Whether you’re a new employee trying to make a good impression, a teacher welcoming new students for the school year or a salesperson trying to close a deal, building rapport is what makes everyday interactions like these productive and successful.
Below, we’ll define rapport, find out why it’s important and learn some tips for building rapport with anyone you meet.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, rapport means “a friendly, harmonious relationship, especially a relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.”
It’s interesting to note that “rapport” is defined as a “friendly relationship,” but not a friendship. People usually talk about “building rapport” in a professional context, such as a salesperson building rapport with her clients or a teacher building rapport with his students.
Let’s look at an example in the context of a business setting: When a consulting firm tries to win over a big client, one whose deal could be in the tens of thousands of dollars, they don’t just call them up and ask if they’d like to work together. Why? Because that’s a big investment to make, especially when you don’t know or trust someone that well.
Instead, the consulting firm will try to build rapport through multiple touchpoints over time. They might introduce themselves at a conference, take the potential clients to dinner and invite them to a formal meeting at the consultancy’s office. Only after building that friendly relationship do they suggest their services and negotiate a contract.
And even after the deal is closed and the work is done, the consultants don’t just leave the clients hanging. Now that there is a strong client-consultant relationship built, they want to make sure they nurture it in the hopes of working together again in the future. The consulting firm may send gift baskets during the holidays, keep the clients updated via an email newsletter and check in with them regularly.
Remember from the definition of rapport that it involves “mutual understanding.” And research is rife with findings suggesting that we like those who are similar to us. So by establishing rapport with someone, you increase your likability. And who doesn’t want to be liked?
A relationship filled with rapport is marked by empathy, which makes communication so much easier. Without empathy, people won’t feel comfortable being open and honest with you. In a paper published in The Permanente Journal, James Hardee, MD, concluded that "effective empathetic communication enhances the therapeutic effectiveness of the clinician-patient relationship,” making it easier for the doctor to truly understand the patient’s concerns and establishing rapport between the two parties.
Relationships are often about compromise, but it’s tough to negotiate when you don’t have rapport with someone. Once rapport is established, you’ll be able to ease into the comfort of the give-and-take that comes with every relationship, eventually landing on something that everyone can be happy with.
When trust is established and communication flows easily, productivity will increase. Having rapport with your colleagues makes it easier for all of you to get your work done.
Emotional intelligence, also known as EQ or EI, helps you identify emotions in yourself and other people and respond appropriately. This is a vital skill in any relationship and is absolutely crucial when building rapport with someone new.
As with any skill, it’s helpful to have an expert guide you on your journey to mastery. Thankfully, you can access free personalized coaching in our Increase EQ online program. Coach Marlee will walk you through the skills needed to increase self-awareness, detect the nuance of voice, communicate your emotions and motivate others. And with regular check-ins to hold you accountable, you’ll have the support you need to make progress.
Being able to “read” other people is essential to social life, and without thinking about it, you’re probably doing it all the time. You can tell when something’s bothering your best friend, for example, or when an interaction with a stranger feels awkward. You’ve probably noticed when someone was faking a smile or getting uncomfortable during a conversation.
When you’re building rapport with someone, you must master noticing and identifying the meaning of several social cues, including:
If you struggle to pick up on some of these things, there might be a scientific reason for this. Based on more than 20 years of research, we’ve identified two distinct communication styles that people lean toward: Affective or Neutral.
Someone with an Affective communication style focuses on facial expressions, hand gestures, body posture and tone of voice. But someone with a Neutral communication style focuses on word choice, whether spoken or written.
The good news is that, while you have a preference for one style, you’re not stuck there. You can learn to be more like the other style. If you’d like to gain some of the traits of the Affective communication style, our Increase EQ coaching program helps you get better at reading and expressing emotion (which is helpful for building rapport).
If you want to get someone to like you, ask them follow-up questions. Research has shown that follow-up questions-more than any other type of question-increase how much a conversation partner likes you.
In a Harvard University study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers split conversation pairs into two groups: In the high question-asking group, one conversation partner in each pair was told to ask a minimum of nine questions. In the low question-asking group, one conversation partner in each pair was told to ask a maximum of four questions. After they chatted, participants reported liking the high question-askers more than the low question-askers. Why? Because they perceived the high question-askers as more responsive.
What’s more, the researchers identified six different types of questions asked during these conversations and found that follow-up questions, in particular, were the most likely to increase likeability.
A follow-up question is one that asks the other person to elaborate on something they just mentioned. So, for instance, let’s say you’re chatting with a new colleague, and they say they went hiking last weekend. You could respond by asking them a question about their family or a work project. But if you wanted to ask a follow-up question, you would say something like, “Oh, nice! What are some of your favorite hiking spots?” By staying on topic and asking for more information, this indicates that you were listening, and you’re interested in learning more.
And when you’re asking follow-up questions, it’s best to avoid asking too many yes/no questions (such as, “Do you hike every weekend?”). Because they require only a single-word answer, they don’t provide much opportunity for in-depth conversation. When you ask open ended questions, you give the other person the chance to speak more, indicating interest and empathy.
Are you guilty of phubbing? “Phubbing” is when you snub someone in favor of your phone. We all do it, but it has a cost: a weaker connection and less rapport.
In a paper published in Computers in Human Behavior, researcher Mariek Vanden Abeele and colleagues found that when someone texted in the presence of another person, that person saw the texter as less polite and attentive and even viewed their conversation quality as lower.
But just having a cell phone within sight during a conversation, even if it’s not yours and you never touch it, is enough to damage your conversation partner’s perception of you.
In one experiment, researchers Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex found that if they put a cell phone nearby while two people conversed, the pair later reported less closeness and lower relationship quality. This did not happen when the nearby item was a notebook and not a cell phone.
They then repeated the experiment, but this time, tested to see if the topic of the conversation mattered. They found that the presence of a cell phone lowered relationship quality only when the pair was talking about a meaningful topic (the most meaningful events of the past year), not a casual topic (their opinions on plastic holiday trees).
What can we learn from this? Well, if you’re trying to build rapport with someone by having meaningful conversations, put your cell phone out of sight.
Listening is more than staying quiet while another person is speaking. Active listening, also known as empathic listening, is a bit more involved-but it’s worth it!
Maintain eye contact, nod and like we mentioned above, don’t look at your phone. Try to really absorb what they’re telling you, rather than thinking about how you should respond.
Now that you’ve listened to them, summarize for them what you think they’re telling you. You can begin with, “To make sure I understand, what I think you’re saying is...” Give them a chance to correct you if you’ve misunderstood any of their words.
Practicing empathy means trying to understand another’s perspective. To do this, you need to ask questions. You can ask for more details (“Tell me more about...”), ask for clarification (“What did you mean by...”) or simply ask them if there’s anything else they wanted to say.
The principle of reciprocity is commonly used in sales tactics, and it’s why you feel compelled to buy something at a store when an associate gives you a free sample. Outside of sales, reciprocity is why you feel compelled to return a compliment when someone compliments you. Humans tend to abide by an unwritten social contract: If you give me something, I must give you something (and vice versa).
There’s even something known as the reciprocity of liking effect, where a person is more inclined to like someone who likes them back. In a paper published in Social Psychology Quarterly, Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University wrote of three studies she conducted on college students to see what factors play into their attraction to someone else. One of the four predictors she identified was reciprocal liking. But reciprocal liking doesn’t have to happen only in romantic attraction; it can work in completely platonic relationships too. We just like knowing that we’re liked (even in a non-romantic way). Think of the joy you felt the last time you discovered that someone you wanted to befriend wanted to be friends with you too.
So if you’re trying to build rapport with someone, pay them a compliment, treat them to coffee or send them a small gift. And because of what we know about the reciprocity of liking, don’t be afraid to tell them something like, “I enjoy our conversations.” Of course, I’m not suggesting you manipulate people so they feel indebted to you. But it’s heartening to know that when you do a good deed, a good deed is likely to come back to you.
If rapport requires mutual understanding, then finding common ground is crucial to building it. See if you can find a shared experience or shared interest. This involves asking questions and being able to connect the dots.
And if you’re worried you won’t find any common ground, maybe this will relieve the pressure: Actual similarity is not necessary; all that’s needed is the belief that someone is similar to us. In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, John Jones and colleagues found evidence of all sorts of weak comparisons that contributed to liking. In four studies, they found that people are disproportionately likely to marry someone with a similar first or last name. In another study, they found that participants were more attracted to people whose arbitrary code numbers happened to resemble their own birthday numbers.
As you can see, we make these insubstantial comparisons all the time. It’s why we light up when we meet someone who happens to be from the same town or who attended the same university. We may actually have nothing of real substance in common-but it sure does feel like we do.
So keep it light; even if it’s something as small as you both drive a Nissan, it may delight your conversation partner more than you realize.
Building rapport may be particularly difficult for people with low self-esteem or low self-confidence. The good thing is, both of those things can be increased! It begins with reminding yourself that you’re liked more than you realize.
Researchers have found that it’s common for people to underestimate how much their conversation partner enjoys talking to them. In a study published in Psychological Science, Cornell University researcher Erica Boothby and colleagues described what they’ve termed the “liking gap.” In a series of studies, they found that participants often doubted that they’d left a good impression and judged their own performance too harshly.
I love what the study authors wrote at the end of their abstract: “Our studies suggest that after people have conversations, they are liked more than they know.”
What a comforting thought!
As we’ve seen, building rapport isn’t an impossible task. Rather, it’s a skill that you can strengthen with the right knowledge and some practice. And once you master this, you’ll find that your personal and work relationships are stronger and more enjoyable.
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