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Nonverbal Cues That Signal Rapport

Good rapport is critical for initiating and maintaining relationships.

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Source: Blue Sky Image 123RF

Rapport is vital for fostering and maintaining social and business relationships. Nonverbal rapport building techniques have been extensively discussed and researched. However, the nonverbal cues that signal when rapport has been established are often overlooked. When people first meet one another, knowing if rapport has been established is vital to the continuation of the relationship. Knowing when rapport has been established is critical for salespeople in that potential customers will not be open to sales pitches if rapport has not been established. Business relationships often flounder if rapport cannot be established and maintained. The following nonverbal cues indicate that rapport has been established.

Lead and Follow

People who are in rapport mirror one another’s body gestures. Intentionally mirroring another person’s body language promotes rapport. When you first meet someone, mirror their gestures to establish rapport. At some point during the conversation, you can test your rapport with the other person by using the lead and follow technique. Heretofore, you have been mirroring the other person. Now, you want to see if they mirror your gestures. Change your body position. If you have established rapport, the other person should mirror you within 20 to 30 seconds.

My colleague, Randy, and I used this technique when we marketed our training courses to police agencies. On one occasion, we were marketing a course in interviewing and interrogation, with a strong emphasis on rapport building. Randy was charged with making the primary sales pitch. However, we decided that whoever had the strongest common ground with the police chief, would build rapport. We met with the police chief. When we entered his office, we immediately looked for common ground. I saw a White Sox baseball cap on a shelf behind his desk. Since I was from Chicago and a White Sox fan, I took the lead. We talked baseball for several minutes and learned that the police chief was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. I expanded our conversation about our experiences living in Chicago. I then turned the conversation to the picture of his family, which was on the same shelf. I made several comments that allowed him to flatter himself. At this point, I felt I had established sufficient rapport with the police chief to make the sales pitch. To test rapport, I used the lead and follow technique. I turned, leaned forward and propped my elbows on the table. Within five seconds, the police chief turned, leaned forward and propped his elbows on the table. I shot a sideward glance at Randy. He nodded and began the sales pitch. After Randy outlined the rapport building techniques, the police chief stopped him and commented that he was skeptical as to whether the techniques would work. Randy smiled wryly and described what occurred from the time we entered his office until the time Randy began his sales pitch. Self-realization became more apparent on the police chief’s face. He grinned widely and let out a small gasp of recognition when Randy described the lead and follow technique I used to test for rapport. He was stunned. “Wow,” he paused, “It really works. I’ll buy the course. My officers really need this kind of stuff.” We knew the police chief would not be open to our sales pitch unless we established rapport with him. Confirming rapport increases the likelihood of a successful outcome no matter what the activity.


People who do not feel comfortable with other people will erect barriers. Barriers can be formed by the placement of hands or feet or placing an inanimate object between a person and the person with whom they are talking. Some of the nonverbal behaviors and inanimate objects that create barriers include the following.

Arm Crossing

People who feel uncomfortable with the person they are talking to or the topic they are talking about, tend to cross their arms over their chest. Arm crossing provides a barrier between the person and the person to whom they are talking. Arm crossing can also serve as a psychological barrier to protect people from topics that cause them psychological anxiety. People who are in good rapport do not feel threatened nor do they feel anxious. If the person you are talking suddenly crosses his or her arms, then rapport has not yet been established or it signals weakening rapport.

Prolonged Eye Closure

Anxious people will signal anxiety by prolonged eye closure. Their eyelids serve as a barrier to prevent them from seeing the person or thing that makes them anxious or uncomfortable. Several times I entered my boss’s office and saw him close his eyelids for 1 to 2 seconds. This eye closure display let me know that he was busy and did not want to talk to me at that time. My boss and I generally shared good rapport, but on those days when he displayed prolonged eye closure, I quickly excused myself. My boss would not welcome my requests, comments, or suggestions if our rapport was not strong.

Eye Blink Rate

When people experience anxiety, they tend to increase their eye blink rate. The normal eye blink rate for most people is 15 blinks per minute. As people become more anxious their eye blink rate increases or decreases from their normal baseline blink rate. Each person has a slightly different eye blink rate and, therefore, eye blink rate must be calibrated at the beginning of the conversation. One evening, my wife said, “Let’s see a movie. You pick,” which translates to "I’m letting you pick the movie I want to see." As I listed some blockbuster action movies, I saw her eye blink rate increase. Those were not the movies she wanted to see. I listed a popular chick flick at the time and her eye blink rate suddenly decreased. She smiled and complimented me on my good taste in movies.

Purses and Pillows

People who are not in rapport with the people they are talking to will use various objects to create a barrier. Women will subtly reach for their purses or couch pillows and bring them to their laps. This signals that rapport has not yet been established or that the rapport is deteriorating. A young man in one of my classes attempted to befriend a woman in a local bar after attending my class on rapport building. The following day he reported that he casually approached a woman sitting alone at the bar and initiated a conversation. The woman was polite but the student noticed after social pleasantries were exchanged, she reached for her purse, which was resting on the floor near her seat and placed it on her lap. Ignoring this obvious signal that he had not established rapport with the woman he persisted. The woman turned in her chair with her back partially facing the student. He finally got the message.

Cup Positioning

Seventy percent of all information is transferred over food and drink. People who eat or drink are predisposed to talk. Watching where a person places his or her cup or glass can signal if rapport has been established. If the person across from you places his or her cup or glass between you and them, the cup or glass forms a barrier, which signals that rapport has not yet been established. If the person places his or her cup or glass to either side leaving open the space between you and the person you are talking to, signals that rapport has been established. Removing barrier between you and the person you are talking to signals good rapport. You can monitor rapport during conversations by watching where people place their cups. If the person you are talking to places their cup or glass in front of you, then this gesture could signal weakening rapport. Cup positioning can serve as an early warning signal that rapport is ebbing.

A Light Touch

A light touch, especially from a woman, during casual conversation signals rapport has been established. The light touch is usually to the upper arm or the knee. This rapport signal should not be confused for a sexual advance; it simply means that the woman shares rapport with the person she is talking to. Men engage in similar gestures, but the gestures take the more aggressive form of punches to the upper arm and light pushes.

Inward Leaning

People lean toward people or things they like and distance themselves from people and things they do not like. People who are in good rapport lean toward one another. When I am lecturing college students, I monitor the students to see if they are leaning forward or backward. If most of the students are leaning forward, then I know they are in rapport with me. If most of the students are leaning backward, then I know rapport is lacking.

Open Posture

People who are in good rapport, assume an open body posture. An open body posture consists of gestures that include uncrossed legs and arms, forward leaning, up and down head nodding, and head tilts. A person experiencing good rapport does not feel threatened by the person they are talking to and, therefore, are comfortable assuming an open posture. People who feel threatened by the people they are talking to tend to assume a closed body posture to protect themselves from the threat or perceived threat.

For tips and tools to initiate, maintain, or repair relationships, see The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People.