What Is Rapport, and Why Is It Helpful in Interviews?

What is rapport? How do you use it? Why is it important to achieve?

what is rapport

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?

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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?

Creating Familiarity

One of the most interesting aspects of rapport is its relationship to curiosity. Now, curiosity could be fostered by any number of things—a piece of jewelry, presence at a location, an idle comment, or an observation of an event. When we talked about “our Erics” in the introduction, they were people everyone enjoyed being around. We wonder if it wasn’t peoples’ desire to hear the next quip or share the next laugh that allowed them to join in conversation. It really is curiosity about what will happen next, but done in a way so as not to invade the person’s private thoughts.

Personal questions are generally best avoided during the early part of the conversation since people will not willingly share this information with strangers. The more of these questions you ask, the stranger you will appear. However, if you have observed a personal interaction the individual has just engaged in, you might make a comment to them that seems to reflect their personal feelings. If you are able to do this, it may open a more intimate conversation.

Familiarity is a way to make people comfortable. Walking in the same neighborhood each day allows one to fit in with the landscape. You belong here. You don’t cause trouble. You extend a wave to say good morning. You are OK.

A child psychologist in Texas uses this idea in his practice. When a child first comes to him, he puts them in a room with some toys alone. He then enters the room for a moment to get something and smiles, next a smile and hello, and then a short conversation before he leaves again. By the time he is ready to sit with the youngster, he has met them several times and is judged as safe. Now the business of learning more about the child and their interests can begin. It is all right to talk because it is safe to do so.

By contrast, someone making a personal comment about you without the comfort of being familiar sends up the red flags of danger. The salesman who pursues your interests too quickly and seems to try too hard to help scares you, which causes a withdrawal. His intentions are suspect. This is the same in an interview where the investigator presses for an admission too strongly. The admission is too important—the interviewer is trying too hard to get me to say something—I don’t trust them. This is not the breaking of trust because none yet existed; it is instead an uncertainty about the true motives of the individual.

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Losing Rapport

In long-term relationships where rapport has converted to trust, there is a feeling of comfort and familiarity born over the years. Think about what happens when this type of trust is betrayed by lies. Is it ever really possible to enjoy the relationship in the same way again? It seems as though there would always be that part of the mind that would wonder and watch for the other shoe to drop. Trust may never be truly given again.

Should an interviewer be surprised then, when they lie and are discovered, that they are not trusted? At the beginning of an interview, there is only the initial social rapport in place, and maybe the individual’s curiosity about their future, holding things together. Now when the individual identifies a deception or is told incorrect information, their distrust is strengthened, and their resistance to believe anything the interviewer says increases.

In this situation, the presentation of even real evidence may be insufficient because of the investigator’s earlier lies. Rapport is irretrievably broken, and without a long relationship to fall back upon, there is little hope to salvage the encounter.

Developing rapport is the part of a conversation that can be easy or strained, depending on the participants’ feelings and points of view. When one party is ready to move into a more pertinent discussion and the other fails to notice this, the connection is lost. The interviewer needs to observe the individual and determine the pace of the conversation. If the interviewer fails to move at the subject’s pace, it may engender resistance, anger, and impatience, all of which may impede the interview.

Sometimes the amount of rapport necessary can be predicted by the personality and business practices of the subject. Type A personalities generally are bored by the preliminaries and anxious to get to the heart of the matter. If one were to engage in idle chit-chat with them, they would likely become frustrated or irritated at the delay. Determining how the individual handles day-to-day business will often give the interviewer an insight into the person’s preferred pattern.

Transferring Rapport

Another means of establishing rapport is to transfer rapport with someone you both know. The common relationship with a third party moves the level of rapport between the two strangers more swiftly because they both trust the same person.

Using a supervisor to introduce the interviewer often helps quicken the initial development of a relationship. This can be particularly effective where a participatory accusation is contemplated. The participatory accusation encourages the subject to lie believing there is no evidence of their wrongdoing. Careful questioning traps the individual in their lies and provides the proof of their deception. The interviewer may begin by asking the supervisor questions to open the door for the subject’s questioning.

When we deal with the idea of rapport in interviews, the primary mistake is attempting to develop the deep level of rapport we have with old friends. Unless the individual is going to be questioned for days, such as in a serious criminal or terrorist debriefing, the social rapport is sufficient for our needs in employee interviews.

This article was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2017. This post was updated July 24, 2018.

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