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In the Beginning: Establishing Rapport

In the Beginning: Establishing Rapport by Rachel Hott, Ph.D. Source: Anchor Point Magazine

And in the beginning the gods said let there be rapport. Beginning? What beginning you may ask. The beginning of an NLP practitioner training of course. Whether you are an NLP practitioner, Master Practitioner, or Trainer you all had a beginning experience with NLP. Often times the beginnings are forgotten and we get involved in the middles, ends, continuations and of course revised editions. This column has been created to reinforce the foundations that were laid when you first learned NLP. In the beginning of an NLP training emphasis is placed on learning, practicing and integrating the basic techniques and presuppositions into your behavior. For the seasoned NLPer my outcome will be to review, remind and RELAX you. If you are a newcomer to NLP this is your basics column. For you my outcome is to introduce you to NLP techniques and presuppositions consciously and unconsciously.

Genie Z. Laborde in Influencing With Integrity, defines rapport as the “process of establishing and maintaining a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between two or more parties.” Basically speaking rapport is when you feel that the other person really “knows”you. You see eye to eye, feel in synch and are tuned in to each other. In order to establish, build and deepen rapport people must believe that you understand their point of view, opinion or feelings without judging them Take a moment and think for yourself, how do you know when you are in rapport with someone. (Pause, this is the relaxing portion). What lets you know? Is it a feeling you have, something you hear or see? Have you ever met someone for the first time and it felt like you had known them for years? Or how do you know when someone has established rapport with you? What did they do in their behavior that enabled you to feel understood? Rapport comes at all levels, there are some people whom you may trust and respect but you will not be lifelong friends. It is not necessary to make a deep connection with everyone. What is important is that you have gotten the message across to the other person that you can be trusted and are willing to understand them. This doesn’t mean that you agree with them. Many people maintain great rapport while they argue For example, Seisal and Ebert, two movie critics on television, thrive on disagreement.

One way to increase your level of rapport is to integrate mirroring into your behavior. The basic premise behind mirroring is that if you can match back the person’s behavior, verbal expressions and or internal feelings then you will establish rapport. Mirroring is not mimicry. It is a close approximation to the original behavior, verbal expression and or internal feeling that has been identified. Some ways to practice mirroring is to match posture, breathing, keywords and gestures and/or voice quality.

When you first meet someone matching posture is a natural way to establish rapport. It can occur in that first moment when each person is settling themselves into the interaction. In order to match, observe the person’s position and mirror-or closely approximate a similar position. Many managers tell me that they feel uncomfortable matching postures because it is not their own style. For example, a manager with whom I worked said her boss leans back in his chair with his feet straight out crossed at the ankle and his hands clasped behind his head. She felt uncomfortable adopting such a different posture then her preferred style. I recommended that she adopt his posture in a more subtle manner. The other person should feel as though they are being understood not matched. Leaning back in her chair would be the baseline. After explaining that the match is a close approximation to the mirror image, I suggested that she stretch out her legs or cross them at the knee. In regards to the hands behind the head, I suggested that every so often she should adopt that posture or at least put one hand behind her neck. She still felt uncomfortable and phoney because those postures were not hers. I told her that I understood how unfamiliar it was for her and that I just wanted her to be effective. She then said that maybe she could start with just leaning back. And so we both leaned back in our chairs and I ever so subtley stretched my legs out, crossed them at the ankles and placed my hands behind my head. “Now Pat you see how I am sitting please do what you can and feel comfortable.” Pat rehearsed the posture with me and discovered that although the posture was not in her own repertoire she was able to adopt it for the time being. She reported that after her meeting with her boss, where she matched his postures, she received a memo from him praising her for her innovative ideas. That was the first time he had ever done anything like that. Thus Pat decided that matching, albeit unfamiliar, was worthwhile for getting the results she wanted.

I remember early in my practitioner training when I matched my boss’s posture. I was asking for more money. No wonder why I remember it. He was behind his desk leaning back in his chair. I came in to his office prepared with facts. As we were discussing this issue I noticed that I was leaning forward and I assessed that our conversation was going nowhere. Then a loud voice inside my right ear said MATCH POSTURE. It felt like I was switching gears and pulling an illegal U-Turn. I leaned back and within seconds a miracle occurred. I had an agreement with him to obtain the raise I was vying for. Matching posture does not always mean that you will get a raise but it will establish rapport and when there is rapport you are closer to getting what you want.

Another way to establish, build and deepen rapport is to match a person’s breath. It is an undeniable fact that all people breathe. However how they breathe is different. For example the location of their breathing might be shallow, mid-range or deep. Their rate may be slow, medium or fast. Sometimes people will sigh or hold their breath. A way to observe the breath is to keep your eyes scanning from the shoulders down to the lower belly. If you sit next to the person it is also easier to see location and rate. Again this is a very subtle form of matching in order to establish rapport. One trainee told me that there wasn’t any way he could establish rapport with his mother because she sit very still and he felt that she would be offended if he matched her posture. When he learned about matching breathing he felt even more challenged because she was so rigid. However he worked on matching her breathing, which he said was difficult to detect except for a slow slight movement in the upper chest. He did this for several days when they had dinner together. After a week he was amazed to see his mother actually begin to shift her sitting position and interact more openly with him.

There were times when I matched breathing and wished I hadn’t. That is because I began to feel uncomfortable. This happened when I worked with a halfway house population. Fortunately in my NLP training I learned about crossover mirroring. That is when you identify the rate of the breath and instead of matching it exactly, you mark it out with a hand tap or foot tap.

Another mirroring technique is matching keywords and gestures. Of course you can separate these two and match them individually. However when identified as a combination there is significance within their message. Keywords are words that are marked out either by volume, tempo, tone, repitition, frequency or with a gesture. Gestures are isolated movements of the body. Common gestures are observed in the head, shoulders, hands and fingers. For example, waving hello, shrugging shoulders or nodding the head. Often people will emphasize a key feeling, thought or behavior with a gesture. For example “I really want to see your plans laid out clearly.” When “see your plans” is stated the accompanying gesture is a one handed sweep at eye level. Imagine that you are interacting with this person and you want to establish rapport. What would you say to them? You can emphasize “see your plan” and simultaneously include the gesture they had used. Later on in the conversation, if it was relevant, I may repeat the gesture and pay attention to the response I get. (This is also utilization of a auditory/visual anchor. To be discussed in future issues). An important point here is to not get attached to what you identify as their key word and gesture. Allow the interaction to be more fluid and move with them. If they do many different gestures with key words you also follow their repertoire. In a seminar I illustrated matching key words and gestures by referring to a gesture that one participant had made. I purposely did not look at her and simply held my fingers the way she had when she was describing “ideas coming together.” From the back of the room she also put her fingers in the same position and reminded me of the content in which we were speaking. Our rapport was strengthened from this quick demonstration.

Business trainees often ask, “How do you establish rapport over the phone?” The only “observable” over the phone is the individual’s voice and any background noise. When you listen to someone’s voice you can identify their volume, tone, and tempo. When matching voice quality you identify the main characteristic of the voice. For example I went into a corporation for a job interview. I had never spoken or met the Vice-President with whom I was meeting. As soon as we were introduced I was struck by his deep resonant tone. Although my voice tends to be high and soft I immediately shifted to a lower register. I maintained a register that was comfortable for me and one that was closer in approximation to his. Along with matching posture and backtracking (we will discuss this next) our interview was sucessful and I was hired. If you are unsure of the main characteristic then work on matching the entire voice. If you hesitate to match the entire voice then identify one aspect of the voice to match and pay attention to the response you get. Some people are natural voice matchers and find that even when they meet someone with a foreign or regional accent their language subtley matches these nuances. When I travel in Europe I often sound like I am non-English speaking person speaking English.

Backtracking is another excellent skill to learn in order to maintain and deepen rapport. When you are in conversation with another person whether it is business or personal take the opportunity to give back to the person the information you are receiving. This lets the person know that you were listening and that you understand without judgment. It also gives you a chance to ensure your own understanding and/or ask for clarification. If you were matching posture, breathing, key words and gestures, voice characteristics and did not attempt to backtrack your rapport would eventually slip through the cracks. The backtrack is the thread that tightens the rapport. Backtracking is saying back the essence, not verbatim, of what the person had just said. There are times when you backtrack and the other person adds on or corrects you. Being corrected can strengthen rapport because then you backtrack again and the person really feels you understand. There is also the possibility that being corrected will cause you to lose rapport. However losing rapport is like losing your balance. You fall, recover, and get back up again. When you lose rapport you have to find a way to regain it. Some of the ways to regain rapport are to backtrack accurately, mirror posture, breathing, key words and gestures and voice characteristics. There may be times that you want to be “out” of rapport with someone. For example if it isn’t healthy for you to be around certain people, you are held hostage at a cocktail party or you are doing it for effect. Typically people think the way to break rapport is to be demeaning or disagree. Although that may work I recommend mismatching. This means intentionally mismatch posture, breathing, key words/gestures, and voice quality. Rely on mismatching the nonverbal communication and you will be out of rapport. For those of you who like experiments try this: Disagree strongly and maintain rapport. Agree completely while breaking rapport. All experimenting should be done in a non-critical environment.

The key element within establishing, building, deepening and maintaining rapport is the ability to pay attention to the responses you are getting. The response will let you know if you are in or out of rapport. When you are “in” continue doing your mirroring and backtracking skills. When you are “out” utilize your flexibilty and change what you are doing until you are back on track.

Behind any technique there must be an authenticity of caring and real concern for the other person. (See “Technicians Need Not Apply,”Anchor Point 1987.) Rapport is such a people oriented process yet I am describing practical techniques to establish, maintain and deepen rapport. It can and does feel mechanical! However after a while they become streamlined in your behavior. If you practice these skills and have no real interest in the other person the rapport will not develop. If you don’t pay attention to the other person it doesn’t matter how proficient you become in your NLP techniques. It is the responses that you get and your own flexibility that hold the ultimate power in establishing, maintaining and deepening rapport.

Originally appeared in Anchor Point Magazine. Used by permission.

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NLP 4 TH GENERATION: Reported by Rachel Hott, PhD with additional commentary from Colette Normandeau. Rachel Hott wrote this article after she and Steven Leeds attended the NLP Leadership Summit in A


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