A workplace without rapport is like a ready-made suit without good stitching: Developing rapport and empathy at work

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As a manager and customer service officer, it is an essential skill. But empathy may actually hold some people back from making business decisions.

Rapport might actually be more appropriate for many work interactions — understanding others’ ideas and communicating well, thereby forging a harmonious, even close, relationship. You can detect the presence of rapport between people quite quickly — and its absence. The latter is characterised by comparative lack of communication, sometimes pointed silences (often a proxy for deep disagreement) and a certain, shall we say, spikiness in the atmosphere.

A skill expected but often not described

Rapport (and through it, the exercising of empathy) is seldom sought in job advertisements. When did you last see it in the list of essential or desirable attributes in a role description? Yet, a workplace without rapport is like bricks without mortar, or a ready-made suit that lacks good stitching.  Sooner or later, it will fall apart.

If you’re in a situation where for the sake of work getting done — particularly if you’re responsible for getting it done — then establishing rapport with others is vital.  It fosters cooperation for a start. The colleague or manager with a marked empathy deficit can extort outcomes, but never people’s willingness or real endorsement. And the unhappy staff will be telling everyone about this lack of empathy.  

Listening is essential

The most crucial step in building rapport is developing the ability to listen. We all recognise when someone is making a pretence of listening — it might be the fixed facial expression, the apparent warmth masking disinterest, or the impatient movement they make when they think you’ve gone on long enough. Not great for rapport! Equally, we can’t be expected to show unlimited sympathy and time for drama queens and kings (who can never get enough attention) or for recalcitrants who refuse to adjust their behaviour. 

How do we build good rapport that isn’t fake?

1. Listening and observing without distraction

Good listening is not saying absolutely nothing, but paying attention to what is being said (and what is omitted), the way it is said, the other person’s cadences (modulations and inflexions in their voice) and responding accordingly to their rhythm. If you’re more used to talking, this can be tricky but no different to (for example) playing a sports game and monitoring the ball before it comes your way, or if you’re in a band, noting what the other musicians are doing.

As you improve, you become gradually attuned to what’s going on.

2. Have awareness of another person’s concerns and distress

In different situations, any one of us can be unaware. Some people are oblivious to the feelings of others, or worse, don’t give a rat’s.  The latter is recognisable because they talk a lot about themselves and tend to cut off others when the topic strays from the unempathic person’s immediate self-interest. They don’t care about developing or receiving rapport; they want total homage.

Sometimes it is best to play along with such people for the sake of progress. Observe them, be polite, make your views known and erect healthy boundaries for your own protection. 

If their lack of empathy is getting in the way of work, and your work performance is impacted, then give them feedback, or get help from a manager.

3. Show patience and encouragement

Trying to set a good example through your capacity to build rapport makes an impression on others, because they perceive that this yields better results than being dogmatic or overly-process driven. Patience and the long view are key because these types won’t ‘get it’ for some time.

4. Technique takes time

As with sports or music, you won’t always make a successful ‘catch’.  The impulse to describe what you think is going on might need reining in, as being too quick to imagine what another person is feeling can cause them offence. So, keep practising: be interested in what they have to say, and try not to make snap judgements.  Show that you’re making an effort and that you want to build a positive relationship.  Preparedness to shut up when it’s called for conveys to others that you are genuine in trying to understand their point of view.

Most of all, building rapport is its own reward. Accolades won’t necessarily be showered on those that do this, as skilled empathic types tend to be quiet — but the fact that they engender harmony is soon felt, and the genuine, unforced quality of exchanges where they work is palpable.  They are remembered, with gratitude, for qualities that are too often overlooked in the quest for ‘agility’ and ‘mobility’.

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