Rapport Building

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Social workers expect a great deal of service users and carers.  We enter their lives often at moments of great crisis.   Their situation may be making them feel frightened, sad, humiliated, angry.  Even if they have requested to see a social worker, they almost certainly wish they were not in a position to need to do so.  Many will not have chosen to do so at all, and may be resistant or hostile.  They may not know what to expect, or expect only the worst.   If they have requested help or support, they are likely to be anxious that the support will not be forthcoming.

We come into this highly arousing situation, and usually, within a few minutes, are expecting  them to be prepared to tell us, complete strangers though we are, intimate and even painful details of their lives.  The judgements that we base on that information may change their lives for ever.  These judgements cannot be better than the quality of the information, so it is part of our professional responsibility to enable service users to give us the best possible information, despite the pressure on time and the procedures we may be required to complete.  This means that we must be able to establish rapport from the outset.  This is, essentially, an unnatural thing to do, and so we need to adopt specific techniques to enable it to happen.

Research, especially in NLP 1,has established a number of behaviours which characterise situations where people have established rapport.  One of these is matching body language- eg both participants leaning forward, or both leaning back with hands behind head.  If  we are faced with someone whose body language is conspicuously different from our own (such as someone who sits very still, when we are prone to gesture enthusiastically) we tend to feel less comfortable in their presence.  This is true both when body language is habitual, and when it is an expression of emotion.  To take an extreme example –if you were sitting hunched tightly, and sobbing into a handkerchief, you would be unlikely to feel you had established any rapport with someone sitting sprawled opposite you with a smile on their face.  Even a very calm demeanour and expression might seem to you like lack of recognition or connection with your distress, whereas someone who is sitting forward, with a concerned look,  would seem to you like someone who fully appreciates how you feel.

Conscious body matching is, therefore, a quick and powerful way of establishing rapport.  It takes some practice to consciously note how someone is sitting or standing, and mirror that in your own behaviour, but it can quickly become automatic.  However, people in natural rapport do not mirror every aspect of each other’s behaviour, and if this is done it easily tips over into mimicry, and becomes highly noticeable, thus breaking rapport.  

Rapport can also be established by mirroring the other person’s rate and level of speech, and by using similar language.

“Small talk” is a universal way of establishing rapport, but one which is often overlooked in a professional relationship.  The weather, and the state of traffic, are universal topics of conversation, because they are shared experiences which do not rely on the personal histories of the people involved.  If your small talk has a positive note to it, you will be setting up a more positive atmosphere, so any favourable or positive comment you can make will help to establish rapport.  “Yes-sets” are a variant of this positive small talk – a series of short statements designed to get the answer “Yes” – eg “ You found it all right then”;  It’s suddenly turned a lot colder, hasn’t it”;  “You obviously got my letter”.

Finally, smiling is an extremely effective way of establishing rapport, particularly on first meeting.  If the other person is very angry, or very upset, a smile will be inappropriate, but in most other cases a warm smile will usually elicit a smile in response, and with it a sense of connection.  If you have ever smiled at a complete stranger in a crowd, you will know how powerful this is.

You may feel concerned that this deliberate use of  language and self is either manipulative or inauthentic, or both.   Bear in mind that your language and use of self will be influencing the other person’s perception of you, and of the situation, whether or not you choose to do so.  Furthermore, you need to establish a relationship of trust as rapidly as possible if you are to give a good service, with someone whom you do not know, and who may not be someone with whom you would instinctively have a good level of rapport.  It is preferable, therefore, to seek consciously to use your own words and body in a way that supports that relationship, rather than leaving it to chance. 

In any case, these techniques are only effective in establishing initial rapport. In the longer run,  rapport will not be sustained if  the service user does not feel you are genuine in your respect and your readiness to listen and to seek solutions. 



1 See, for example, Young Peter Understanding NPL, Principles and Practice,  (2nd ed 2004) Crown House Publishing, UK