How to Build Rapport in the Workplace

Illustration of two characters shaking hands in an office

Meet Lana. She’s a sales representative at a software company that’s headquartered in San Francisco. Most of the time, Lana works remotely from Denver. But, she’s just arrived at the San Francisco office for a week spent working side-by-side with her colleagues.

The first co-worker she has a meeting with is Brandon. The two greet each other with a friendly handshake or a warm hug, and then spend five minutes chatting about their families and their marathon trainings before diving into a productive conversation about work-related matters.

Next up on the one-on-one meeting calendar is Stacy. Her and Lana exchange an awkward wave, engage in some forced small talk about the weather, and then get right down to business.

Here’s a pop quiz: Which of those co-workers does Lana have better rapport with?

It’s obviously Brandon, right? Despite not seeing each other on a frequent basis, they share a comfortable bond and are able to pick up their work together without missing a beat.

But here’s the real question: If Lana wants that same type of relationship with Stacy, what steps can she take to make that happen?

Let’s dig into everything you need to know about building rapport in the workplace—including what it is and why it matters.

What Exactly Is Rapport?

Think about a sense of comfort that you have with someone—like what Lana has with her colleague Brandon. They understand each other. They empathize with each other. They trust each other.

That’s rapport, which Merriam-Webster defines asa relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.”

If a relationship resembles a house, then think of rapport as the foundation. It’s the common understanding and the mutual respect that you establish for one another, upon which you build and foster the continued relationship.

But typically, rapport isn’t something that just happens—except for in those rare instances when you find someone you instantaneously click with. Rapport needs to be built.

Building rapport is the process of developing the connection in a relationship,” adds Dana Mayer, Executive Career Transition and Development Coach. “Often that happens through what we share that is the same—the same shared interests, experiences, sense of humor, values.”

Why Do You Need to Care About Rapport at Work?

With that definition in mind, it becomes obvious why rapport carries weight in the workplace: It’s the foundation for positive, beneficial relationships that allow you to be more effective (not to mention happier) at work.

People naturally want to work with people they like and trust,” says Mayer. “Rapport can establish both likability and trustworthiness. By building rapport deliberately and more deeply, you can often build teams faster and deliver better quality work with more power.”

“The most valuable form of power is relationship power,” adds Alan Zucker, Founding Principal of Project Management Essentials, LLC. “It is the most enduring and the one that will produce the best results.”

“When we develop rapport and a connection with our customers, colleagues, and employees we develop trust,” he adds. “When there is trust, we know that we can count on them and that they have our best interest in mind.”

These positive, closer-knit relationships at work have been tied to numerous benefits, including:

Needless to say, rapport means big things, and it matters for all of your relationships. However, Mayer states that it can be especially helpful in situations where differences are present that might keep a team or an individual from connecting with you.

Mayer herself used to work in a male-dominated industry and would often struggle to connect with her male colleagues. “By taking a few minutes to build rapport with them, I could put them a bit more at ease, which then allowed me to control the meeting and get them focused on decision making and problem-solving,” she adds.

4 Tips to Build Rapport in the Workplace

Rapport offers plenty of positives. But the question remains: How do you build it?

First of all, it’s important to recognize that rapport—and a relationship in general—is a two-way street. That means rapport isn’t something that you can foster all on your own. The other person needs to meet you halfway.

But, with that said, there are some things that you can put into play to get the ball rolling and encourage this sort of bond with your colleagues. Let’s dig into four different tips.

1. Be an astute observer.

As Mayer mentioned earlier, rapport is often established by finding some common ground with another person—a shared interest, value, or perspective, for example.

Despite the “opposites attract” cliché that runs rampant, there’s a lot of research that points to the fact that we are often most attracted to people who are similar to us. Those are the people we most want to be around and establish relationships with.

So, finding something—large or small—that you share is an important first step in establishing rapport. However, those potential common threads aren’t always things that are immediately obvious to us. This speaks to the importance of being observant.

Does that person have a dreamy desktop background of a location you’ve traveled to?

Were they drinking out of a coffee mug with your alma mater’s logo?

Did you spot them reading a book in the break room that you just finished?

These might seem like inconsequential details, but they can actually serve as excellent starting points for establishing rapport. For Mayer herself, it was simple enough as spotting dog hair on another person’s jacket.

“When I made sales calls to executives, they gave vendors very little time for meetings. That time pressure made me a quick study at establishing rapport before making my sales pitch. I looked for clues in their office or in what they were wearing,” she says.

“I sat next to a man at a board meeting who I knew planned to vote against my proposal. But I got lucky when I noticed he had hairs on his jacket. It turned out we were both dog owners who struggled with showing up for work in something that wasn’t covered in dog hair, “ she adds. “I landed the deal by getting his vote and I’m convinced it was because I told him all our customers are dog lovers.”

In short, establishing rapport isn’t all about taking immediate action. There’s a lot to be said for stepping back and observing.

2. Ask questions.

You think you’ve found some sort of shared ground between you and that other person. Now what? Should you jump right in and start rambling about how much you have in common? Not exactly. Asking questions is a far more effective tactic for getting a conversation started.

Using the examples we established above, those questions could look something like:

  • I love your desktop background. I actually went to that spot in Ireland this summer. Have you been?
  • Your coffee mug is great! Did you attend the University of Minnesota?
  • I just finished that book you’re reading. How are you liking it so far?

Those questions highlight your shared interests right off the bat while opening up a friendly, two-sided conversation.

Of course, the questions you ask don’t (and honestly, shouldn’t) only relate to what you have in common. Broaden your focus to ask other questions about them and their passions—both inside and outside of the office.

“Asking your peers about what’s important to them is invaluable,” says Maciej Duszynski, Career Expert at Zety. “Don’t go deep into their personal lives, but asking about their families’ well-being or whatever major is happening in their lives shows your interest and empathy.”

And of course show [that] you listen by nodding and asking follow-up questions,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Gilbert, a social psychologist at PsychologyCompass. “By taking the focus off yourself, you can relax. And research finds that people who ask lots of questions are better liked, in turn leading to the positive connection that forms the basis of good rapport.”

3. Provide your undivided attention.

Here’s a (somewhat frightening) fact: Our attention spans are decreasing. In the year 2000, the average human attention span was 12 seconds. In 2015? It had dropped dramatically to only 8.25 seconds.

It makes sense when you think about it. We’re constantly bouncing around between our phones, computers, tablets, and live conversations. We’re in an ever-present state of distraction that’s making it far too difficult to focus.

But it’s important to realize that not giving someone your full attention quickly sabotages any rapport that you’ve established.

“My best tip for building rapport at work is to make the commitment that when you’re dealing with a human being, especially someone that you manage, never ever multitask on them,” shares Dave Crenshaw, a bestselling author and speaker on business leadership.

“If you are in a meeting, put your phone down and stay focused on whoever is speaking. If you’re having a conversation with someone, don’t attempt to also respond to an email at the same time,” he adds. “By doing this, you build a strong relationship and a solid rapport with your team.”

4. Be prepared to be patient.

In the most fortunate of circumstances, you find someone that you click with and rapport is seemingly effortless and instantaneous. But in the majority of cases, be aware of the fact that building rapport will take some time and patience.

Additionally, it’s important to recognize that rapport isn’t something that you can set and forget. You need to maintain it by continuing to be trustworthy, dependable, and invested in other people’s interests and lives.

Like any relationship, rapport requires care and feeding or it can fade. It requires a commitment of effort and an interest in the other person. Most of the time it’s going to require some work and an investment in time,” says Zucker.

While it is possible to rebuild rapport and relationships, it’s far easier to never jeopardize them in the first place.

Build Stronger Bonds at Work

There’s no denying that rapport is important. But in order for it to be truly effective, you need to be genuine. “Don’t try to be inauthentic,” adds Zucker. “People can spot a feigned interest in a second and that is worse than not even trying.”

Rather than making a half-hearted or disingenuous attempt to connect with someone, use the above four tips to identify some common ground and move forward from there. To recap, those strategies include:

  • Observing others to pick up on their interests and behaviors
  • Asking plenty of questions
  • Providing your undivided attention
  • Being patient

Doing those four things means you’ll be well on your way to establishing rapport and beneficial relationships at work (just like the one Lana shares with Brandon). And the even better news? You’ll enjoy a happier, more productive workplace to boot.

May 8, 2019

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