What ‘classic’ NLP doesn’t tell you about rapport (Part I)

Rapport (n): The process of establishing and maintaining a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between two or more people, the ability to generate responses from another person1 (from the French rapporter, to carry back).

Why Matching And Mirroring Are Not Enough

From Frogs Into Princes onwards, NLP – in common with many other therapeutic approaches – has rightly emphasised rapport as the essential foundation of any communication. One of the selling points of NLP over the years has been that we provide explicit “how to’s” for achieving rapport, rather than just leaving it as something that “just happens” between people who happen to click. But what if, all this time, we’ve failed to notice the most important element of the process? What if there’s more to it than matching and mirroring? And what is pacing actually doing when it works?

At the NLP conference one year, I was taking part in a pairs exercise with another master practitioner. As I talked, using some fairly unconscious hand gestures as I often do, I noticed that my partner was “matching” my gestures – even when he wasn’t speaking. The effect was a little disconcerting. I’d never experienced a “real life” conversation where this happened, and it certainly didn’t have the effect of deepening rapport.

Although it wasn’t a big deal, and we went on and concluded the exercise successfully, I did wonder how it was that an NLP master practitioner came to have rapport skills which in this respect at least were inferior to those of the average joe on the street. I imagine that his practitioner course, like any worth its salt, would have told him to match gestures when only speaking himself. All it would have taken, though, was for his attention to have wandered momentarily during that section of the course – and for this strange behaviour not to have been picked up on any subsequent exercises on his practitioner or master practitioner courses.

After all, though he may have missed that little instruction, he was certainly in tune with the letter of the way that rapport is taught and talked about in NLP. The conventional wisdom is summed up in the phrase “When people are like each other, they like each other”2. Rapport is to be achieved by matching and mirroring various aspects of the other person’s behaviour: voice tone and tempo, body language, breathing, and so on. And when we have achieved sufficient rapport by this “pacing”3 of the other person, we can go on to “lead” them; the other person will match or follow some new action (for example, recrossing our legs or gradually slowing down the tempo of breathing) that we initiate.

Generally, in exercises in the training room or in real life, we find that this leads to the desired result of a feeling of comfort and trust, and a removal of unnecessary impediments to communication. But what if an element of this success was due to something that human beings do unconsciously anyway?

Find out what that element is, and the psychology behind it, in the next part of this article.

1. Definition taken from Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour, Introducing Neuro-LinguisticProgramming, HarperCollins (2003)

2. From Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

3. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Volume 1, Meta Publications (1975): this is where the term “pacing” first appears, though the authors restrict themselves to a discussion of Erickson’s verbal pacing only.

© 2009 – 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Stephen Naylor

    Andy, does ‘intent’ deseserve a mention in the rapport process…

    Whithout getting all ‘woo woo’ on your ass 🙂 Personally I have noticed that simply holding and focusing upon the intention that I wish to establish rapport seems for me to bring out the natural unconscious behavouirs that I need to acheive it.

    Just a thought.


  2. Andy Smith

    Thanks Stephen,

    Yes it would do – the intention will lead to attention being given to the person (it’s unlikely that one would be so focused on the intention that one would ignore the human being there in front of you, but I suppose it could happen).

    BTW there’s a good Persuasion ebook that you may be interested in…

  3. Lorraine Maddams

    Any thoughts on cross-cultural rapport building? (Especially after your time in the Middle East). I am currently in Greece where I find it very difficult to ‘read’ people and matching and mirroring is a bit of a challenge when people’s English is hesitant and they are concentrating hard rather than ‘being themselves’. Greeks being themselves can be confusing to a Brit as they use a range of hand and body gestures unfamiliar to us and the tone and timbre of the language too is quite different to English.

    1. Andy Smith

      This will sound like a cop-out, but – the longer you hang out with Greeks the easier it will be. Just remember to ask yourself ‘what speed are they running at?’, match that, and let your unconscious mind do the rest. And smile a lot.

  4. Nick Heap

    Interesting. It shows the flaw in following any technique slavishly, not just NLP. If you decide that the other person is fascinating, unique and knowing her or him better will be really important before you meet, you will probably do much that is necessary to establish rapport when you do meet. It also helps to decide beforehand that you will deal with any feelings the conversations stirs up in you after it’s over!

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