Rapport 101 in NLP (with a bit of research back-up)

RapportNote: this is an expansion of an earlier article, What is Rapport in NLP?

I’m sure that many times when you’re out at a bar, you will have noticed couples on dates. I’m also sure that even if they are right across the other side of the room, you can tell how well the date is going just by looking at them.

When the date is going well, and the couple are enjoying each other’s company, it will look almost as if their movements are synchronised. The conversation flows smoothly, they seem to have a great sense of timing so they don’t talk across each other, they might both take a sip of their drinks at the same time, and usually their postures will more or less mirror each other.

That couple are in rapport with each other. You know what it feels like – you’re in harmony, you have a feeling of shared understanding, and of being at one with each other. Unless rapport has been established, two people won’t trust each other and probably won’t even hear each other correctly.

We have all created rapport many times – when we’re with an old friend, or when we meet someone and it feels like we’ve known them all our lives. People tend to think it just happens, but we can establish rapport deliberately. Remember that ‘rapport’, like ‘communication’ or ‘harmony’ is one of those class of words that in NLP we call ‘nominalisations’ – in other words, it’s a process but it gets talked about as if it’s a thing. Rapport isn’t a thing, it’s a process – so there are things you can do to make it happen.

Something that the founders of NLP noticed a long time ago is that people who like each other tend to unconsciously copy each other’s posture and the timing of movements, so that they get into sync with each other. Quite usefully, it works the other way too – when we match the posture, timing, energy levels and words of another person, they tend to feel more at ease with us.

Studies have shown that, for example, waitresses get higher tips if they repeat back your order using your words, that matching someone’s head movements (with a few seconds delay) makes them more persuadable, and that matching some of a person’s behaviours in a speed-dating session – verbal, non-verbal, or both – makes it more likely they will want to see you again.

Neuroscience research is now backing this up. Have you ever walked down the street when you’ve just come off the phone to someone you really like, or you’re thinking of the holiday you’re going on tomorrow, or maybe you’re remembering a really funny joke.  You’re walking down the street with a big, stupid grin on your face – and have you noticed that people coming the other way, sometimes even quite attractive ones, will smile back at you?

What’s going on there? Scientists have now discovered “mirror neurons” in the brain (the brains of monkeys, at least – as usual in neuroscience, opinions differ, more research is needed, etc) that appear to lead you to reflect back actions you see in someone else, or at least give you the impulse to do so. When somebody smiles at you, the part of your brain that controls the muscles involved in smiling lights up, and you probably find yourself smiling a bit too. In this way, emotions spread between people – something that psychologists call ’emotional resonance’.

To read some books on NLP, you would think that all you have to do to get into rapport with someone is to match their posture. There’s a bit more to it than that. I wonder if you’ve ever run into someone who’s trying to sell you something – maybe those people who come door to door and try to make you switch your electricity provider – and they’ve maybe read a book on NLP or had just a little bit of training, and you can see them very obviously matching your posture. You can see it a mile off.

As an NLP practitioner, you would probably find this funny; someone else who hasn’t yet encountered NLP might find it offensive, as if the salesperson was mocking them, or even a scary attempt at manipulation.

So there’s more to it than just matching someone’s posture. Psychologists have identified three elements that all need to be there in order for rapport to happen:

  • mutual attention – each person is tuning in to the other
  • shared positive feeling – this is mostly conveyed by non-verbal messages
  • synchrony – where people unconsciously respond to each others’ movements and gestures, so it’s almost like a dance

Source: Linda Tickle-Degnen & Robert Rosenthal (1990) The Nature of Rapport and Its Nonverbal Correlates, Psychological Inquiry, 1:4, 285-293

All three elements – mutual attention, shared positive feeling, and synchrony – have to be present. So in a boxing match, you have two out of the three elements: the fighters are certainly paying attention to each other, and their movements are tightly synchronised and responding to each other, but the shared positive feeling is not there.

In another article, What ‘Classic’ NLP Doesn’t Tell You About Rapport, I described a situation where an NLP practitioner was matching my gestures, but at the ‘wrong’ points in the conversation, giving it a strange ‘disjointed’ quality. In that case, the mutual attention and shared positive feeling were there (at least until the strangeness of the gesturing started to erode it), but the synchrony wasn’t.

In any interaction that’s not based on fighting, you need rapport to get your outcome. In a conversation, neither of you will get anywhere until you have established rapport. Rapport clears the static from the communication, so that your messages have a greater chance of being received as sent.

So, given that you are paying attention, and that you are conveying positive feeling – which due to emotional resonance and mirror neurons, you will probably get reflected back, at least after a while, what do you do to establish rapport?

That’s the subject of the next article.

Image by ‘katagaci’ at sxc.hu

© 2013 – 2022, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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