Five ways to build rapport at work

SmartCompany, October 10, 2017

When someone is not interested in what you have to say, cuts you off, or ignores the way you are feeling, it blocks a productive relationship from developing.

For great internal and external business relationships, we need to build rapport when we meet face-to-face, on the phone and even in writing.

If you’re shy or reserved, building rapport with others can be challenging. You may have observed some lucky people entering a room, starting conversations and within minutes, having others relaxed and laughing. How do they do it?  Bob Hawke was known for it, as was Bill  Clinton. Oprah has it — well, on television anyway. In fact, television and Instagram (and social media more generally) create a frequently false rapport, much of it through editing and production values or endless curation, so any parallels stop right there.

Rapport, or easy and harmonious communication, nevertheless takes some doing. The five essentials involve:

1. Awareness of others

When you sail into a room full of semi-strangers, sharpen your awareness. Observe what the others are doing (or not doing). They may be silent, wary, or relatively relaxed. If it’s the former, the rapport building needs to begin with putting yourself (a little) on the line.

Begin by asking a question or two, tell an anecdote or make an astute observation on a topic or recent business development. One or two of those scrutinising you will begin to respond, asking you a question or offering a return observation. The thaw is beginning. It might take several goes, but communication is up and running. It works just the same when you’re dealing with people you know quite well.

2. Showing interest

Show interest in what’s going on and in those you are meeting, or speaking to on the phone or by email. Use positive body language, especially eye contact for face-to-face interactions. Make sure your tone of voice expresses interest. Interest can mean asking great questions, or simply responding effectively.

It’s sometimes up to the protagonist (you in this instance) to muster engagement from the people you’re encountering or the reason why you’re all there or communicating in the first place. This could be at a conference or a staff get-together after work. It could be a customer service encounter, or an email enquiry.

Don’t make your questions intrusive. Be interested and allow others to expand and talk. Yep, sometimes you have to fake it until you make it.  By “fake”, I don’t mean being insincere. Just take an interest in the other person and forget yourself for a few minutes. Give them a chance to warm up.

3. Sensitivity

Being sensitive to someone’s need or their mood requires you to be alert and switched on. Obviously, you don’t walk into a room and immediately crack a joke. For all you know, before you arrived, the others had been informed of a colleague’s illness or death. Or their manager or team-mate has just made a contentious remark that has left everyone seething. You can’t do a Jim Carrey in Liar Liar and begin roasting everyone around the boardroom table. Being culturally sensitive takes thought and insight, so if in doubt, leave it out!

4. Choosing the right words

This doesn’t mean giving such attention to what you say that inhibition is the result, but it is important to pay attention to what others are saying and how they say it. Then, pitch your words accordingly.

In a group, it’s sometimes wise to choose a person whose expression and stance indicate likely receptiveness, warmth or reciprocal humour. Don’t necessarily fasten on the quietest or edgiest looking individual. Quiet people can be very rewarding to converse with, but there are many shades of quiet. Your bright, guileless remark to the wrong person can trigger an explosion. Sometimes this can’t be helped as they were a primed bomb anyway. If they’re failing to respond favourably, tactfully move on.

And when you rely only on phone or email, choose your words carefully and build in a positive tone.

5. Joining the dots

By listening to others, noting the tenor of their remarks, and the subtleties of their behaviours and aspirations, you can begin to improvise, like a musician.

No-one wants to attend a concert full of cacophonous racket. You can choose to play with the orchestra (or band), or perhaps be the conductor, encouraging others’ bravura solos, performances and fusion of parts. You can even be a constructive critic of the “music” you’re hearing, but be gentle, receptive to others’ perspectives and even inject some mild humour.

Sometimes genuine rapport in a room can only begin with some well-placed truth, provided that a person is mindful of consequences. This is why rapport to some extent involves “joining dots” — you have an idea of what you’d like to achieve, or how everyone can work and socialise better together. This doesn’t mean imposing a secret agenda, just facilitating everyone’s chance to be something bigger and better.

Observe people who build great rapport. Watch what they do. Think about the way you build rapport, or don’t. If people don’t warm to you as quickly as they do to other people, what could you do better?