Establishing Rapport—When in Rome…

Robert Frost said it best—“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/That wants it down.”

Walls keep cows in pastures and people in their comfort zones. In similar, wry New England style, Lake “Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg” is loosely translated from the Nipmuc (an Algonquian language) as “You fish on your side; I fish on my side; nobody fish in the middle.”

So what is the best way to get around a wall, to meet in the middle to fish? This is about establishing rapport. When two people sense that they are significantly different from one another, the differences create obstacles to rapport. The more ways two people differ, the more difficult rapport.


The goal for establishing rapport is to minimize differences in a way that is authentic and non-threatening. Richard Bandler and John Grinder found the secret to the magic of several famous psychotherapists, including Virginia Satir and Carl Rogers. To reach quick rapport with their patients, these so-called “magicians” would match the physical imagery in the language they used with their clients. This imagery tended to be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, and by using similar imagery, an easy rapport emerged.

Patient:               I’ve been grappling [kinesthetic] with this issue for years.

Therapist:           Mmmm, this is something you’ve wrestled with [matching] for quite a while.


Patient:               I can’t quite get a focus [visual] on where I need to be headed.

Therapist:           Let’s see if we can shed a little light [matching] on that issue.


Patient:               My past reverberates so loudly I can hardly hear [auditory] myself think.

Therapist:           I hear what you’re saying—kind of like constant thunder [matching].

Apparently, by matching the patient’s imagery, the patient felt immediately understood and accepted. Bandler and Grinder extended this simple principle to other areas.

Dress: To minimize differences and work to establish rapport, try to match the attire of the person(s) of interest. That is why we wear suits to weddings and funerals—to show respect. That is why some schools require uniforms, to discourage young people (and staff) from focusing on differences. That is why some world leaders adorn the garb of their host countries when traveling. One day while consulting, I was at a bank headquarters in the morning and on a manufacturing plant floor in the afternoon. I decided to wear nice tan slacks with a Navy blue blazer, light blue shirt, and regimental stripe tie to start the day. En route to the plant, I ditched the tie and blazer to more closely match the attire of my next clients.

Language: If you use multisyllabic words and your partner uses a simpler vocabulary, try slowing down and matching them by preferring Anglo-Saxon words: “use” instead of “utilize,” “make” instead of “fabricate,” and so forth.

Tempo: If you speak or walk fast, and your partner speaks or walks slower, then slow down and match their tempo. Or, speed up to match theirs.

Volume: If your partner is quiet-spoken, then don’t hold forth in stentorian bombast, like a bull in a china shop. Conversely, if they are louder, speak up.

Location: If they live in a castle and you in an apartment, then meet on neutral turf (Starbucks?).

Temperament: If they are warm and effusive, step up your game to smile and touch. If they are cool and aloof, don’t smother them with hugs and guffaws. If they are a slob, don’t try to redecorate their digs (unless they ask!). If they are perfectionist, be attentive to standards and details. If they are tactful, be more guarded; more direct, be more blunt.

Travel: If you’re with Arabs who are offended by the sight of others’ shoe soles, then keep your shoes grounded. If you’re with Japanese who carefully present their calling card, don’t casually throw it on the table—treat it respectfully by studying it and carefully placing it in your folder. For other ways to “do as the Romans,” see Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway’s Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands—The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries (2nd ed.).

Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli

Some call matching and pacing manipulation. I call it respect—taking the time and effort to meet a person on their terms, in their comfort zone. Not all that different from asking your kids to watch their mouth and manners when visiting the grandparents. Niccolò Machiavelli, much maligned and misinterpreted for his recommendations in The Prince, urged leaders to avoid being rigid—to use both ends of each personality trait continuum, as it were. Leaders should be brave, yes, but sometimes reticent. They should be tough, yes, but sometimes tender. Leaders who remain fixed at the brave and tough ends of the continuum are not respected but feared and often hated.

Mental health is dependent on one’s ability to draw upon each pair of opposing traits as the situation demands—sociable when you must, then solitary; perfectionistic at one time, more casual at another; methodical today, spontaneous tomorrow; tactful with Tim, blunt with Jim. To adapt one’s behavior to the situation is not manipulation, but good mental health. Yale’s Robert Sternberg defines intelligence as “mental self-management.” Manage your mind.

When Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich in the eponymous movie leaned over the counter and squeezed her shoulders and elbows together with results that turned the stubborn clerk into a compliant, whatever-you-want-ma’am puppy, THAT was manipulation. That was not matching and pacing. It WAS acknowledging the clerk’s baser instincts as an avenue to get what Brockovich wanted.

Manipulate—to influence someone in an unfair manner. Rapport—a harmonious relationship where communication and understanding abound. With no intention of following through on her body language, clearly the Brockovich character was manipulating, not establishing rapport. Not to say that the body language didn’t serve a noble cause, but, in the film’s storyline, it WAS manipulation!

When possible, I vote in favor of building and establishing rapport, but not at the cost of being one’s authentic self. Establish rapport, then be yourself. But isn’t going a little out of your way to establish a form of being yourself? Hmmm…

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