"Rapport" means harmonious accord, or a special connection between two people — something a lot of doctors, lawyers, business leaders and other professionals wish they had more of when talking to clients or patients. Although it may seem like the random result of interpersonal chemistry, rapport doesn't just happen. It can be created by almost anyone who learns the recipe.
Show that you're listening.
The Greek philosopher Epicetus wrote, "Nature has given man one tongue but two ears, that we may hear twice as much as we speak." We think of learning to communicate better as being about talking. In fact, it's more often about listening well. There are several ways to show you're listening.
Pause before you respond.
This tells the other person he or she is saying something important that merits your attention — and deserves a thoughtful reply. There's also a practical benefit. Showing clients that you have heard them will lessen their need to repeat themselves, and the conversation is often shorter and more productive.
Don't formulate a response while the other is talking.
During conversations, we are often our main audience — or, as has been said, we "deliver monologues in the presence of witnesses." And when we're not talking aloud, we're plotting what to say when our time comes to speak. When we do that, we're not listening.
It's okay to have to search for the right words when it's your turn to talk. The struggle for words comes from having immersed yourself in the other's words.
Use some of your listener's words.
A time-tested way to build rapport is to borrow words and phrases from the speaker. It can give confidence to a hesitant, nervous client or patient, or disarm a defensive one, and show you heard what they said. What's more, someone who uses phrases like, "Let me see if I understand" may be a visual thinker, while someone who says "What I hear you saying is . . ." may be more focused on auditory cues. Try to reinforce the listener's thinking style in words you choose.
Make your listener the subject of some of your sentences.
The most important word you can use in a conversation with a client or patient is "you." For example, instead of saying, "I know you must be wondering about that," say, "You must be wondering about that." Put your listener first and yourself second — if at all.
Reflect, don't deflect, emotion.
Professionals may be very good at analyzing information, but they often shy away from emotional currents. If someone tells you they're upset, don't switch the conversation back to the information channel. Follow the emotion. It's often the best route to rapport.
Try to avoid verbal interruptions.
There are situations when people love to be interrupted — but only if you're asking them to clarify or elaborate on what they're saying. Otherwise, try to avoid verbal interruptions. If you must interrupt a rambling speaking, try body language first. Raising a finger, slightly opening your mouth can often achieve the same result as a verbal interruption. And it does it gracefully without damaging rapport.
Use simple words of Germanic rather than Latin origin.
Highly educated professionals tend to use words derived from Latin, while most people use words of Germanic origin. That's one reason a physician might say, "The individual received multiple contusions and fractures in the automobile accident." But most of us would say, "The boy got many bruises and broken bones in the car crash."
In centuries past, Latin was the language of high culture, while the peasantry of England spoke Germanic. Professionals, often unawares, use more complicated Latin terms because to this day these words connote higher social status. But it comes at a big price. It makes them seem more remote and hard to understand.
Use phrasing that invites dialogue rather than discourages questions or disagreement.
For example, a dentist who tells a patient, "It's obvious you need a root canal" is daring the patient to disagree. Saying, "You need a root canal" does not imply any judgment on a patient who asks why. Other mute-button words and phrases, depending on how they are used, include Of course, As you know, I'm sure you'll understand and It goes without saying.
Beware of the wily "we."
Depending on the tone and context, "we" can be inclusive or exclusive. The inclusive we means you and me, as in "Why don't we sit down and work out this problem together." The exclusionary we means my professional colleagues and I but not you — as in, "We believe inflation will increase in the next quarter." The exclusionary we cools a conversation and can come across as authoritarian. If you don't believe it, imagine how you would feel if a client, responding to something you said, replied, "We tend not to agree with your assessment."
Mark Jerome Walters, D.V.M., is the author of "Communication Skills for Medical Professionals" and teaches the online course Communication Skills for the Health Professions at University of South Florida St. Petersburg: medcompreview.teachinglab.org