February 29, 2016
Ask someone what rapport is, and you’ll hear “a close connection” or “I can’t explain it, but I know it when I feel it.” Beyond social ease, rapport describes a sense of harmonious connection with someone, being tuned into their feelings, and being fully seen and heard.
Most people know when they lack rapport: Meetings with people talking over each other or staring distractedly out the window. Choppy conversations peppered with awkward silences.
People experiencing rapport can be more creative together and more efficient in making decisions. For management teams mapping business strategies or marketing groups planning product launches, rapport can mean the difference between an okay result and a great one. In retail settings, rapport relates significantly to customer satisfaction, loyalty, and word-of-mouth communication.
What makes rapport? Robert Rosenthal and his colleague Linda Tickle-Degnan published a landmark article describing three essential ingredients for rapport:
Rapport requires all three elements. A physical fight includes close physical coordination, but no positivity. Walking past a stranger on a crowded sidewalk includes mutual attention and coordination, but no sense of caring for the other.
The first essential ingredient is shared attention. Two people attending to what the other says and does generate mutual interest and a joint focus. Such two-way attention spurs shared feelings.
Mutual empathy is an indicator of rapport, where both partners are aware of being experienced. That’s a difference between social ease and rapport. Social ease is comfortable, but we don’t feel the other person is tuned into our feelings. Fully attending to someone, seeing eye to eye, opens the possibility of empathy.
Beyond attention, you need positive feelings toward each other. Such feelings are often shown nonverbally, through tone of voice and facial expression. When skillful managers give their staff critical feedback while showing warm feelings nonverbally, someone is likely to feel more positively about the conversation than they would without the connection. That’s an example I used in Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships, based on a 2002 study by Michael J. Newcombe and Neal M. Ashkanasy. Current research by Ashkanasy continues exploration of exchanges between leaders and staff in organizations.
Coordination or synchrony is the third element. In rapport, subtle nonverbal cues coordinate the pace and timing of conversations and body movement. We become animated, our eyes meet often, our conversation flows like a choreographed dance. Synchronies happen throughout the natural world when one process oscillates in rhythm with another. When ocean waves are in synch, they amplify. When they are out of synch, they cancel out each other.
How does synchrony work between people? In Social Intelligence, I explained, “Whenever we find ourselves in harmony with someone else, we can thank what neuroscientists call ‘oscillators,’ neural systems that act like clocks, resetting over and over their rate of firing to coordinate with the periodicity of an incoming signal…. Any conversation demands that the brain make extraordinarily complex calculations, with oscillators guiding the continuous cascade of adjustments that keep us in synch. From this microsynchrony flows an affinity, as we participate in a slice of our conversational partner’s very experience.”
How to Build Rapport
How can we intentionally build rapport with another person or within a team?
That’s the first step. Listen well. Put down the phone, look away from the computer monitor, and tune into what the person is saying. Ask clarifying questions. For that time, focus on the other’s feelings and needs, not your own preoccupations.
In Social Intelligence, I said, “Full listening maximizes physiological synchrony, so that emotions align…. Intentionally paying more attention to someone may be the best way to encourage the emergence of rapport. Listening carefully, with undivided attention, orients our neural circuits for connectivity, putting us on the same wavelength. That maximizes the likelihood that the other essential ingredients for rapport—synchrony and positive feelings—might bloom.”
How can you improve your listening skills? Among many strategies for developing better listening habits, first you must become aware you aren’t listening well. Poor listening is often an unconscious habit governed by areas of the brain that handle automatic tasks. Before we can change a habit, we need to become aware of it. Such awareness can be developed through mindfulness, the secret ingredient in habit change. Once we’re aware, we can step away from distractions and focus attention on another person.