Learning & Development

Building Relational Intelligence: Why Establishing Rapport with Your Employees Is Crucial

We’ve all had the experience of “hitting it off” immediately with a new colleague or coworker. The very first time you speak with someone you have rapport with, a little voice in the back of your mind says, “I like this person. I trust them. We have things in common.” You may not be able to identify any specific reason you feel this way, but you just do. After a few minutes of conversation, when rapport is built, you can quickly get a feel for who a person is and whether you want to continue to get to know him or her.

Establishing rapport is critical to the success of any relationship, and it is the first skill of relational intelligence. Rapport is the ability to enter someone else’s world. It makes people feel that you understand them and that you have a strong common bond. When two people meet for the first time, establishing rapport enables them to create a powerful initial connection and sets the foundation for how leaders can have a positive impact on their employees.

Great rapport builders have empathy for people. They know how to relate to others’ needs and can see things through their eyes and walk in their shoes. Leaders who know how to build rapport are also curious and inquisitive. They tend to ask a lot of questions and use this to gather information, as well as listen attentively to further develop a connection. They also know how to use humor to lighten the mood, which can make people share more about themselves. People who are skilled at establishing rapport know how to make others feel understood, and they invest time in making others feel comfortable and accepted.

If you want to build great rapport with your employees, you must understand that everyone is different. Relationship-building is not a “one size fits all” connection. You cannot create strong bonds with your people if you don’t adjust your approach. So, how can leaders do this on a consistent basis with their people? It’s easy if approached as a process. Practice these six behaviors, and you will have the power to unlock great connections with your employees.

  1. Make a good first impression. Making a good first impression is essential for building rapport with others. We all know the saying “Dress to impress,” which matters most when you’re meeting new colleagues for the first time. The key is to understand your environment and the people you’re interacting with. For example, dressing for a business meeting is very different from dressing for a first date. So, tailor your outfit and appearance to the demands of the situation. It is also powerful to learn and use names. Remembering people’s names and saying them back is a courteous way to show you’re interested and paying attention. Yet another simple skill is being polite and engaging. Smile at people. You’ll be surprised how many leaders forget to smile at their employees, which can quickly derail a conversation.
  2. Maintain eye contact. I cannot stress the importance of making and maintaining eye contact enough. Use it to build credibility, convey trust, and share your point of view. Look the person in the eyes as much as possible. At the very least, you want to be looking the other person in the eye the entire time he or she is speaking. If you are going to look anywhere during the conversation, do so while you are talking. Even then, keep straying eyes to a minimum. If you don’t, it shows people you’ve become distracted or have lost interest in the discussion. You’ll notice that if you’re talking to an employee and looking around, that person may start to look around, too. Direct eye contact during a conversation will help build all the positive feelings you’re looking to create.
  3. Maintain good posture and body language. Nonverbal communication and body language are critical when establishing rapport with others. Simple things like standing tall and keeping your shoulders back show confidence and poise. The way you use your body can draw a person in or push him or her away, so make sure to lean into conversations when you first meet your colleagues. Use your hands and other nonverbal gestures to show genuine interest. Equally important as using your own body language is observing the actions and behaviors of others. Are they drawn into the conversation? Are their nonverbal gestures indicating they are enjoying the interaction? Do they appear interested in speaking to you based not only on what they are saying but also on what they are doing? Reading subtle cues can help you make a strong positive connection.
  4. Find common ground. Rapport-building happens easily when you make others feel valued and appreciated. One of the best ways to do this is to find common ground. You must ask questions that draw people into the conversation and enable you to connect on shared experiences, knowledge, or interests. There are many questions you can ask to find common ground, such as questions about hobbies and interests, sports, life history, family, entertainment, fashion, food, or music. The right questions at the right time in the conversation can lighten the mood. In most situations, people tend to keep their guards up when meeting someone new, but asking questions and listening attentively show others you are genuinely interested in getting to know them. Also, having a positive attitude and being flexible during the conversation create a strong connection.
  5. Give genuine compliments. Although giving compliments may seem like just another way to be friendly, it can also be another useful tool to engage others and bring them into a conversation. If something catches your eye about another person and there is a way to compliment him or her about it, it can be a great way to leave a positive impression. Be specific about what you say. Saying you like a person’s clothing is nice, but saying what you like about his or her clothing will have more of an impact. Also, be sincere with what you say. Surface-level compliments and those that don’t have much meaning to the person will get brushed off quickly.If you admire something, share it with the person in a genuine and authentic way. You’ll be surprised how important this is for later in the relationship.
  6. Make it fun. Nothing connects two people more than humor and laughter. Telling a playful joke, making someone smile, and learning to laugh at yourself help immensely when establishing rapport. Being playful and humorous in the right way can greatly impact how people perceive you; but, remember that making another person laugh is not the same thing as laughing at someone. You need to be able to gauge the other person’s appetite for humor given the context of the situation. Telling a joke at a party is different from telling one in a business meeting. Additionally, just as important as telling a joke is knowing how to respond to one. You can end a conversation quickly by not responding in the right way to a joke from another person.

Building rapport takes time and practice, so observe how others interact with one another in your organization. Look, listen, and learn. Relationally intelligent leaders are exceptionally skilled at making others feel important, and they start this right at the beginning of a relationship. Once you’ve learned how to establish rapport, you’ll be well on your way to building strong connections with your employees. 

Adam C. Bandelli, PhD, is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational effectiveness. He is also author of the book Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships, which will be available everywhere books are sold in May. Follow Bandelli on Instagram at @official_bandelliassociates to learn more. You can also visit the firm’s website at www.bandelliandassociates.com for information on other leadership topics and to learn about its consulting services.