What ‘Classic’ NLP Doesn’t Tell You About Rapport (Part II) – The Science Behind Rapport

(Part I of this article is here)

Emotional Attunement And Synchrony

Psychological research backs up the conventional NLP view of rapport, suggesting that “synchrony” of physical movements seems to help the sending and receiving of moods. Many pertinent studies are summarised in Daniel Goleman’s classic Emotional Intelligence4. Frank Bernieri’s studies in classrooms found that that teachers and students felt more friendly and enthused the more their movements were coordinated. Bernieri told Goleman, “How awkward or comfortable you feel with someone is at some level physical. You need to have compatible timing, to coordinate your movements, to feel comfortable.”4

Other studies suggest that emotions can be transmitted from one person to another, particularly by facial expressions, so one could reasonably expect that two people in rapport would adopt shared body language that goes with the shared emotion they are feeling.5 Research by Robert Levenson found that mimicking someone’s physiological patterns (while watching them on videotape) makes it easier to read their feelings. This all supports what we already know to be true about rapport.4

Another piece of research by Daniel Stern on the interactions between mothers and babies suggests there is something more going on:

“A baby squeals with delight, for example, and the mother affirms that delight by giving the baby a gentle shake, cooing, or matching the pitch of her voice to the baby’s squeal. Or a baby shakes his rattle, and she gives him a quick shimmy in response” (my italics).

This process, called “attunement” by Stern, is thought to give the baby a feeling of emotional connection and reassurance, and differs from just imitation:

“If you just imitate a baby, that only shows you know what he did, not how he felt. To let him know you sense how he feels, you have to play back his inner feelings in another way. Then the baby knows he is understood.” 4

The key here seems to be responding to a given action, rather than matching it exactly (though matching the level of emotional intensity in the response to that shown in the original action seems to be key). The timing of the mother’s actions (each response following the baby’s action immediately) is crucial in establishing reassurance and connection; a sequence of shakes, coos or looks unrelated to specific actions by the infant would not work as well, however closely they matched in tone and physiology. Similar action-specific responses are crucial to establishing a feeling of comfort in adult interactions.

The only reference to responding to specific messages as an element of rapport-building that I could find in the NLP literature was in Richard Bolstad’s Transforming Communication. He mentions ‘minimal encouragers’ – “brief grunts or words of acknowledgment which tell the speaker that you are still awake and listening.”6

He also advocates the use of ‘reflective listening’ – reflecting the feelings and the information that a speaker expresses by restating it back to them in your own words – as an essential skill in establishing rapport. Interestingly, this conversational technique (also known as ‘active listening’) is often scorned by some NLP’ers because it takes no account of matching sensory predicates7. Bolstad suggests that matching sensory predicates makes reflective listening more effective; my experience suggests that even without predicate matching, the verbal response supplied by reflective listening is an effective rapport-builder.

In the final part of this article we look at the importance of non-verbal responses, behavioural reinforcement as a rapport-builder, and the connection to ‘flow’ states.

4. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury (1996)

5. Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1998)

6. Richard Bolstad, Transforming Communication, Prentice Hall NZ (2004)

7. “Predicates”?!! Here’s a good definition from Andy Bradbury’s NLP Glossary:

“In NLP, the word predicate is used in the sense of implying something.  In particular, we talk about the “sensory predicates” which refers to words or phrases that imply that a particular sensory system is in use.”

Read Part III – Behavioural Reinforcement And Rapport

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


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