You are about to enter an important meeting.  The business has been losing money for the past several quarters.  Some of the company leaders are clamoring to sell off the company before all is lost.  Others think the company could turn it around with a change of direction and focus.  You tend to side with this latter group, but you want to be sure.  You are willing to listen to the other side’s position.  You are concerned that you may be the only person willing to listen.  The group of sellers does not want to hear about ways to save the company.  Those who want to save the company refuse to even consider the idea of selling.  As you enter the room to discuss this matter, it’s not a sterile boardroom with a large conference table and high back chairs.  You enter a living room to speak to your brothers and sisters about what to do about the business that has been in the family for the past four generations.

I use this scenario because it brings together two spheres of our lives that are most often separate:  our professional lives and our personal lives.  It is important to remember that we use the same skills to be an effective communicator in both of these areas.  Whether it is at the office or in the home, this is not an uncommon situation.  We often face situations where we have to work out problems and make decisions with others.  These situations require effective communication.  Our professional and personal goals and objectives are often different.  We can still draw from the same sets of communication skills.

Rapport is the Key

Central among these communication skills is rapport.  Rapport is the key that unlocks most other communication techniques.  At this point, many people will reply, “Sure, I know that.  Establishing rapport is important.”  Most of these same people will struggle to explain what exactly rapport is.  I often suggest that building rapport is like building a bridge.  In the case of rapport, what we are building is a psychological bridge.  When we build rapport, we are trying to make a connection with the other person.  This is like a bridge connecting two sides of a river or other obstruction.  This psychological connection makes us more attractive to the other person.  They like us more.  Most importantly, they begin to trust us more.  As trust increases, so does the potential effectiveness of our other communication techniques.  This is why I call rapport the key that unlocks other communication skills.

Negotiation and Mediation

Let’s go back to our scenario.  As you enter the room, you realize you are entering a conflict.  The players have apparently divided themselves into two opposing sides.  Half the family wants to sell the company.  The other half wants to save it.  You tend to side with those who want to save the family business.  You think that presenting yourself more in the middle may help the two sides begin a helpful dialog.  Up to now, the two sides have done little more than make accusations against the other side’s motives.  You choose to function like a mediator.  Unlike many mediators, you are not completely unbiased.  In this case, even a biased mediator is better than no mediator at all.

If you are not a trained and experienced mediator, this may appear to be a daunting task.  It probably will not be easy to mediate this problem.  The good news is that there is one thing that is even more important than expert mediation skills.  A great article in the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation daily blog identifies this as rapport.  The article cites a survey done at Northwestern University where “veteran mediators believe that establishing rapport is more important to effective mediation than employing specific mediation techniques and tactics.”  Rapport is vital to successful mediation and negotiation.  Taking time to develop rapport can help you achieve the level of trust required to get those involved in the conflict to open up.  They may then begin to share their true interests.

Let’s return again to our scenario.  As you begin the process of mediating this conflict, you decide to put off discussing the issue for a time.  Instead, you focus on building rapport.  You have a great deal of material to work with.  This is your family and you know them and their histories.  You can particularly draw from your history together.  You can work to build connections with both sides of the conflict.  You also work to build bridges between the two sides themselves.  As you do this, you try to uncover the interests behind their positions.  This will help you find a win-win solution during the actual negotiation process.

Set up Your Communication Skills for Success

Rapport is not only important for mediation and negotiation.  It is important for nearly all effective communication techniques.  Building trust makes you more influential.  Let me suggest another area where rapport is vital. Building rapport lowers the guard of those with whom you are communicating.  I like to call this lowering their shields.  When others lower their defenses, they will be less likely to detect elicitation and influence techniques.  You will then be more effective in achieving your goals and objectives.

So, I suggest you take the time to become good at building rapport.  Let’s face it, we all have ample opportunities to practice this skill.  Every time we interact with someone it is an opportunity to practice rapport building.  This includes interactions with our boss, our friends, and our significant other.  The great thing about practicing rapport is that we can realize a double benefit.  We can benefit from developing our skills.  We also may experience a benefit from improved relationships with those with whom we make these better connections.

So get out there and practice building rapport.  I’ll give you one more tip before you do so.  Take time to listen.   When you really listen to others, they will give you clues as to ways to improve rapport.  This is why I always encourage my readers to be swift to hear and slow to speak.

rjm