Building rapport is essential to ensure that there is a positive framing of the conversation. You can think of rapport as a friendly and relaxed atmosphere between you and your conversation partner. With rapport, the discussion flows naturally, and people are more willing to follow and try and understand what is being said. Without rapport, people are more likely to be defensive or suspicious; and are less inclined to try to understand. It's essential to maintain rapport throughout the conversation, but making sure it is established right at the beginning will help the conversation get off to a great start.
Genuine rapport building
Building rapport should not be seen as a trick or technique. There are many tools used by con-artists, salespeople, and those with an agenda to push, designed to induce and build rapport artificially. However, genuine rapport building is the best way to ensure honest and productive conversations and build trust between you and your conversation partner.
Your starting position
Many factors can influence your ability to establish rapport. Perhaps the most important is your starting position, your own emotional and physical state. There are many verbal and non-verbal indicators of someone's emotional state, and we have all become very good at subconsciously noticing these indicators in others. Rather than learn how to hide or mask these indicators, start by simply making sure that you really are in the right mental and emotional state for the conversation.
For example, noticing the following in yourself might be good reasons not to have an important or difficult conversation in this moment: -
- You are feeling or have recently felt anger, agitation or frustration
- You are feeling the need for external validation or support.
- You are overexcited or fired up and keen to get going
- You are tired or suffering from low energy
- There are distractions that are dividing your attention
- You are under the influence of things such as alcohol or perhaps too much coffee
These types of things might influence your judgement or your ability to notice or correctly interpret ideas and social cues in others. Even being too keen, and eager to have the conversation might be the wrong frame of mind with which to have a productive dialogue. Every conversations is different, and you should be open to allowing each one to find its own path at its own pace.
Remember, great conversations can be rewarding but sometimes challenging. You are actively trying to help strangers explore what might be complex or emotionally triggering topics. As much as possible, you want to mirror the ideal emotional state you would like to see in your conversation partner.
Their starting position
If you feel that your conversation partners emotional state is not starting from the correct position, it might be a good idea to disengage. Understandably, a conversation partner might start from a place of uncertainty about your motives, and suspicion is natural; however, if you notice increased emotionality, stress, anxiety or even anger and frustration, the conversation is unlikely to be productive.
The same things that might compromise your ability to have an effective conversation should also be avoided in our conversation partner. We don't want our conversation partners to feel that we are challenging them in a moment where they can't honestly address the conversation at their best.
It is essential to notice that a productive conversation might genuinely induce some discomfort. Body language indicators of discomfort, for example, might not always be a sign that you should discontinue. The distinction between valuable, positive discomfort and unhelpful, negative discomfort lies in where the discomfort originates.
Beneficial discomfort arises from noticing an internal inconsistency or area of uncertainty, a gap in a persons logic and reasoning. The conversation might have prompted awareness of this logic gap, but it is the presence of the logic gap that is the cause of the discomfort. Once noticed, the logic gap and its associated discomfort would remain until resolved or sufficiently ignored or forgotten, even if the conversation were to end and the parties to go their separate ways.
Unhelpful or negative discomfort will result from a breakdown in rapport; discomfort caused by the very conversation itself. This discomfort will quickly disappear and be resolved once the conversation ends and the parties go their separate ways. Building and maintaining rapport works against causing this type of discomfort.
Make an effort to check in with your conversation partner regularly. Checking in at regular intervals will help your conversation partner know that you want them to be comfortable. It will also let them know they are in control and have the opportunity to stop at any point. As a result, they may be more willing to move away from their comfort zone.
Mirror the behaviour you want to see
Pay attention to your tone, body language and facial expressions, and maintain a relaxed manner. You want to keep your voice soft and even. If you find your conversation partner is elevating the energy in the conversation, keeping your tone calm will avoid escalation. Initiating the discussion with some relaxed banter helps them notice your energy and tone on a neutral topic and gives them time to understand and adjust.
Humour can be an effective tool in helping people relax and build rapport but be careful not to mock your partner or any beliefs or ideas they may hold. Mocking yourself or self-deprecating humour can help address the idea that you might see yourself as above or in some way superior to the person you are talking to.