How to Build Rapport: A Powerful Technique

Learning how to match and mirror others.

Posted Apr 29, 2015

Knowing how to build rapport is the basis to experience success and fulfillment in life. And yet, it’s amazing to realize how little education and training we get on a set of skills that can make the difference in our lives between happiness and unhappiness.

In fact, without rapport there is no one interested in the message you want to communicate or the service you want to provide. Without rapport, there is little chance to influence or to persuade others.

Rapport building is at the root of effective communication

Whether you are a salesperson, a supervisor, a teacher or a parent, knowing how to develop rapport is key to your success and performance.

What is a crisis negotiator's priority when dealing with a hostage situation? The response that you almost unanimously get, is: establishing rapport with the hostage taker. In fact, not being able to do so will put the life of hostages at risk.

I have been working globally in conflict resolution for the past 25 years. Whether I sat down with victims or even with guerrilla leaders or with members of death squads, connecting with my interlocutors has been always my priority. When you work on violent conflicts, knowing how to build rapport is also a matter of safety.

I remember the time I went to see a guerrilla leader in a high-security prison in Colombia. I wanted to explore with him the conditions for cease-fire negotiations between his group and the government. When we met, he was very guarded, almost aggressive. I could tell he didn’t trust me at all. I was coming on behalf of an American academic institution, and he suspected I was affiliated with the CIA. I knew I had to shift his perception, if I wanted to have the chance for an open conversation about the possibility for ceasefire talks. 

To produce that shift, I used an Italian technique. He had a small kitchen in his cell, and I suggested I teach him how to make a Bolognese pasta and that we cook together. We did, and we bonded. A few months later, I was one of the facilitators of ceasefire negotiation between the government and the leader's guerrilla group.

You might not have to build rapport with a guerrilla leader, but you certainly encounter individuals you need to bond with--your teenage son, your boss, your colleague, your prospect client, and so on.

So, what are some of the techniques you can implement to increase your capacity to build rapport?

One powerful method is to match and mirror the behavior of the other

A few days ago, I went for dinner at a very busy restaurant. While waiting for my meal, I observed the people at nearby tables. A couple caught my attention, and though I could not hear their conversation, I could tell by the language of their bodies that they were moving in unison. They had a great rapport and were having a good time. There was harmony in their movements; it looked like an effortless dance. They were naturally matching and mirroring each others. It was beautiful to watch.

Being in unison is the result of mirroring and matching, and when we sit down with someone we love, it comes natural to us. Acquiring the skill to do so also with people we don’t necessary have to like, will increase our capacity to create rapport with the other. In other words, matching and mirroring is something we can learn to do deliberately.

Matching and mirroring is the skill of assuming someone else’s style of behavior to create rapport.

When you match and mirror, you don’t only listen with your ears, you listen with your entire body. You are present to the other person.

Let’s be clear, matching and mirroring is not mimicry. To the contrary, it’s about being in tune with the other, by using your observations about the other’s behavior. Here are the four things you need to do, to match and mirror your interlocutor:

Body postures and gestures

What posture is the person you are having a conversation with assuming? What is he or she doing with his or her arms and hands? Is the person leaning forward or backward? Observe, and than match the posture and gestures. If, for example, the person is reserved in using the hands, there is no point for you to gesticulate frantically!

The rhythm of the breath

Pay attention to how the other person is breathing, and then match it. This technique helps tremendously in bonding with the other. If the person you are having a conversation with is breathing with her diaphragm, it will not help building rapport if you breath with your upper chest. Instead, match your interolocutor’s rhythm of breath.

The energy level

What is the energy level of your interlocutor? Is he or she shy, reserved or exuberant and extroverted? If he or she, for example, is timid, it might be perceived as aggressive and invasive if you are exuberant. If your interlocutor uses few words to express a concept, it does not make your communication effective if you are very wordy.

The tone of your voice

What is your interlocutor’s tone of voice? Is he or she talking softly, almost whispering? In that case, to build rapport, you need to mirror his or her tone of voice. Being loud, in fact, will not help establishing a bond with your interlocutor. In addition, pay attention at the speed of the speech. Is your interlocutor speaking slowly or fast?

Paying attention to these four characteristics and mirroring them when communicating with others, helps you with rapport building (By the way, I am currently sending free videos to individuals interested in learning techniques on how to build rapport. Just sign up here for my weekly advice on effective communication).

Next time you sit down with someone, practice matching and mirroring by paying attention to body posture, breath, energy level and voice of your interlocutors. At first, it might feel awkward and artificial, but with time it will become second nature, and you will experience a powerful improvement in the effectiveness of your communication.

Aldo Civico is a negotiator, mediator, author and speaker, who for the past 25 years has been working globally on conflict resolution and leadership development. He provides training and coaching to organizations and individuals who are interested in upgrading their emotional intelligence and conflict management skills. You can sign up here if you want to receive his weekly practical tips on conflict resolution and emotional intelligence.

About the Author

Aldo Civico, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and a conflict resolution expert. He is an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and the founder of The International Institute for Peace.

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