How to Build Rapport

Rapport is critical to be able to connect with people and build relationships. In its essence, rapport is about picking up on and making our similarities with someone more apparent. Breaking rapport is what happens when we instead focus on our differences. [2]

One definition of rapport is when you feel you’re in harmony with someone, and it’s easy and enjoyable to interact.[1]

Building rapport can be manipulative. That’s why we in this guide focus on doing it in an authentic way.

Part 1. Ways to build rapport

Focusing on our similarities with someone helps build rapport. Likewise, focusing on our differences will break rapport.

Don’t try to memorize the list below. You risk getting stuck in your head. Instead, use it to understand what rapport is and how to build or break it. Then, be present in the moment to build it on an intuitive level, as I described in the step above.

1. Know that it’s natural to change your behavior depending on the situation

You act one way with your grandma, another with your friends, and a third way around your boss. This is not you being fake but natural. Part of what makes us human is our ability to bring forth different parts of our personality, depending on the situation. It helps us connect with more people at different levels depending on the situation

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2. Build rapport by being present rather than faking it

Don’t try to fabricate rapport. You might turn into someone you don’t want to be. Instead, focus on the person you are with and what you’re doing. This will help you be in the moment rather than in your head, trying to figure out how to act.

Allow yourself to be moved by the mood and feeling of the room. Being present like this helps you build rapport by instinct rather than through a rational process. This is how you build rapport and remain authentic.

3. Give your full attention

Being attentive will make you a better friend, partner, co-worker and boss. It’s also critical to building rapport.[3] You show that you are attentive through active listening.[4] Here are 8 ways to be more attentive.

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  1. Every time you listen – try to learn something. It’s intentional and requires you to sort through what’s being said and process it.
  2. Focus on listening rather than talking. Put away your ideas of what you want to say when they stop speaking. Focus all your attention on what they are saying rather than formulating your answer.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. Guide the conversation by asking questions that require more than a yes/no answer. This allows them to expand on their ideas or issues.
  4. Then ask detail-oriented questions. Like “Can you tell me more about how that will work?” “What are the resources you need to get it done?” You’re walking through the solution with them and assisting on the way.
  5. Pay attention to the emotion behind the words. If you ask someone how their day’s been, “good” can mean different things depending on the intonation it’s being said with. Paying attention to intonation and facial expression tells you more than just the words.
  6. Summarize what you’ve heard. Say, “Tell me if I understand you correctly…”. “So you’re saying you’d like more projects and are available to work overtime.”
  7. Check their body language. The meaning of their message may not be in their words but in something emotional they are saying with their facial expressions, tone or in the way they hold their body.
  8. How you respond counts too. Your responses are part of this 2-way communication. Try to keep an open mind and even if you disagree with what you hear, always be respectful.

4. Be positive – show that you like them

If you show that you like someone, they’re more likely to like you back.[5] Behavioral scientists call this positivity.[3] For some, this comes naturally. For others, it can be a learned behavior. And let’s face it, we don’t always feel super-positive toward strangers, so when the emotional chips are stacked, it’s good to have a few pointers.

  1. Say “Hi” to people. Acknowledge people you come across with a smile and a Hi or a nod. It can seem like an insignificant act, but it’s an important signal that you are friendly and like them right off the bat.[5]
  2. Don’t ignore people. This is the companion step to Item #1. If someone makes an effort to be friendly, invite you somewhere or start a conversation, reward their effort. Say yes and engage. They aren’t asking for more than a few minutes, and if nothing else, it’s good practice.
  3. Start a conversation. This is the angst-causing social construct, Small Talk. It has terrible P.R. However, it’s an important signal that you’re friendly and a warm-up for more interesting conversation. Small talk is the necessary bridge that helps us build close bonds with new people.
  4. Think about your body language. Try to relax your face and jaw and uncross your arms. Look people in the face and nod or smile. “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  5. Use touch. One study found that servers who touch their customers on the shoulder receive higher tips.[6] Non-sexual personal contact is powerful but can come off as uncomfortable if it feels too intimate. The safest part of the body is the area between the elbow and the shoulder.[7] You can lean over and gently touch their arm when you agree with someone, or you empathize with them. Studies show that touching makes others more positive and cooperative toward you.[8][9][10]
  6. Invite people out to stuff. People like to be included, and even if they can’t make the occasion, they’ll remember you as someone friendly and open. You can ask people to grab a coffee, see a movie or check out that new art exhibit downtown. Try inviting new acquaintances to join you at a social event. That feels less intimate than meeting up with just the two of you.
  7. Be human. It’s not always sunshine and roses, and even though we don’t bring out all our dirty laundry in conversation, it’s OK to be honest. You want to be positive overall, but you can reveal when you’re not feeling great. Genuine people are more likable overall.
  8. Acknowledge people. You know when you come up to a group and kind of shoulder your way into the circle? The best thing that can happen when you’ve mustered up the courage to get in there is when someone says ‘Hi’ and introduces you, or acknowledges you in the conversation.
  9. Be easy-going and prepared to have a good time. If someone’s making a joke that you appreciate, show that you thought it was funny and laugh. If you’re able to relax and make easy-going small talk in a situation where people are tense or uncomfortable, such as a work orientation at a new job, people will appreciate it and gravitate toward you.
  10. Give a real compliment. Notice people’s best qualities, both when they try to do something and when they do something well. Give them a sincere compliment based on those qualities. Complement personality rather than appearance unless you know each other quite well.
  11. Pick up on other’s emotions. Are their shoulders slumped? Are their eyes worried or sad? If you have a trusting relationship, ask them how they are feeling. If they don’t want to talk about it, you can say, “That’s cool, but if you want to talk, I’m around.”

5. Showing that you care (Empathy)

Having empathy means you understand the wants, needs, and viewpoints of others. You can also recognize their feelings even when they haven’t told you about them by noticing and mirroring body language. Empathic people are great listeners, and they try to be as open-minded and honest with others as possible.

6. Body language

These are examples of how you can build good rapport by matching the body language of the person you’re talking to.

  1. Crossing or uncrossing arms or legs
  2. Standing or sitting directed toward the other person as little or as much as they are directed toward you
  3. Using the same amount of eye contact
  4. Leaning toward the same thing together
  5. Supporting your head with your arm
  6. Matching their energy level – quiet, excited, humorous
  7. Eating food or drinking with similar frequency
  8. Using hand gestures in similar ways
  9. Reflecting the other person’s facial expressions (See gender differences below)
  10. Match the tone, pace, and inflection of their speech pattern. This has the benefit of being less obvious than physical mimicking.
  11. Yawning and smiling are ‘contagious.’ This is the most common form of mirroring.
  12. Tilt your head as they do. This also sends the message that they intrigue you.
  13. What does someone do when they want to emphasize their point? They could raise an eyebrow, use a hand gesture, say a catchphrase like “you know what I mean?” To show you are in tune with them, mirror their words/actions when you make a point.
  14. Use non-verbal communication to SOFTEN the hard-line position of others:
    S = Smile
    O = Open Posture
    F = Forward Lean
    T = Touch
    E = Eye Contact
    N = Nod

Differences in men’s and women’s facial expressions

Women make 6 facial expressions every 10 seconds while men typically make fewer than a third (less than 2) of women’s facial expressions. Men actively try to hide their emotions from being expressed facially. You are more likely to see their emotions in their body language.

However, huge dividends are paid to men who do mirror women’s facial expressions. Women find them more caring, smarter and appealing. Conversely, men think less of women who express a high degree (higher than them) of facial expressions. But if women match men’s facial expressions, they are thought of as more intelligent and sensible.[11]

Where to touch people depending on your relationship

In the photo below, you’ll see what parts of the body people are comfortable with touch, depending on your relationship with them.

body touching depending on relationship

Image source

Risks when mirroring body language

Don’t reflect negative body language. It can be seen as aggressive or mocking.

Be subtle. If you are too literal with your mirroring, it will create unease and suspicion with the person you are trying to connect with.

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7. Rapport-breaking behavior

  1. Checking your phone. Any conversation that is trumped by the phone tells the person you’re speaking to that they are less important than the caller/texter/website.
  2. Making too much eye contact. Too much eye contact can overwhelm your partner. Take breaks from looking at them when they stop talking between sentences or just before you speak. This gives everyone some breathing room to collect their thoughts. Try to make as much eye contact with someone as they have with you.
  3. Looking around the room. This makes you look distracted or uninvolved. If you’re talking to someone and doing this, they will feel ignored.
  4. Not listening. Zoning out or being in your head can result in you not being able to understand the point of the conversation. That can be embarrassing if you are asked to make a comment or give an opinion.
  5. Talking too fast. Can come off as insecure and nervous. Try to match the speed of the person you are talking to.
  6. Blinking rapidly. This is a common sign of nervousness. For a deeper look at making conversation, have a look at this article about being less nervous talking with people.
  7. Invading someone’s personal space. Keep 1.5 feet/0.5 meters between you and a stranger.
  8. Lacking facial expressions. This can convey a lack of respect or is a sign that you’re not listening.
  9. Using the word “BUT” too often. This can mean you are making an excuse, or you don’t really care about what happened/an issue.
  10. Using closed body language. Avoid crossed arms, hidden hands, buttoned-up coats and shirts to the neck, covering your neck or your belly/chest, a hand over your mouth.
  11. Having rigid or angry facial expressions. Furrowed brows, tense jaw or mouth, squished-up face.
  12. Sighing. Even if you are just releasing some tension or frustrated with yourself, your audience will take it as your opinion of them.
  13. Slouching. Shows a lack of confidence and energy. Good posture makes you feel better, so doing it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.[12]
  14. Not smiling at all or enough. Rather than faking a smile, it can help to find the good in a situation and enjoy the moment.
  15. Weak or Too Strong Handshake. You’re either lacking confidence or will be seen as aggressive. Try to find a happy medium.

8. Jargon – language that can connect people, or doesn’t.

  1. Complicated words. If you’re talking ‘over the head’ of your mate, then you aren’t connecting. In fact, it will look like you’re trying too hard.
  2. Simple language. Simple doesn’t have to be dumb. Aim to be clear and easily understood. Try to match the way you speak and vocabulary to the people you’re with. Are you at work or with friends? Much is dictated by your environment and mirroring your audience.
  3. Swearing. Swearing is polarizing. It can break rapport quickly with someone who doesn’t swear and be a powerful way to build rapport with someone who does.
  4. Industry phrases. Using jargon with people who don’t know it can create a divide while it can help you bond with someone familiar with it. Use phrases that you think your audience will understand.
  5. Generational phrases. Adapt your language to the generation the person belongs to.

9. Appearance

Your haircut, outfit, and accessories send messages to others on your behalf. To build rapport, try to match the style of the person you’re about to meet. There’s not a “correct” piece of clothing to wear. A hoodie or suit could be correct. It depends on who you are meeting and want to have a relationship with.

Areas of your appearance than can break or build rapport:

  1. Haircut
  2. Grooming
  3. Make-up
  4. Clothes

10. Background

When getting to know someone, you can find out if you have similar experiences.

  1. Being from the same place or neighborhood.
  2. Growing up in the countryside, a small town or in a city.
  3. You went to the same high school – or type of high school all-girls/all-boys.
  4. Speak the same second language, if you know more than one.
  5. Your parents were immigrants, or you are.
  6. You came from a large family or a small one.
  7. You have siblings with the same gender or age gap as you.
  8. You were the youngest, oldest, middle child or only child.
  9. Similar life events: bullied as a child, sport-focused childhood, religious upbringing.
  10. Experienced major historical events: 9/11, Tiananmen Square, NBA Finals in your city.
  11. Had or drove similar cars growing up.
  12. Similar first job: waiter/waitress, retail, coffee shop, office work.
  13. Summer activities: camps, cottages, hiking, climbing.
  14. Summer sports: swimming, water-skiing, Seadoo’s, sailing, powerboating.
  15. Winter activities: skating, skiing, snowboarding, sledding, tubing, snowmobiling.
  16. You love camping or hate camping.
  17. Arts programs: drama, dance, music, painting/drawing.
  18. First album. First Concert. First favorite band/artist.
  19. Same College or University – Bachelor and Postgraduate Studies.

11. Likes and mutual interests

Ask the person what they like, to find out if you have shared interests. These can be used as a natural way to make conversation and a reason to keep in touch.

  1. Music
  2. T.V. shows
  3. Movies and series
  4. Books
  5. Theatre
  6. Sports or players
  7. Actors/Actresses
  8. Interests as a child

12. Life situation

Ask these questions to see if you have similarities in your lives.

  1. Type of work
  2. Admiring the same people in your industry or a public persona.
  3. Where you live – uptown, downtown, suburbs, bedroom community.
  4. In a relationship or single
  5. Kids/No Kids – If so, how many? Ages and sex.
  6. Pets/No Pets – If a pet lover, then what kind: dog, cat, fish, reptiles, birds, and small mammals.
  7. Work-Life balance
  8. Personal causes: social justice, the environment, children’s charities, animal charities.
  9. Sharing the same holidays – especially uniting when it’s unusual to find others who do the same.

13. Future plans

Good rapport building questions to find out if you have similar dreams.

  1. Dreams and future goals
  2. Places you want to go
  3. Goals at work
    • Where you want to be in 2, 5 and 10 years.
    • Being motivated by the same things for promotion: status, challenge, money.
    • What you have to do to get better and improve your chances of success.
    • Wanting to continue doing the same work or wishing to change careers.
    • Dream job.
  4. Goals in life
    • Sharing dreams
    • Learning a new language
    • Living abroad
    • Same life goals
    • Places you want to travel to or retire and live there.
    • Express your creative side in similar ways or just at all. (Paint, write, design, jewelry, gardening, photography)
  5. Goals for family
    • If you don’t have a family, do you want one?
    • If not, how do you create a family in your life? Are you close to your siblings and parents? Friends? Community? Faith Group?
    • If you have children, how many do you have? Are you done, or do you want more?
    • How do you see your family evolving over time?
    • What mistakes did you make that you want to avoid in the future?
    • What did you do well that you’d encourage everyone to try?
    • What do you think are the most important things kids need growing up?
  6. Organizations you want to help/volunteer.
  7. Areas of self-improvement
    • Fitness
    • Mental health
    • Books you’ve read on the topic
    • Seminars you’ve attended (Tony Robbins etc.)
    • Yoga
    • Meditation

14. Creating shared experiences

Find out what you both like doing and do it together. We associate positive experiences with those we experienced them with.

  1. Outdoor adventures – hiking, biking, camping or taking trips
  2. Movie nights
  3. Video game nights
  4. Wine tours
  5. Board games
  6. Restaurants
  7. Bars and clubs
  8. Food nights or potlucks
  9. Craft days
  10. Zoos, animal shelters, dog parks
  11. Go-kart racing
  12. Ziplining or bungee jumping
  13. Dance classes
  14. Workout classes
  15. Attending meetups – scan Meetup.com for ideas.
  16. Farmer’s Markets
  17. Concerts and festivals
  18. Stand-up
  19. Music lessons
  20. Boating or take a local cruise ride together
  21. Skating, skiing or snowboarding
  22. Improv classes

Part 2. Building rapport in specific situations

1. How to build rapport with customers and clients

Building rapport with customers works the same as building rapport with anyone in life. However, there are some additional things to think about.

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  1. Assume that you don’t know what they think and feel. Before pitching your ideas, ask questions to figure out their thoughts and feelings about the problem. If your customer wants to buy a computer, you’ll break rapport if you start talking about processing power if you don’t find out first that all they want is something easy to carry.
  2. Make the customer feel like you and they are in the same boat. Say “we” referring to you and the customer, rather than you and the company. Say “they” referring to the company. This creates a “you and I” feeling. Here’s an example: “They told me that the order won’t arrive until next week. I said that we need it this week, but it seems like we’ll have to bite the bullet and wait.”

2. How to build rapport over the phone

Building rapport over the phone with customers or colleagues is about creating a comfortable atmosphere where they know their needs will be met.

  1. Pay attention to what the person sounds like on the phone. How fast are they talking? What language do they use? Do they seem energetic or relaxed? Match your cadence to theirs.
  2. Smile and use good posture. People can hear a smile over the phone. It comes through, and your caller will appreciate it and unconsciously feel more connected to you. Sitting up straight and focusing on the conversation will help you have a more positive attitude toward the call and the caller.
  3. Warm up the call with an ice-breaker. Before you get into the reason why the caller is on the line, try asking them how they are doing. What the weather’s like where they are? It doesn’t have to be much. One or two interactions is enough. You want them to know that you think they’re important and human, and conversely, so are you.
  4. Actively listen. Once the customer describes their problem, repeat back to them what you heard and propose your plan to address the issue. They will be comforted, and if irate, de-escalated. Doing this will make them feel heard and know you are taking ownership of the problem and doing something about it.
  5. Be adaptable in your approach. There’s no “one size fits all.” First, assess the caller’s mood and the issue and then try to address both. Sometimes a simple apology at the right moment can diffuse the caller’s upset and put things on a path to resolution. Sincerity, and a willingness to listen and find a solution, are the tools needed to do this well.
  6. Show empathy. Connect with the customer on an emotional level. Show that you know what it’s like to be in their shoes. Say, “I understand how that would be upsetting.” or “I see what you mean.” This will help build trust with the caller. Once you do that, you can lead them into the details of your solution. Say these things in a real way. If it sounds canned, you’ll break all the rapport you’ve just built.
  7. Maintain a positive attitude. Being positive is great for building rapport with a client. They may need to vent first, so let them. Once done, you can outline the steps you see to resolve the issue and ask for their agreement that this is the right solution. This helps build your credibility as you are doing precisely what they requested. You heard them and took action.
  8. Tell the truth. There’s no substitute for honesty. If you know, say so. If you don’t know, admit it. Credibility takes years to build. In the case of a business, it’s their reputation, which has intrinsic value. In the age of social media, it doesn’t take much for a negative video or a bad experience to go viral. Commit to getting back to someone if you can’t solve their problem right away. If you can’t solve their problem at all, tell the caller you will take it up internally so the company can address the issue long term.

3. How to build rapport with patients

Here are some things to think about, especially when building rapport with patients. This advice is not meant to replace professional or medical advice.

  1. Get to know them personally. They are more than a patient, they are a person. Getting to know what they like/dislike, their family, friends and their thoughts/fears is a critical part of rapport building.
  2. Show that you are human. To many people, hospitals are scary and impersonal places. By showing that you are human, you can make the patient feel more at ease. An example is saying, “I’m your nurse Sasha. We’re going to get to know each other really well. Whatever you need, call me, and when you feel any pain, you ring that button right away.
  3. Maintain eye contact. When you look someone in the eye, you can convey compassion and empathy. Though your patient may not always be able to look you in the eye due to discomfort or shyness, they will want to know that you can and do.
  4. Keep lines of communication open. Are they talkative? Do they verbalize their feelings and thoughts? Or are they quiet, showing more through facial expressions and body language? Find out how they like to communicate and talk to them that way. Then ask them to tell you how they are feeling, so they know you care and will help.
  5. Always do what you say. If you say you are coming back at noon to take them to a test or to check in on them, always follow through. Even if the test is canceled, arrive when you say you are going to and give them an update.

Keep in mind this axiom: Underpromise and Overdeliver. Patients’ lives are filled with waiting and anxiety. Be someone they can trust will do as they say.

4. How to build rapport with students

When there is rapport between the teacher and their students, both feel there is a personal connection between them. There are three main benefits of rapport for students, as described by Auburn University undergraduates in a study done in 2001.

They are:

  1. It increases the student’s enjoyment of the course and the teacher.
  2. They are motivated to attend class more often.
  3. They are more focused and attentive in class.

Here are some tips for creating good rapport with your students[13]:

  • Call your students by name.
  • Learn a bit about each student: their interests, major, friends, aspirations.
  • Tell personally relevant stories in class to illustrate your point.
  • Be available before and after class so you can chat with your students.
  • Explain your course policies, so the students understand what’s required of them and why. Use email so your students can access you easily, and you can reach them just as quickly.
  • Focus on active learning. Create an interactive, vibrant learning environment.
  • Always praise your students who comment and ask questions either during class or outside of it.
  • Be enthusiastic and passionate about what you teach and convey it in your voice and body language.
  • Make a joke – or two. It may be an easy-going topic that day, have fun. If it’s WWII, make three jokes, minimum.
  • Be humble and self-deprecating so your students are not intimidated, and see you as human.
  • Make eye contact with each student to show you see them and want to connect with them individually. Keep the timing light, try not to stare or hold contact too long.
  • Be respectful.
  • Smile!

5. How to build rapport with strangers

Robin Dreeke, formerly of the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Department, has written a book called “It’s Not All About “Me.” The Top 10 Techniques for Building Rapport with Anyone.” In it, he goes over what he learned in a 20+ year career about connecting with people who didn’t necessarily want to communicate with him in hostage negotiations, criminal investigations, etc.

Here are the goods on charming people in under 10 minutes.

  1. Give them a short time frame for their attention. Say you “have to run” at the outset when you first meet them. Then they will know this is not a long-term conversation commitment and will warm up to you faster.
  2. Smile. Number 2 on Dale Carnegie’s list of How to Make Friends and Influence People. People who smile are much more welcoming and non-threatening. Always match your words with your body language.
  3. Speak slowly. When you talk in a measured and enunciated way, people understand you better, and you gain credibility quickly. The opposite is also true. Those who speak fast can seem nervous, and as a result, they don’t inspire confidence.
  4. Ask for help with something small. When a request is simple, takes a small amount of time, and is non-threatening, we are wired to help. It actually feels wrong not to help. It’s a great way to start a conversation or get information from someone. Try something simple like, “Do you have a pen?” or “Can I borrow your charger for a minute?”
  5. Listen and hold off the need to share your story. People who can listen and allow others the time and space to be the star attraction for as long as they need to be, build rapport quickly. Listening without judgment and attentively shows you value the speaker above yourself at that moment.

Empathizing with someone is a very effective way to show non-judgment. Saying, “You’re really holding your stress well. It can’t be easy.” When you say this, it validates them and causes them to feel closer to you.

  1. Enacting the Give & Take conversation. It can become uncomfortable when someone is very introverted, or they’ve talked a lot, and because they are not used to talking much, they clam up. That’s a good time to inject something personal about yourself in the conversation. Things like, “I have a crushing headache. Do you have any ibuprofen?” This takes the pressure off the other person and shows you are friendly.
  2. Offer them something they either want or need. When you give someone a gift of a compliment, a favor, or a box with a bow on it, everyone wants to reciprocate with at least a thank you or something equal in value.

An example could be, “I’m heading out to grab a coffee. Do you want anything?” or “Your presentation was amazing. Could I get a copy of your deck later on?” This, together with your suspended ego, which allows others to shine first, makes your relationship valuable to them.

  1. Expect nothing, and you won’t be disappointed. Taking this approach to your meeting means, if the person does not want to connect with you, your ego will not let you be disappointed, angry or hurt. If you displayed any of these emotions to your new friend, it would take away any possibility of bonding with them in the future.
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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

Go to Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “How to Build Rapport”

  1. This site has very good, concrete information on how to make friends. But what if we’re the type that’s always bullied and looked down upon due to looks, awkwardness, and ethnicity? What if we already do a lot of what you’ve written about, but we’re still treated poorly due to factors we’re not able to control? That means we have to settle for no friends, or put up with hurtful friends, and gaining very little out of the friendship. But it can get unbearable to be completely alone.

    Reply
  2. Awesome tips. I was hoping sometime you’d make an article directed at teenagers/high school students, as we tend to face the reoccurring problem of making friends, starting conversations, etc.
    It would also be helpful to learn how to start a conversation when you are “forced” to have one. For instance, if you are put into groups at school and you must work together.

    Thanks!

    Reply

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