how to build rapport: don’t mimic me!

A colleague recently told me that I don’t appreciate how difficult it is for an anywhere worker to build rapport. I know it is important to get feedback, so I refrained from reacting and simply asked him why. He said it’s because it comes naturally to me. I paused. Really? I’m glad it looks natural. What would you say if I told you it has taken me years to develop that natural talent? I’ve read books, attended seminars, observed others with this ‘natural’ talent, and finally tried the various approaches to see what worked for me.

If you want to have that natural ability, all you have to do is practice. Let’s start with the very first meeting you have with a new person. It could be a prospective client, team mate, or potential new friend. What would you do first? My colleague said he uses a technique he learned in a sales training seminar called mimicking. In order to make the other person feel comfortable and ‘connect’ with you on a subconscious level, you mirror or mimick their breathing, body language, tone, pace, and even language (use of slang and so on). He said it works about thirty percent of the time for him when he meets someone in person, but rarely works in virtual meetings. Since most of his work is virtual, he wanted to know my secret.

Building Rapport – Virtually, Authentically

For this to become a natural talent, you need to find not only what works for you, but what appears natural for you. I can share with you my approach, but I can not guarantee it will work for you. Like I said, I collected all types of approaches but only after I tested all of them was I able to select what works (authentically) for me. Here’s my approach to the first meeting with a new person:

1. Be Prepared. I always find out as much about the person I am going to meet before we have our first conversation. Because we are meeting virtually, I want to try and build a mental picture of the other person. This makes the interaction more personal. I first start with a search on LinkedIn to see what their profesional profile holds. I can not stress enough how important it is to have a picture on LinkedIn for this very reason. Next I’ll follow any links they have on their profile to their company website, blog, twitter, or other online locations. I will read a sample of material they have written to get a sense of their voice, what they are passionate about, and what keeps them up at night (their problem) if they are a potential client. Finally, I’ll do a Google search to find other information, news, or associations.

2. Make it easy. In setting up the meeting, I do what I can (within reason) to make it easy for the other person to attend. For example I will offer three appointment times/days from which they can select the most convenient for them. Of course I offer for them to recommend their own time/day as well. I also offer a choice in how we will connect (VoiP, phone, video chat) to allow for a comfortable atmosphere. I also offer an agenda and ask what they want to get out of the meeting. This helps to set the expectations on both sides. Of course, this assumes you have email contact with the person before the meeting. Often the call is the first meeting and you can only infer what the expectations are from whomever referred the two of you connect.

3. Be Authentic. This is where most people see the ‘natural talent’ in action. Just before the meeting, I mentally set my intention for the interaction. I let go of judgement of myself and the other person and open myself up to a positive interaction. My thoughts are of how I can help this person and of how we can have a mutually beneficial and balanced relationship (how ever short it may be). I do not try to match their energy, but rather am aware of it and respect it. I don’t want to be cracking jokes with a person who is dealing with pain and loss. Match your energy to the situation, not necessarily the person. I also start the conversation by offering some information about myself – very very briefly. I also let them know my intentions and expectations. This often puts the other person at ease. I have taken the risk to put something of myself out there and this is the first step in building trust and rapport.

4. Give (more) and Take (less). As with any relationship, establishing rapport for the first time is a delicate balance of risking vulnerability and suspending judgement. Be yourself, but also be respectful of the other person. In a virtual interaction, you don’t often have the visual feedback (unless you are using video). It is therefore much more important to focus on tone of voice and choice of words (as well as other things.) To build rapport after the first ‘Hello my name is…’ you must be the first to share information about yourself (as in number 3). Then you must focus on asking powerful questions. Then shut up and listen! This is the most powerful action you can take in building rapport. People like to know they are being heard. Don’t interrupt the other person. Don’t try to sell them something (at least not before you build rapport). Just listen. This one action will make a difference in all your relationships. Note: When I say listen, I don’t mean to just hear the words, but to truly listen with the intent to understand, empathize, and explore further.

Many people are amazed at how deep a conversation can go in the first meeting. Genuine concern and appreciation for the other individual underlies all of these steps. If your intent is to fake your way through these steps, or use mimicking, you will not build rapport. You will harm your reputation more than you will increase sales. Give the other person credit – they can see fake rapport a mile away – like sunlight on the mirror you are trying to create by mimicking. Please don’t mimic. Be genuinely concerned and interested. If you are not, ask yourself why you are meeting with this person in the first place.