Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Business Change: Rapport, Congruency and hypnosis

What is rapport?

Have you ever been in a situation with someone where you could finish each other’s sentences? Ever had a friend you could communicate with with just a glance and you always seemed to know what each other were thinking? Have you ever felt than in tune with someone? Ever had people follow your reasoning without really questioning it because of the relationship between you at that moment?

The word “rapport” is used to describe this relationship, people in these situations are said to be in rapport with each other (you don’t pronounce the last “t” because it’s based on a French word). Hard to define but everyone’s experienced something along these lines.

Most people have some experience of rapport at least in their personal lives indeed as it serves an important purpose in forming close friendships and intimate relationships. I think of every relationship as being on a big sliding scale from anti-rapport (total conflict) to full rapport (complete hypnotic trance) and putting this scale on a fulcrum to make a see-saw I can push in each direction. I call this the “See-saw of Rapport” because I’m a sucker for a silly rhyme.

If every relationship can be plotted on this see-saw then rapport is important for anything involving a relationship because every bit of interaction between people affects their relationship. As a result an understanding of rapport plays into conflict resolution, forming close relationships, leadership, business change, stakeholder management, teaming, love, hate, hostage situations, interventionist therapy, understanding others etc. etc.

Deliberately constructing your interactions and language to affect the level of rapport you have with someone is the topic of this post. Rapport is the basis of hypnosis and hypnotic effects, mentalism and stage magic. Obviously there are ethical issues at work here, so refer to the introductory post for a position on ethics and morality.

Stakeholder Management

When dealing with business change it’s normal for the change team to engage in a bit of stakeholder management. Normally this involves working out who the key representative stakeholders are regarding a change and plotting them on a graph based on their influence and how interested they are. This inevitably leads to a 4 box model of people to keep monitor, keep informed, keep satisfied and manage as below:

Note: sometimes this model is extended into negative axis as well, the following stuff still works in that case

We do this kind of thing to attempt to simplify the complex which is necessary to consider achieving our goals, however I think this is a case of oversimplification. Each person put on this scale will have a different quality of relationship with the change team and so the approach to doing things with them will be different. This means that the grouping mechanism of the 4 boxes can fail to actually identify true groups for which a common approach can be used making the process rather pointless.

I like to add a third axis of rapport to the chart.

Groups in one of the four boxes which have similar rapport can be used to identify group actions but also individuals with strong rapport in the top right quadrant are likely to be the best champions, first followers. Changes in rapport should be monitored as someone in the top right with declining rapport is potentially more damaging to a change effort than someone in the bottom left which bad rapport.

Mentoring and Leadership

Both mentoring and leadership relationships are based in rapport. Going back to the See-saw of rapport you clearly can’t mentor someone if you’re on the negative side of the fulcrum, if someone is hostile towards you then you can’t lead them. This leads to an interesting point for leaders and managers… if you don’t have positive rapport with your staff then you have no ability to manage or lead those people. If you do have negative rapport and you’re not actively working to improve it then you should hand in your manager or leadership position immediately.

As with many things in life it’s hard to cause a design and cause a change if you’re not measuring the situation and measuring again following any action. Empiricism like this can be applied to relationship building simply by plotting people on the See-saw of Rapport periodically. Remember that relationships can easily degrade over time due to inaction so good rapport takes work to maintain.

Short and long term inconsistency

It’s possible to build strong rapport with someone in an individual interaction (meeting, conversation, whatever) even if you generally have bad rapport with them. In fact any strong opinion, emotion or position is a vehicle for building rapport. It can be easier to build rapport with someone who is very negative than someone who is ambivalent and neutral simply because they care.

That means you can have different rapport with someone in the short term than you do in general. A situation of shared conflict can be used to gain a strong rapport even if in general a relationship isn’t very good. Of course short-term rapport is a good basis for improving long term relationship status.

What is rapport based on?

Rapport is based on feeling “in tune” with others, “in sync” or various other fluffy meaningless phrases. It’s a complex situation based on the complex interactions of two (or more) complex individuals (see difference between complex and complicated). So much so that I think we can only apply a heuristic understanding to it, a bit like we do with modern physics… we go with our best working theory even though we know it’s not absolutely perfect.

The good news is that we don’t have to perfectly define something to affect it. Rapport is subject to change via feedback. A shared understanding of a moment of rapport improves the rapport between individuals, and crucially acting in rapport actually increases the rapport response from others.

This technique is used by sales people, pick up artists, cult leaders, brain washers, insurance agents  and other agents of evil.


Acting in rapport is achieved through “congruency” and so is the main mechanism for altering the see-saw. Congruency in geometry is having roughly the same shape and size, congruency in people is the external behaviour and internal behaviour being roughly the same. Congruency between people is them acting externally and thinking internally in roughly the same way and interestingly changing one of these changes the other.

For example, do you think you’re more likely to give a positive winning performance when presenting if you think of really sad thoughts beforehand or really happy thoughts? Are you more likely to believe someone’s happy if they’re smiling as they talk to you or frowning? If you’re fidgetting and looking around you at stuff do you think the person talking to you will believe you’re paying attention?

Congruency then is matching the external representation with the internal representation, your actions being in tune with your thoughts, being in rapport with yourself. Belief in the truth of what you’re communicating is directly affected by how congruently you present your communication.

Congruency: the practical bit

You can practice being congruent by looking at the messages you’re trying to present and working out what emotion or feeling goes with the statement and then what physical representation you’d expect to observe (this is mindfulness or emotional intelligence). Then make the statement and see if your body language matches what you expected. Try it with a few variations and see what difference it makes.

An example: You’re giving a presentation about some future plan (technical, project, sales, whatever) and you want to excite the audience. You need to build rapport with the audience, and that’s a complex issue in itself, but assuming they’re with you so far you’re at the point where you want them to get excited about the thing you’re doing.

Option A: Deliver in a flat voice, while not moving your body, slow breathing “I’m excited about…”

Option B: Deliver in a voice changing pitch and speed, moving about waving your arms around like a mad (wo)man, snatching breaths where you can “I’m really excited about..”

Which will be more compelling for the audience? Option A which is incongruent, or option B which is congruent? Which is more likely to get the audience excited?

Basically congruency gives a message integrity.

Congruency exercises:

  • As above consider the external representation that matches a message and deliver it to a mirror, tweak and improve.
  • Watch foreign language tv with the sound off (particularly soap operas) try to define the emotional dynamic between characters just from their body language and then predict whether they’ll fight or kiss – both are usually inevitable.
  • Look for when something is off, when you feel someone is being dishonest or duplicitous. Examine what about the interaction made you feel that way, it’ll be incongruency between your opinion of their internal state and their external behaviour. This is even more interesting when you’re wrong about the dishonesty.
  • Look out for sarcasm, the difference between interpretation of something as fact or sarcasm is an interpretation of congruency.

Ok, so how to I improve rapport? The other practical bit

Establishing congruency between your messages and your behaviour will help as it makes you not look like a liar or a fake. However this is only the first part to establishing rapport, the second is achieving congruency with the other person. To do that you need to be in tune mentally. You can affect this both mentally and physically:

Mental approach:

Establish a shared understanding of something. This means you’re thinking about the same thing in the same way. Search for commonality, a shared experience or opinion. Even in conflict situations normally people in opposition will have some shared starting point, the presuppositions of the situation or their reaction to external influences. These things are all good ground for starting to think about the same things, starting to get in tune.

Repeating a shared position in different language or examining from new non-contentious angles are good mental matching activities.

Shared understanding is especially effective in an emotional context. Sharing an emotion with someone, especially when combined with physical mirroring as described below is a remarkably powerful way of establishing rapport.

Physical approach:

Body language mirroring is a classic example given in rapport building exercises.  Just as the internal mental state is communicated out via physical representation (see the congruency bit above) the opposite is true. You can invoke internal mental states by controlling physical representation, you can also affect the interpretation of your internal state by altering your behaviour. As social humans we’re trained to do all of this stuff without thinking about it.

When you’re in tune physically with someone they will to some degree assume that you’re in tune mentally. If they’re leaning forward and gesticulating wildly and you’re leaning back looking tired you’re clearly not on the same wavelength, you’re not in rapport. However if you see that they’re animated and leaning into a conversation if you do the same you’re reinforcing their behaviour, stating your acknowledgement and agreement with it, copying it and indirectly flattering the other person.

Next time you’re having a conversation or meeting try mirroring someone. Don’t do it at the same time and exactly the same as them, if you copy them you’ll show your hand and be as annoying as a school playground rhyme. But if they lean back take a sentence or two and then lean back. The same for crossing a leg, changing physical orientation, excitement level etc.

The time after that do the opposite. Note the effects. Be careful though you might cause unintended conflict!

Moving from a beach head to full rapport: Pacing and Leading

So these kind of mirroring and matching mechanisms help form the basis of rapport and an “in tune” relationship. The next step is to start controlling the tune, to use the rapport to guide the interaction in a certain direction to the desired result. This is the manipulative bit.

Pacing and leading means matching someone for a while and then introducing a change (either in emotional position, spoken position or non-verbal cue (position, tempo, tone etc.)) and seeing if that change gets repeated by the other party. If it doesn’t don’t worry go back to pacing and then try leading again in another little while. If they do follow, then pace again before trying to lead again.

The best leading change to make is something small and unlikely to be critically analysed consciously, such as a small tempo change in a conversation. You can of course make imperative statements to do some leading, and these are especially effective across different types of thinking (as in: emotional, visual, auditory, sensation). In fact the jumping around these channels provides a way of leading someone’s state of mind without actually having to say anything that leads the thought process allowing you to build rapport before leading the thought process.

One method of inducing hypnotic trance is a reductive pattern of pacing and leading, based on this jumping around of channels. Consider the stereotype of staring at a pendulum… the mechanisms involved here are visual fixation along with the following of the pendulum (pacing) and the shared understanding of the physical (pendulum) and mental (words spoken by hypnotist) leading to rapport between the hypnotist and subject. The frequency of the swing of the pendulum, the non-verbal communication and the words spoken and the channels of thought are then controlled in a pattern of:

  • pace, pace, pace, pace, lead
  • pace, pace, pace, lead
  • pace, pace, lead
  • pace, lead,
  • lead

Anyway, I digress. Like I said in the intro of this blog series there’s no such thing as hypnosis and all communication is hypnosis. In business change I hope you’re not trying to hypnotise the people you’re talking to, at least in the stereotypical sense of getting them to see imaginary elephants or giving you all of their money, however pacing and leading a valid mechanism for two purposes:

  1. Changing the level of rapport between you and others
  2. Leading a conflict towards a resolution

As another aside, once this kind of (non-reducing) pacing and leading pattern is established a sudden break in it serves as a pattern interrupt (which is another type of leading technique that can also be used for hypnotic induction).

Isn’t this how to lie effectively and control people?

Yes somewhat, and how to get people to follow you mindlessly if used unethically. Please read the bit on ethics in the first part of this series.

I want moar!

This whole series on holistic communication is ultimately about being congruent and establishing rapport. All of it builds together to form a holistic approach to communication. So read the other bits and keep coming back for more entries.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.


6 responses

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

  2. Pingback: Why do people change their behaviours? « The Mac Daddy

  3. Pingback: Professional mindfulness, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution and the ways of the Jedi « The Mac Daddy

  4. Pingback: How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy « The Mac Daddy

  5. Pingback: Get your point accross using positive statements « Mike MacDonagh's Blog

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    May 13, 2014 at 10:17 pm

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