How to Get Close to Someone Who Is Emotionally Distant

Building rapport while respecting boundaries.

Posted Nov 28, 2020

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Source: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Most of us know “that person” who just won’t give us the time of day.  At the office, in the neighborhood, during family gatherings, they avoid interaction.  Every time you try to strike up a conversation, it seems to be a non-starter.  Is there any way to break the ice?  

As tempting as it would be to just throw in the towel, if it is important to build a relationship with an emotionally distant person, either personally or professionally, you can.  Research provides some guidance as to how. 

Rapport Builds Relationships

True to cliché, in most instances where your friendly overtures are met with indifference or dismissal, the problem is not you, it’s them.  Yet even the most independent, self-sufficient, autonomous individuals can be transformed from reticent to responsive when your interaction satisfies their psychological needs.  And because motives matter, authenticity makes you both attractive and approachable.  

Zachary G. Baker et al. (2020) explored the role of rapport in satisfying basic psychological needs.[i] In their research, they found that rapport was positively linked with several types of need satisfaction, and was likely to independently predict need satisfaction in the areas of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  

Baker et al. explain that rapport has three primary components: 1) positive affect, 2) mutual attention, and 3) the level of coordination between interactional partners.  They describe all three as similar to positivity resonance—such as mutual care, shared positive emotion, and biobehavioral synchrony.  They further note that perceived positivity resonance has been found to be related to positive emotions and mental health, and linked to less illness, depressive symptoms, and loneliness.

Bonding With Acquaintances

Who can you bond with?  Thankfully, closeness is not a rapport prerequisite.   Baker et al. note that rapport can be formed with people with whom we are not close. This seems to indicate that you might be just as successful bonding with a distant co-worker as a family member.  

Baker et al. note that we routinely interact with people who are not close because casual relationships are less burdensome in terms of both creation and maintenance.  Nonetheless, their results suggest that the unique relationship between rapport and psychological needs takes place across time and relational perception,  between individuals, and internally.  The fact that these associations did not differ depending on relationship type or level of intimacy suggests all relationships are potentially important ways to satisfy psychological and emotional needs.  

So how do we build rapport with the approachable as well as the aloof?  Through both conversational context and content.  

On the Same Page 

Winning others over requires more than words.  Namkje Koudenburg et al. (2017) studied the impact of conversational form, beyond its content, on the emergence and regulation of social structure.[ii] Among other findings was the observation that a sense of “shared reality” is produced not just from exchanging information, but from subjectively perceiving the experience of a smooth, flowing conversation.   They describe conversation partners as being on the same “wavelength” experiencing shared reality due to the visceral sensation produced by conversational flow.

They give an example of a long-distance video call with time lags and other barriers to forming chemistry.  An overseas job applicant with an excellent resume, friendly personality, and acceptable answers to job-related questions can nonetheless present as not a good fit due to an inability to “click” with the interviewer.  They note this can be due to a perceived lack of enthusiasm, seeming distant or aloof, or failing to respond or laugh on cue at the interviewer’s jokes.  Whether we recognize it or not, this type of lack of conversation flow can unconsciously create an interpersonal barrier.

Apparently, approaching the unapproachable requires planning and preparation, as well as genuine respect. But if it is important to connect, there are ways to create chemistry through contact and conversation. 

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


[i] Baker, Zachary G., Emily M. Watlington, and C. Raymond Knee. 2020. “The Role of Rapport in Satisfying One’s Basic Psychological Needs.” Motivation and Emotion, January. doi:10.1007/s11031-020-09819-5.

[ii] Koudenburg, Namkje, Tom Postmes, and Ernestine H. Gordijn. 2017. “Beyond Content of Conversation: The Role of Conversational Form in the Emergence and Regulation of Social Structure.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 21 (1): 50–71. doi:10.1177/1088868315626022.