Are you really building rapport?

Let’s consider the following conversation, taking place in an elevator between two colleagues from different departments:


Pete (seeing Molly in the corner of the elevator on her smart phone): Hi, how’s it going? (immediately looking at his wrist watch and then his smart phone)

Molly: Oh, hiya, how are you? (Molly's answering a question with a question…odd)

Pete: Oh (looking surprised and back up at Molly), fine thanks, you?

Molly: Yeah, fine thanks (looks at floor waiting for lift door to open), see you later (shuffles out quickly)

Now THAT’S what I call a meaningful conversation…or not. Do you recognise conversations like this? I certainly do.

I think we’ll all agree Pete and Molly didn’t ‘connect’ or build ‘rapport’ in the lift. But what does rapport actually mean? Everyone bangs on about it in the context of relationships – getting it, keeping it and building on it. The thing is, I think we all struggle a bit with the word. Not just the meaning of it but the fact that building it takes time. Time we often don’t have at work.

In defining ‘trust’, David Maister throws ‘intimacy’ into the mix. It might be an uncomfortable word at work (don't ask your boss for some) but it’s possibly the most important element of professional relationship building. Achieving intimacy - a deep connection - can lead to rapport and, ultimately, increased trust. Rapport is a complicated concept not least because it means different things for different people in different cultures and in different countries.

One thing we know that generally builds trust irrespective of your national or cultural lens, however, is real listening and the asking of great questions. It’s about being ‘interested’ rather than trying to be ‘interesting’. This is where, I think, the question ‘how are you’ comes from. The intention is good but the outcome is often pointless.

Over time, ‘how are you?’ has become more and more embedded into casual conversation. Why?

People are busy. People can be awkward. Some people are not that interested. Most people, however, feel guilty if they don’t ask it to show some kind of interest. In this way, it’s become a weird salutation rather than a genuine question. So, what to do with ‘how are you’? We can’t get rid of it – people might think we’re rude, especially if we don’t reciprocate. So, perhaps we need to upgrade it.

We know trust is increased with disclosure – tell people more about yourself and they might trust you more. It’s higher risk but higher reward. ‘Fine thanks’ offers no disclosure. Too much disclosure, on the other hand, undermines trust (e.g. ‘I’m ok thanks although my cat has a terrible stomach infection and I was up all night dealing with her incontinence so I’m knackered and I’ve got a two hour meeting now which I might have to cancel as my son is sick at nursery and my wife isn’t about today. How are you’) So, perhaps we need to be more frugal with ‘how are you’ and more sensible but revealing with our response.

Consider our elevator conversation, now upgraded to increase trust:


Pete: Hi, how’s it going, Molly? (looking at Molly and smiling)

Molly: (smiling back and making eye contact) Oh, hi, I’m having a rather busy morning. Meetings back-to-back and I’m trying to get things finished as I’m on holiday for a week tomorrow. How is your morning going, Pete?

Pete: Yeah, also busy but good thank you, I hope you get everything done and that you have a good break.

Molly: Thanks very much (the lift door opens and Molly holds it open briefly to finish the conversation before she exits) – let’s catch up when I’m back (if appropriate)/I hope you have a good day/week/weekend. See you soon.

Granted this conversation is a generic one but you can see the difference a little disclosure makes when asked how you are. Pete and Molly now have a hook for their next conversation (‘how was your holiday?’) and they’ve engaged in a slightly more meaningful way.

So, perhaps, if you don’t have time to build rapport, a simple ‘hi’ is better than a ‘how are you’ if you aren’t interested/don’t have time to listen.

Or you could just avoid elevators...

#communication #culture

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