Everyone has known an Eric. He was the person who could join a crowd and seem to know everyone moments later. Walk with him into a crowded pub, and in minutes he would be laughing and moving from person to person as if he had been a regular there for years.
It was always fun to be with him because he was a party waiting to happen; he just needed one more person to begin. Our Eric was someone we watched closely, bewildered by his skill at conversation and the effortless way he linked with the people he had just met. While the rest of us sat like wallflowers, Eric spoke to people like he had known them for years, regardless of whether he was in a pub, shopping in a store, or waiting for a bus.
Maybe it was his ready laugh, love of a joke, or genuine interest in what people had to say that created the bond; we are still not sure. The outcome of the interaction was always the same—people opened up to him wherever he went.
Having watched our “Erics,” there must be something about them that attracts people, something that allows them to quickly become familiar and comfortable to be with. Erics are like the wizards of rapport. But what is rapport?
What things do you think of when you think of someone like Eric? What is it about our “Erics” that links people so quickly?
What Is Rapport?
If we were to watch long and hard, there is likely to be a structure or strategy to the approach, if only we could discern it. If one reads the research on rapport, it revolves around the indications, verbal and physical, that rapport is present. The research also focuses on moods and emotions that may increase or decrease the level of rapport, but none deals with the structure of obtaining rapport. If I do this, then this, and then this—ta-da!—rapport! There must be a way to be an Eric since he can consistently create rapport with so many of those he meets.
Let’s examine some of the aspects of rapport, beginning first with its definition from the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (fourth edition).
What is rapport?
rap•port: Relationship, especially one of mutual trust or emotional affinity.
Trust? Relationship? Clearly then, rapport must change over time. It is unlikely we trust someone we have just met in the same way we trust an old friend or family member. Yet we claim to be “in rapport” with the new acquaintance but say we are “comfortable with” an old friend to describe the relationship.
It may seem we speak of rapport more often with people we just meet, but if we assume a relationship and mutual trust, then rapport is much more evident with people with whom we have a history. Maybe it is the freshness of the meeting that causes us to focus on the term rapport with someone just met. We try harder since it is certainly more difficult to engage someone we have known only mere moments than to relax in a comfortable relationship that has taken years to build.
In part, it may be the circumstances of the meeting that affects rapport. There is a significant difference in the relationship with salespeople if we approach them versus they approach us. In the first case, they satisfy a need of ours to find or explain a product, while in the second, they are trying to sell us something.
In the second situation, there is a trust issue we must evaluate before deciding to continue the relationship. In the first instance, we were able to select the salesperson, making them somehow less threatening. There was no ulterior motive behind their actions since we approached them.
However, the salesperson who solicits us must establish trust and open a short-term relationship with a customer. Even a customer who is predisposed to purchase may be put off by the demeanor of the salesperson. Someone who is trying too hard to be friendly or helpful creates suspicion and distrust of their motives. Since trust is at the core of rapport, doing anything that makes one wonder about an individual’s motives is counterproductive.
Yet we have all met someone with whom we just “clicked.” It felt like we had known them for years when only minutes had passed. If you could observe yourself from across the room, you would note the mirroring of behavior—the body positions similar, tone of voice and pacing identical, common interests exchanged, and a kindred spirit found.
Beginning an Interview
This is the same situation an interviewer finds themselves in when beginning an interview with a dishonest employee. From the associate’s point of view, there is a veil of suspicion, uncertainty, and fear surrounding the meeting that the interviewer must overcome.
Every interview course you attend will offer the advice to establish rapport with the subject. What they fail to do is tell you how to go about obtaining rapport. What signals can we observe to determine if there is rapport between two people?
When people are in rapport, their bodies naturally begin to match one another in body position, breathing, and even in speech patterns. Non-verbal behaviors, such as smiling, good eye contact, body orientation, mimicking posture, and uncrossed legs and arms, support the feeling of warmth and having “clicked” with the other person.
This mirroring of behavior is the result of rapport, not the cause of it. Many people incorrectly think that merely sitting or posing the way the other person positions themselves will generate rapport. There is some anecdotal research that suggests intentionally mirroring another’s behavior may actually irritate them.
So how do we link with that new person? We unconsciously do it each time we meet someone new, but some of us do it better than others.
Some think that rapport means you must create a long-term relationship before you begin a conversation, but this creates an awkward, strained attempt when the other person wishes to move into the conversation. Interviewers often go too far in their efforts to make that link. One question or a forced common experience could leave the conversation flat and the subject thinking, “He is trying too hard to be my friend. Why would he do that? I am not sure I can trust him.”
Remember you are talking with the person, not at them. When you listen to an interview, it is only a couple of questions that separate trust from distrust.
It seems with the newly met individual, there are social norms at play in the opening dialogue that must be conformed to by both parties. We exchange names and then begin the ritual of finding out about one another, looking for common experiences. Social hierarchy, personal need, and sometimes just personality come into play.
Think about it: what is rapport in the context of your professional environment? How do you use it? How do you define and achieve it? What are the applications you use in the interview?
This article was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2017. This post was updated February 8, 2018.