Three friends. Or are they?
Three friends. Or are they?

By definition, rapport is a close relationship between people that includes empathy, understanding, and a feeling of being in sync.

Does that happen instantly? No. Can you fake it? Not well enough.

In the last decade, there’s been renewed interest in rapport research as marketers search for ways to exploit it. After all, rapport is the ultimate in liking, and people buy from people they like. Look it up; you’ll find no shortage of resources claiming to teach you how to “create” rapport “instantly” and make more sales.

It doesn’t work. Here’s why.

First, they teach you to mirror body language. There are two problems. One is, it’s not so much about copying body language as whether it’s truly synchronized. When you match another person too quickly, it’s associated with anxiety and it looks forced. Like people on a blind date, determined to make it work, it’s awkward. If you match another person outside of their personal window of acceptance, it’s like you’re not really paying attention. The other problem is, while matching body language is often a part of rapport, it’s not a key ingredient. If you screw it up, you’ve compromised the more important parts. People won’t always be able to articulate it, but they’ll recognize the mechanical aspect of intentional matching and it will feel off. At best. There’s a risk they’ll feel mocked.

Second, real rapport develops spontaneously, but not always instantaneously. It depends on the situation. If two people are cognitively involved in a structured task together (like a colleague and I working on a research project), we’re much more likely to establish rapport, and establish it very quickly, than two strangers in an unstructured setting, like a party, or cold-calling. This is because when people are mentally involved in structured tasks, it supports flow, which in turn supports rapport.

Third, people know rapport is fake when it’s not consistent. For example, if a salesperson develops rapport with a client, it might seem real the first time. If the salesperson has a bad day, or is dealing with some highly emotional stuff in personal life (positive or negative), it affects external behavior, so the actions that seemed to indicate rapport the first time will be “off.” A skilled salesperson will be able to remain mindful and moderate responses, but the cognitive strain will lead to a stress backfire. It’s another big risk: not only is rapport gone, but now there’s also distrust.

Think of any kids' party. Who gets paid to act friendly?
Think of any kids’ party. Who gets paid to act friendly?

A good test of rapport is mutual empathy. Read it again, mutual empathy. If you’re trying to develop rapport and you’re showing empathy but the other person isn’t, it’s not mutual, therefore, not rapport. If you’re attending to the conversation but the other person isn’t paying complete attention, it’s not rapport. If you’re selling, the other person is thinking about budgets, needs, benefits…it’s not rapport.

What can you do? First, understand that creating rapport is not the same thing as building a relationship. I don’t have to feel like a salesperson is my BFF in order to buy something! I do need to feel I can trust the person. So the other thing I’d suggest is to practice active listening and empathy to develop trust with people. Blend that naturally with a little charisma or gentle persuasion, and it will generate the same sense of openness and spontaneity of rapport without risk to you.

 – Adina

P.S. As always, your comments and questions are welcome. If there’s a topic you’d like to cover, let me know that too – I’m happy to dig into some research if I don’t have the info for you. No really, I am! It’s like a treasure hunt!


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