The Art and Science of Rapport

Daniel Goleman

What Makes a Leader? Emotional and Social Intelligence

What’s Rapport and Why Does It Matter?

Ask someone what rapport is and you’re likely to hear “a close connection” or “I can’t explain it, but I know it when I feel it.” Beyond social ease, rapport describes a sense of harmonious connection with someone. Both are tuned into the other person’s feelings. Each person feels truly in synch, fully seen and heard.

Most people recognize rapport, and they also know when they lack it. You’ve probably been there: The team meeting with people talking over each other or staring distractedly out the window. The choppy conversation peppered with silences that go a bit too long.

Rapport feels nice, but why does it matter? People experiencing rapport can be more creative together and more efficient in making decisions. For management teams mapping a business strategy or a marketing group planning a new product launch, rapport can mean the difference between an okay result and a great one. In their article, “Rapport-Building Behaviors Used by Retail Employees,” Dwayne D. Gremler and Kevin P. Gwinner recognize that rapport relates significantly to customer satisfaction, loyalty, and word-of-mouth communication.

Three Ingredients of Rapport

What makes the difference between rapport and interactions lacking that connection? Robert Rosenthal was my statistical methods professor when I was a psychology graduate student at Harvard. Years after that, Bob (as everyone called him) and his colleague Linda Tickle-Degnan published a landmark article describing the three essential ingredients for rapport.

The three elements Bob and his colleagues found are:

  • mutual attention,
  • shared positive feeling, and
  • synchrony or coordination.

Rapport doesn’t exist when only some of these elements are present. A physical fight includes close physical coordination, but no positivity. Walking past a stranger on a crowded sidewalk may include mutual attention and coordination, but no sense of caring for the other.

How Does It Work?


The first essential ingredient is shared attention. Two people attending to what the other says and does generate mutual interest and a joint focus. Such two-way attention spurs shared feelings.

Mutual empathy is an indicator of rapport, where both partners are aware of being experienced. That’s a difference between social ease and rapport. Social ease is comfortable, but we don’t feel that the other person is tuned in to our feelings. Fully attending to someone, seeing eye to eye, opens the possibility of empathy.

Positive Feelings

You need more than attention for rapport, you also need positive feelings toward each other. Such feelings are often shown nonverbally, through tone of voice and facial expression. Skillful managers can give their staff critical feedback while showing warm feelings nonverbally.

When that happens, someone is likely to feel more positively about the conversation than they would without the connection. That’s an example I used in my book Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships, based on a 2002 study by Michael J. Newcombe and Neal M. Ashkanasy. Current research by Ashkanasy continues to explore the connection between positive feelings and their impact in exchanges between leaders and staff in organizations.


Coordination or synchrony is the third element. When we are in rapport, subtle nonverbal cues coordinate the pace and timing of conversations and body movement. We become animated, our eyes meet often, the flow of our conversation looks almost like a choreographed dance. Synchronies happen throughout the natural world when one process oscillates in rhythm with another. When ocean waves or sound waves are in synch, they amplify. When they are out of synch, they cancel out each other.

How does synchrony work between two people? In Social Intelligence, I explained,

“Whenever we find ourselves in harmony with someone else, we can thank what neuroscientists call ‘oscillators,’ neural systems that act like clocks, resetting over and over their rate of firing to coordinate with the periodicity of an incoming signal. That signal may be as simple as the rate at which a friend hands you the dishes she’s washed so you can dry them, or as complex as the movements in a well-choreographed pas de deux…. Any conversation demands that the brain make extraordinarily complex calculations, with oscillators guiding the continuous cascade of adjustments that keep us in synch. From this microsynchrony flows an affinity, as we participate in a slice of our conversational partner’s very experience.”

How to Build Rapport

What can we do to intentionally build rapport with another person or within a team?


That’s the first step, to listen well and give someone our full attention. Put down the phone, look away from the computer monitor, and tune into what the person is saying. Ask questions to understand the background situation. For that time, focus on the other’s feelings and needs, not your own preoccupations.

In Social Intelligence, I said, “Full listening maximizes physiological synchrony, so that emotions align. Such synchrony was discovered during psychotherapy at moments when clients felt most understood by their therapists. Intentionally paying more attention to someone may be the best way to encourage the emergence of rapport. Listening carefully, with undivided attention, orients our neural circuits for connectivity, putting us on the same wavelength. That maximizes the likelihood that the other essential ingredients for rapport—synchrony and positive feelings—might bloom.”

How can you improve your listening skills? While there are many strategies for developing better listening habits, a key step is to become aware that you aren’t listening well. Poor listening is often an unconscious habit and as such is governed by the part of brains that handles automatic tasks. Before we can change a habit, we need to become aware of it. That type of awareness can be developed through mindfulness, the secret ingredient in habit change. Once we’re aware in the moment, we can choose to step away from distractions and focus attention on another person.

Recommended Reading:

The Chemistry of Connection

Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer

Engaging the Whole Person at Work

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