What ‘Classic’ NLP Doesn’t Tell You About Rapport (Part III) – ‘Behavioural Reinforcement’ and Rapport

(Read Part I of this article here)

(Read Part II of this article here)

The Importance Of Non-Verbal Responses

I once had some business dealings with the head of a video production company, a big guy who my colleagues (and I) found somewhat intimidating. After meeting him a couple of times, I realised that the secret of his unsettling demeanour was that he didn’t “do” rapport. Whether unconsciously or as a deliberate tactic, he failed to respond with the usual repertoire of nods, smiles and looks that normally send the non-verbal message “yes I hear you”.

As a good NLP’er I did my best to match him; when he made some off-colour joke (and his poor female employees had to simper along with it) I remained resolutely stone-faced. It seemed to work; as far as I could tell from the content of what he said and the rest of his behaviour, he respected me.

The whole episode brought home to me how much we normally rely on non-verbal responses; if you say something intended to be amusing and it doesn’t elicit at least a polite smile, it can be almost as disconcerting as when we put out our hand on meeting someone and they refuse to shake it.

Behavioural Reinforcement And Rapport

Anchoring, one of the central components of NLP, was inspired by Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning. Essentially, anchoring links a particular state to a specific stimulus, so that we can evoke or change states at will. Interestingly, academic psychology’s equally well-documented study of operant conditioning to shape behaviour seems to have had little influence on NLP so far. This is all the more surprising since behaviourism was a dominant model in psychology in the fifties and sixties – though perhaps the behaviourists’ insistence on treating subjective experience as an irrelevance, or in hardline cases denying its existence altogether, didn’t fit well with NLP as “the study of subjective experience”. This article suggests that the behaviourist concept of “positive reinforcement” can clarify our understanding of rapport and how to achieve it.

So what is positive reinforcement? “A reinforcer is anything that, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again.”8 Reinforcers in conversation between two people might be the laugh you get when you tell a joke, a nod when you say something you believe in, or even something as little as a grunted acknowledgement when you say hello.

The key element is that it the reinforcer is an immediate response to an action, providing instant feedback. This allows the reinforcer to work at the unconscious level (as the unconscious needs that proximity in time to make a link between the behaviour and the reinforcing response). I want to emphasise that reinforcers are not the same as rewards, which may be given long after the behaviour has happened – and consequently can require  the participation of the conscious mind to make the link.

Positive reinforcers can provide the unconscious mind with the information “Yes – you’re on the right track. Keep on doing more of this.” Subjectively this will be experienced as a feeling of comfort and ease – rather like the feeling which NLP manuals and textbooks traditionally describe as being one of the ways of knowing when you are in rapport.

“Flow” States And Feedback

In Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness9,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes “optimal experience” as something rather similar; a state in which we lose our self-consciousness because all our attention is on what we are doing. We have probably all experienced this when taking part in a stimulating conversation. Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi’s research reveals that people of all ages report positive moods most often when they are with friends.

One of that characteristics that Csikszentmihalyi defines as necessary for an activity to make entering a flow state possible is the presence of immediate feedback – such as the immediate, subtle non-verbal responses we get when we are in rapport with another person.

“That’s Right”

One of the standard early exercises for teaching Ericksonian hypnosis skills on many NLP trainings is the “That’s Right” exercise10. Apparently one way that Milton Erickson used to induce trance was to utter the reassuring phrase “That’s right” whenever the client showed some sign of trance. When this is done in the training room, “practitioners” are usually surprised at how rapidly the subject slips into a trance state – and the subject usually reports how pleasant the experience felt.

Clearly what Erickson is doing here – and what we are doing when we follow his example in the exercise – is reinforcing desired behaviour by encouraging it whenever it occurs. The result is that the behaviour being reinforced – showing signs of trance – happens more frequently, until very soon the subject enters trance completely.

It’s worth noticing that when a phrase such as “that’s right” is used without reference to any immediately preceding behaviour – as is sometimes done, for example, by inexperienced NLP trainers – it tends to lose rapport with an audience and may come across as patronising.

Matching and Mirroring vs. Reinforcement: An Example

Let’s say I’m working in an open plan office with a colleague, and I casually ask her a question. No reply. After a moment or two I look across at her – her body posture matches mine, she happens to be matching my rate of breathing, and even (were I to consciously notice it) my blink rate (let’s assume I know my colleague well enough to discount the possibility that she is mimicking my body language for purposes of mockery – in fact the thought doesn’t even cross my mind).

A moment or two more passes. I’m becoming quite uncomfortable. Has she heard me? Is she deliberately ignoring me? Have we reached a point yet where it wouldn’t be rude to repeat the question – and if so, should I repeat it louder?

My point is that in this situation all the matching and mirroring that she is doing is not creating a feeling of rapport – which according to the letter of the NLP textbooks, it should. In fact, I would welcome any sort of shift in posture, even if it takes her completely away from mirroring me; at least it would be some sort of response that I could take as a sign that she has heard me and that my communication has had some effect. Any kind of response would do.


Undoubtedly matching and mirroring do contribute to achieving rapport more rapidly and deeply. I believe that the responding to actions that Goleman describes between mother and baby (see Part I) – and which we can also observe or experience in any successful communication between adults – is a “missing piece” that the received wisdom of NLP has somehow overlooked. Matching in time, by responding to behaviour (and hence reinforcing it) is as important as matching posture in space. We need to “carry back” to our partners that their message has been heard and understood.

So when my exercise partner at the NLP conference mirrored my gestures when I was speaking, the reason it felt strange was that the timing was out – the gestures were not a response to what I was saying. When the boss of the video company made people feel uncomfortable, he did so by not responding – by suppressing the almost unconscious non-verbal responses that we would normally expect in conversation.

How could we have missed something so obvious? After all, even though responsiveness and reinforcement is not formally taught in the rapport segment of an NLP training, we still generate rapport rapidly during the exercises – and we don’t generally come a cropper when using the matching and mirroring skills we have learned later on in “real life”.

My guess is that the appropriate non-verbal responses that reinforce rapport, signal someone to continue speaking, and let the speaker know that they have been heard, are something that we do anyway. Our conscious intent to achieve rapport as good NLP’ers, in an exercise or a real-life situation such as meeting someone for the first time, may well amplify our non-verbal responses and reinforcers without us noticing. Because these responses are a part of being human, we are normally no more aware of them than the fish is aware of the water.

At the beginning of Frogs Into Princes, Bandler and Grinder state that “The basic unit of analysis in face-to-face conversation is the feedback loop.”11 As with so much else in their early work, we would benefit from exploring further the direction that the NLP pioneers so tantalisingly hinted at.


8. Karen Pryor, Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching And Training (Revised Edition), Ringpress Books (2002): an excellent introduction to the use of reinforcement in shaping behaviour, and the book that sparked off the idea for this article.

9. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Classic Work On How To Achieve Happiness,
Rider & Co (2002)

10. John Overdurf and Julie Silverthorn, Training Trances: Multi-Level Communication in Therapy and Training, Metamorphous Press (1995)

11. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Frogs Into Princes, Eden Grove Editions (1990).

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

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