educational background, accomplishments or interests. Perhaps your children attend the same school. Or you might admire the other person, need to work with them, or that you would love them as a client.

Evidence of rapport between members of a pitch team (or for that matter, on a playing field!) can be impressive. It comes across as a kind of ‘chemistry’ that’s hard to describe, but is obvious. Can you recall a time when you witnessed an impressive pitch? You probably experienced a higher than average appearance of strong rapport between the members of the team. It’s often what makes the difference between a good pitch and an outstanding one. 

However, it is still about communication, connection even, between individuals. Some of these will be people you work with on a short-term basis such as in a pitch situation or a software development team. In other situations, deeper connections and relationships will need to be created and built, such as with those people you work with on a daily basis. In essence, rapport is one of the foundations of a solid relationship.

A word of caution! There are some personality or behavioural types that have little or no time for ‘rapport’ and we all know a few of those.

If you are one of those people (the ‘director/driver’ type) please bear in mind that many people you interact with will be put off if you appear to have no empathy, are uninterested in seeing their point of view or knowing anything about them personally.

All of us have to deal with a variety of personalities in our business life, whether colleagues, superiors, subordinates, suppliers or clients. There’ll be times when others won’t always want to adapt to you, so the ability to build rapport – quite quickly sometimes – is a useful social skill to learn.

Looking at it from the point of view of a director/driver, it’s important to be able to interact with them without making what they consider irrelevant ‘small talk’ sometimes. This is unlikely to be personal! It is simply their style of behaviour to dispense with the niceties and get on with the business in hand.

Of course, there are many aspects at play with respect to who sets the tone and who follows. However, this is not always about hierarchies. Life is not that simple. This isn’t about repeatedly subjugating your personality to someone else’s.

It’s about reading each situation and judging the best action to take at any particular time. Otherwise, there’s a danger of getting stuck in often outmoded patterns of behaviour.

Balance involvement with independence
Balance involvement with independence

Balancing involvement with independence through our use of language is important. The ability to convey collaboration rather than antagonism and competition is something I alluded to in my article on Conversational styles (SpeakUp! No. 45).

Establishing boundaries is also key, and particularly so in a longstanding client relationship where a kind of intimacy has been developed. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you are friends
(although you may be that too) and there are times when the sharing of something particularly personal might cause embarrassment or pain for either or both parties. If you have a really good rapport, you’ll make the judgement that it isn’t appropriate to share that information at this time.

In case you think your rapport building needs a little work, below are five tips
to try:-

1. Turn up the volume on your senses. Experiment with this in the mornings on your journey to work. This will increase your awareness of others and your surroundings. Choose a sense at a time, e.g. close your eyes and listen, or block your ears to sue your eyes more.

2. The NLP tool of mirroring and matching someone’s body language can be very useful, though be careful not to use this without empathy – it can come across as insincere.

3. Pay attention and listen actively. Sometimes more than an ‘uh huh’ or a nod is required. Give candid feedback but take care not to interrupt; it can seem inconsiderate.

4. Be curious. Ask questions and listen to the answers. You might try this with someone in your office who you know very little about.

5. Commit what you learn about a person to memory. If you can’t do that, do what Onassis did – keep pertinent notes on anyone who is important to you in business. It clearly worked for him, and however contrived it might seem, it showed how much he cared.