[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, March 2013]

It is both liberating and frustrating to realize that human beings are not machines.  When we have to cooperate toward the accomplishment of a shared goal, one can’t just yoke us together like standardized parts and set us on “go.”  No, even in groups as small as two,  joint action cannot be taken unless each member first has a connection of some kind, a give and take.  That takes time, attention and most importantly, rapport.

“Rapport” means that both parties feel heard, respected and that there are areas of shared interest.  Although rapport can be difficult to build, the reward is that you can get cooperation and performance with others in ways impossible without it.  Anyone who works with people knows that sometimes, it isn’t the message but the *messenger* that makes the difference between a project that succeeds or one that flops.

Many professions use rapport to achieve their goals.  Counselors obviously need a critical level of exchange and respect if they are to achieve a clinical relationship that helps their clients make changes in themselves.  But they don’t have a monopoly on it.  Sales people, administrators, educators, legislators and doctors too find they accomplish more when they have a positive relationship with others in their spheres.  The odd feature about rapport is that most of us don’t realize how essential it can be, until we don’t have it, or we have to work with someone who is bad at building it.  A hostile or cool relationship from colleagues, coworkers or clients can absolutely devastate efforts to accomplish a goal.  Energy gets tied up in fielding miscommunication, overcoming distrust, resisting authority, punishing resistance or making amends.  Fortunately, while many people seem to have a natural gregariousness and charisma that make rapport-building effortless for them, rapport-building skills can be learned by anyone.

One technique for nurturing rapport is the use of “truisms.”  Psychologist Milton Erikson, operating in the 1960s, defined a truism as “a statement of what is.”  They are inarguable phrases that can be used in conversation with others that form a basis of shared reality, a way two people can immediately agree, and begin the mutual exchanges necessary to form and feed rapport.  Erikson was particularly adept at using truisms he suspected the other person *believed* to be true, rather than those that were directly verifiable by observation.
Here are some examples:

1.  “You’re obviously not stupid.” 

People may have low self-esteem or tell you they aren’t very bright, but very few really consider themselves completely inept.  You can build rapport by showing them that you see they have some ability.

2.  “You seem to pride yourself on being plain-spoken.” 

Have you ever met anyone who says, “I’m a vague and evasive person?”  No, most of us consider ourselves straightforward, the “I just tell it like it is” type.  Acknowledge that about others, and they’ll come to see that you trust their judgment, opinion or feedback.

3.  “I bet you’re a perfectionist.” 

Again, in my experience, no one ever describes themselves as sloppy or mediocre in their work.  Once you show someone else that you see they value how they get things done, you
not only give them a compliment, but you set a higher standard for them.  Now they have to live up to the perfectionism you’ve seen in them.

These three truisms may not be “true” in the sense that some people have a poor understanding of themselves.  Their behavior might not line up with their beliefs.  But remember, when building rapport, the goal is not to confront them about it.  That comes later, once you *have* the rapport.  First, you need to recognize things about them that they already seem to believe.  Once you have that positive exchange, you gain the credibility with them to help them reexamine themselves and make other changes down the road.  And really, isn’t life is just better when you have something positive on which to build?