The Basic Idea
Do you know that feeling when the person you are talking to just gets it? Sometimes, we naturally click with people. We almost instantaneously feel comfortable sharing with them because we feel understood and seen. Other times, it takes a while for our walls to come down and for us to build a trusting relationship with someone. Either way, once trust has been established between us and someone else, we are more likely to communicate openly and honestly, to cooperate with them, and feel positive after our interactions with that person.
Trust within a relationship or interaction is often a result of having rapport with another individual. Rapport is defined as a harmonious relationship, especially one “characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.” 1 When we have good rapport with someone, we have formed a close relationship with them that makes us feel connected. We are more likely to divulge information, listen to advice from, and accept the ideas from someone who has built good rapport with us.
Rapport might therefore be thought of as a tool an individual can leverage when communicating with others. For researchers, building rapport is important so that people participating in a study feel comfortable being honest and sharing personal details about themselves, which will lead to more meaningful insights.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Humanist Approach: a psychological approach that emphasizes looking at the uniqueness of each individual.3 Rapport takes a humanist approach as it is all about connecting with individuals, not about using one-size-fits-all tactics to persuade behavior.
Active Listening: a listening skill where someone gives full attention to the speaker and demonstrates their attentiveness through verbal and non-verbal cues, like agreeing by saying ‘Mhmm’ or making eye contact. Active listening helps build rapport.4
Transference: a phenomenon in psychotherapy where, due to a bond formed between therapist and patient, a patient unconsciously transfers their feelings towards someone to their therapist.5
Therapeutic/Working Alliance: a cooperative relationship between a client and therapist that leads to successful therapeutic outcomes. A therapeutic alliance is formed based on the conditions of therapy, the client’s attitude towards their therapist, the therapist’s style of relating, and the goals of the session being mutually understood and agreed upon.6
Mirroring: since research shows that we prefer people who we think are like us, mirroring is a technique used to match a person’s body language, appearance, temperament, way of speaking, and patterns to make them like you. 7
The investigation into rapport and its effect on communication and behavior began in the field of psychotherapy. In 1912, infamous Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hypothesized that for therapy to be productive, the analyst had to have an interest in and an understanding attitude towards the patient. In Freud’s opinion, it was best if the patient felt so connected to the therapist because of their attentiveness that they experienced transference. He thought if patients transferred their emotions and affection to their therapist, they would be more likely to reveal their unconscious thoughts.8 Today, however, there is much debate over whether transference has a positive or negative impact on psychotherapy.
As psychologists became interested in rapport and the impact of harmonious relationships between therapist and patient, they sought to understand how rapport could be built. In 1957, American psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard E. Farson coined the term active listening. Active listening was seen as a communication technique therapist could employ to build rapport with their patients. Rogers, who was a prominent figure in the foundation of humanistic psychology, suggested for a person to grow they need an environment that provides them with genuineness, acceptance, and empathy.9
Rogers also outlined what characteristics a therapist needed to embody for therapy to be successful.9 He proposed three fundamental characteristics: congruence, unconditional acceptance, and empathetic understanding. These characteristics help the patient feel understood and allow them to open up to their therapist.8 Through these traits, the therapist and patient form a cooperative alliance to work towards helping the patient, known as a therapeutic alliance.
Years later, occupational therapy researcher Linda Tickle-Degnen and behavioral psychologist Robert Rosenthal put forward a theory suggesting rapport depends on the dynamic structure of three interrelated components: mutual attentiveness, positivity, and coordination.11
- Mutual attentiveness refers to whether both people are focused on and interested in what the other person is saying.11
- Positivity means that friendliness and happiness are important components of building rapport, as they show there is mutual care and concern for one another.11
- Coordination is all about sharing. You share a common understanding and feel as though you share a similar vibe as the other person. Coordination can be achieved through synchronized actions or body language.11
Sometimes, these three components already exist and you naturally get along with someone. Other times, rapport has to develop slowly over time. Rapport can be created through physical appearance that someone connects with, good communication, by finding mutual interests, and by creating shared experiences.7 One effective way of building rapport is mirroring, which occurs when your actions sync up with another person’s.
While rapport was initially researched with regards to its ability to lead to successful therapy outcomes, the principles can be applied to multiple different fields. In education, rapport between a teacher and student causes students to enjoy the subject matter more and motivates them to pay more attention in class, both of which contribute to greater academic achievement.12 In negotiation, building rapport can allow us to persuade someone to act in a particular way or accept a deal. Police negotiation tactics aim to build a rapport with someone in crisis to persuade them not to continue with their actions. In the medical field, rapport between patient and doctor allows doctors to better understand what is going on with a patient, and makes patients more likely to follow their doctor’s advice.13
Economists have found benefits in applying rapport to sales tactics. Theoretical and empirical research for personal selling was, historically, directed towards finding techniques to convince people to purchase a product. It was all about making the sale, irrespective of the customers’ wants or needs. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, research demonstrated that tactics focused on forming a positive relationship between salesperson and client were more effective than attempting to persuade without first building a relationship.10
Although various psychologists have hypothesized which characteristics are necessary for building rapport, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to form a harmonious relationship. Sometimes, rapport instantly exists between two individuals, while other times, it takes weeks or months of communicating to build that relationship, with seemingly no rhyme or reason as to which avenue rapport takes. Since multiple factors determine how and why rapport is built, it is difficult to leverage as a tool. Moreover, since it is not easy to define rapport – it is more of a feeling – it’s difficult to study. Studies that have shown the effectiveness of rapport are usually based on self-reported feelings which are not always reliable.
Some people might question just how important rapport is – there might be other factors that matter more when it comes to encouraging particular behaviors. When it comes to therapy, is rapport the most important factor, or is it more important a therapist knows which kinds of questions get someone to open up? In education, does it matter for students to like their teachers, or do teachers need to find tactics to get them to complete their work irrespective of whether they like the course? In medicine, is it dangerous for doctors to be too friendly with their patients as it might decrease their perceived authority? These questions reflect the need for greater research evaluating the effectiveness of rapport in real-life situations.
The Rhythm of Rapport
One way to build rapport with others is through our body language. When interacting with others, mirroring, or the coordination of behavior, enables effective social exchange as synchronized actions make people feel like there is positive rapport and connectedness. Interested in further discovering the relationship between mirroring and rapport, social psychologist Lynden K. Miles and his colleagues conducted a study to see what precise characteristics of coordinated behavior causes perceived interpersonal connectedness.14
Sixty-six participants took part in Miles’ study and were told they would be asked questions about walking styles. For the experiment, half of the participants were shown a video animation of two individuals walking. Miles manipulated the animation so the movement of the two figures was different – some people would see the two figures walking simultaneously, their strides perfectly matching, and others would see their strides at completely opposite timesVariation between those two options was also shown to some participants. Participants then had to give a rapport rating from one to nine, with one being no rapport at all and nine being a high level of rapport. The other half of the participants experienced a similar task, but instead of a video, they listened to an auditory clip of two sets of footsteps.14
Miles found that the highest level of rapport was rated when the walkers were either in-phase or anti-phase movements. In-phase refers to instances where the actions of each individual are at equivalent points of the movement cycle (the foot lifts and extends at the same time), and anti-phase coordinator refers to instances where the actions of each individual are at opposite moments of the movement cycle (one person’s feet are together while the other person’s are at full stride). Lower levels of rapport were rated for anything in-between these two types of coordination. Miles speculated that both in-phase and anti-phase movements seem coordinated and creates the appearance of a social connection between interacting individuals. His study demonstrates that body language and movement can be leveraged as tools to create the appearance of rapport. 14
Rapport and the Prisoner’s Dilemma
You’ve likely heard of some version of the prisoner’s dilemma – a hypothetical situation where two people must make a choice between confessing or remaining silent and depending on what the other person chooses to do, will result in different length sentences. It might go something like this: if both people remain silent, they will each spend 1 year in prison. If one person remains silent and the other confesses, the person who remains silent spends ten years in prison while the other walks away scot free. If both people confess, they each spend three years in prison.
The hypothetical scenario can be altered to fit a number of different situations, and conditions are usually manipulated to see how different scenarios affect the outcome. A study conducted by Aimee Drolet, a specialist in consumer decision-making, sought to understand how visual access, which builds rapport, enhances cooperation, by designing a Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment. Drolet hypothesized that since rapport arises through an entrainment of positive expression, face-to-face interactions lead to the greatest rapport and makes parties more likely to cooperate.15
In the experiment, participants were told that they either represented the union, or the management of a company. They had to prepare for a meeting with the other where they would negotiate employee wages. The best outcome was for both sides to cooperate and come to an agreement, as strike costs would be detrimental and cause each side to lose more than coming to an agreement. Similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, the cooperative choice is the best choice for both parties. In one condition, participants were not allowed to meet before deciding on what wage they would offer, in the second, they were asked to envision meeting with the opponent, although they never did, and in the third, they had a face-to-face interaction with the opposition.15
Drolet found that participants who had a face-to-face interaction with the opposition were the most likely to cooperate, because they had built the foundations of rapport. Yet, even being asked to envision meetings made people more likely to cooperate, although not quite as much. The study demonstrates that rapport leads to increased cooperation and that rapport is best formed through face-to-face interaction.15
Related TDL Content
Unfortunately, even in the medical field, implicit bias causes professionals in the clinical settings to treat patients differently depending on their identity. Medical practitioners do not build rapport equally with all patients. One common bias has to do with weight – doctors are more likely to treat obese patients negatively, sometimes because they build less of a rapport with them. In this article, our contributor Sanketh Andhavarapu examines different implicit biases that come into play in the clinical field, including race, obesity, marital status, and gender.
One of the foundational aspects of rapport is its focus on the mutual – mutual understanding and mutual attentiveness. When people feel like the kindness and positivity are mutual, they are more likely to reciprocate. In this article, our contributor, Tiago Rodrigo, examines how reciprocity can lead to successful outcomes and focuses on how it is an incentive for innovation. Rodrigo takes a deep dive into Adobe’s Kickbox initiative, where employees were given resources and money to develop their own projects, which suggests creativity is built on trust.
- Definition of Rapport. (n.d.). Dictionary by Merriam-Webster. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rapport
- Rapport Quotes. (n.d.). A-Z Quotes. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/rapport.html
- Mcleod, S. (2020). Humanistic approach. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/humanistic.html
- Active Listening. (n.d.). Skills You Need. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/active-listening.html
- Vollmer, S. (2010, January 6). Transference. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/learning-play/201001/transference
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.). therapeutic alliance. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/therapeutic-alliance
- The Mind Tools Content Team. (2019). Building Rapport. Mind Tools. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/building-rapport.htm
- What is Rapport? Techniques for Relationship Building. (2018, May 17). Exploring Your Mind. https://exploringyourmind.com/what-is-rapport-techniques-for-relationship-building/
- Mcleod, S. (2014). Carl Rogers Theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/carl-rogers.html
- Coan, G. (1984). Rapport: Definitions and Dimensions. Advances in Consumer Research, 11, 333-336. https://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/6269/volumes/v11/NA-11
- Tickle-Degnen, L., & Rosenthal, R. (1990). The nature of rapport and its nonverbal correlates. Psychological Inquiry, 1(4), 285-293. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0104_1
- Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2001). Creating Positive Emotional Contexts for Enhancing Teaching and Learning. APS Observer, 12-13. https://www.socialpsychology.org/rapport.htm
- Ardito, R. B., & Rabellino, D. (2011). Therapeutic Alliance and Outcome of Psychotherapy: Historical Excursus, Measurements, and Prospects for Research. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(270). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00270
- Miles, L. K., Nind, L. K., & Macrae, C. N. (2009). The rhythm of rapport: Interpersonal synchrony and social perception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(3), 585-589. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2009.02.002
- Drolet, A. L., & Morris, M. W. (2000). Rapport in conflict resolution: Accounting for how face-to-face contact fosters mutual cooperation in mixed-motive conflicts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(1), 26-50. https://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.1999.1395