People don’t always see eye-to-eye with his politics, but when they speak of Bill Clinton, they usually agree on one thing. He has an immense talent for connecting with other people. Those who meet him often say, “He makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room.” And that skill has helped him inspire, influence others, and ultimately lead.
Some say he has “charm or charisma,” others that he’s “approachable,” but I say he knows how to “build rapport” like a champion.
Building rapport is the ability to quickly and meaningfully connect, communicate, and empathize with other people, whether you’re in a one-on-one conversation, meeting, or presentation. And it’s one of the most powerful skills you can master as a leader. It’s essential to building credibility, support, and collaboration. It helps you inspire your team to do their best work, enhance your client’s loyalty and commitment to your vision, perfect your pitch, and sway your investors or board to support your strategy and roadmap.
You may be thinking, “That’s easy. I already do that.” Yet most work interactions are marked by a lack of rapport. Think back to the last ineffective meeting or boring presentation you attended. Did people seem distracted? Did your colleagues talk over or past each other? Was the speaker not engaged with the audience? These are telltale signs of a lack of rapport.
Five Keys to Building Rapport
You can learn how to upgrade your ability to build rapport by practicing the following five key elements when you’re with others. Don’t try them all at once; implementing all five at the same time would be overwhelming. But if you practice them one by one, you’ll eventually be able to combine and master them:
- Hold people in positive regard: To connect with someone, or a room of people, think positively of them. For example, if you’re speaking to someone you don’t know, you can imagine, “What if I really liked this person?” See how that inspires you to tune into him, read her signals, and understand how you can have a positive connection.
- Don’t cut to the chase: My clients sometimes ask me, “Why should I waste time listening to everyone’s ideas, when I know the right answer?” Even though you might be tempted to jump to the finish line quickly or you know what the final decision “should” be, refrain from “cutting to the chase.” Be patient. You’re having a discussion for a reason, so respectfully involve the other person at his or her pace, not yours. That means walking through it together, not leaving the other person behind.
- Mirror your partner: One of the best ways to build rapport with people is to make sure they feel heard. To do this, ask them questions, listen to what they’re saying, and mirror their words back to them. Use your audience’s own language to reflect their point of view. For example, if someone says, “We’re back to the drawing board on the project, and wondering how to proceed,” you can mirror them by asking what’s on that “drawing board” at the moment, and what they feel they need to proceed rapidly.
- Show your vulnerability: You can’t connect with a person or group without sharing something of your imperfections, self-effacing humor, or sense of humility—a little humility goes a long way to connect with others. If you want to build a bond with someone, lower your “I’m strong” or “I’ve got this” shields. By showing yourself to have warts and all, you allow people to both empathize with you and accept that you have the capacity to empathize.
- Broaden your perspective: Practice spending a part of your attention in every discussion observing yourself with the other(s) in the room — as if you’re a drone hovering over the meeting. Watch the impact you’re having on them in real time. Even as you participate, try to assess: How am I coming across? Are people paying attention? Are we getting somewhere important in this conversation? I once coached the head of a large healthcare organization dealing with failing support from its Board and community leaders. I asked him to try this practice. He told me it wasn’t helping—his executive team meetings were still ineffective. I asked him to try something different: “Whenever you meet with your executive team, tell them to imagine that your Board and community leaders are all in the room with you. How would their presence guide your agenda? What would they want you to talk about today, and why?” By shifting and broadening his perspective, a practice he proudly uses often, the organization was able to regain the support it needed to achieve its goals.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
These five strategies may strike you as a LOT to incorporate, particularly since you also need to cover the content of your conversation, discussion, or presentation. But remember, if you practice, eventually it will become second nature. Think back to when you learned how to drive—initially the steering wheel, instruments, and road all clamored for your attention, but eventually you could do it all without thinking. Just like driving, you’ll become a proficient rapport-builder over time.
Then you’ll notice how much more you’re accomplishing in collaboration with others. When an organizational leader can both build rapport and deliver results, you have an unbeatable leadership combo.
David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck