Business Change: Rapport, Congruency and hypnosis

March 19, 2012

What is rapport?

Have you ever been in a situation with someone where you could finish each other’s sentences? Ever had a friend you could communicate with with just a glance and you always seemed to know what each other were thinking? Have you ever felt than in tune with someone? Ever had people follow your reasoning without really questioning it because of the relationship between you at that moment?

The word “rapport” is used to describe this relationship, people in these situations are said to be in rapport with each other (you don’t pronounce the last “t” because it’s based on a French word). Hard to define but everyone’s experienced something along these lines.

Most people have some experience of rapport at least in their personal lives indeed as it serves an important purpose in forming close friendships and intimate relationships. I think of every relationship as being on a big sliding scale from anti-rapport (total conflict) to full rapport (complete hypnotic trance) and putting this scale on a fulcrum to make a see-saw I can push in each direction. I call this the “See-saw of Rapport” because I’m a sucker for a silly rhyme.

If every relationship can be plotted on this see-saw then rapport is important for anything involving a relationship because every bit of interaction between people affects their relationship. As a result an understanding of rapport plays into conflict resolution, forming close relationships, leadership, business change, stakeholder management, teaming, love, hate, hostage situations, interventionist therapy, understanding others etc. etc.

Deliberately constructing your interactions and language to affect the level of rapport you have with someone is the topic of this post. Rapport is the basis of hypnosis and hypnotic effects, mentalism and stage magic. Obviously there are ethical issues at work here, so refer to the introductory post for a position on ethics and morality.

Stakeholder Management

When dealing with business change it’s normal for the change team to engage in a bit of stakeholder management. Normally this involves working out who the key representative stakeholders are regarding a change and plotting them on a graph based on their influence and how interested they are. This inevitably leads to a 4 box model of people to keep monitor, keep informed, keep satisfied and manage as below:

Note: sometimes this model is extended into negative axis as well, the following stuff still works in that case

We do this kind of thing to attempt to simplify the complex which is necessary to consider achieving our goals, however I think this is a case of oversimplification. Each person put on this scale will have a different quality of relationship with the change team and so the approach to doing things with them will be different. This means that the grouping mechanism of the 4 boxes can fail to actually identify true groups for which a common approach can be used making the process rather pointless.

I like to add a third axis of rapport to the chart.

Groups in one of the four boxes which have similar rapport can be used to identify group actions but also individuals with strong rapport in the top right quadrant are likely to be the best champions, first followers. Changes in rapport should be monitored as someone in the top right with declining rapport is potentially more damaging to a change effort than someone in the bottom left which bad rapport.

Mentoring and Leadership

Both mentoring and leadership relationships are based in rapport. Going back to the See-saw of rapport you clearly can’t mentor someone if you’re on the negative side of the fulcrum, if someone is hostile towards you then you can’t lead them. This leads to an interesting point for leaders and managers… if you don’t have positive rapport with your staff then you have no ability to manage or lead those people. If you do have negative rapport and you’re not actively working to improve it then you should hand in your manager or leadership position immediately.

As with many things in life it’s hard to cause a design and cause a change if you’re not measuring the situation and measuring again following any action. Empiricism like this can be applied to relationship building simply by plotting people on the See-saw of Rapport periodically. Remember that relationships can easily degrade over time due to inaction so good rapport takes work to maintain.

Short and long term inconsistency

It’s possible to build strong rapport with someone in an individual interaction (meeting, conversation, whatever) even if you generally have bad rapport with them. In fact any strong opinion, emotion or position is a vehicle for building rapport. It can be easier to build rapport with someone who is very negative than someone who is ambivalent and neutral simply because they care.

That means you can have different rapport with someone in the short term than you do in general. A situation of shared conflict can be used to gain a strong rapport even if in general a relationship isn’t very good. Of course short-term rapport is a good basis for improving long term relationship status.

What is rapport based on?

Rapport is based on feeling “in tune” with others, “in sync” or various other fluffy meaningless phrases. It’s a complex situation based on the complex interactions of two (or more) complex individuals (see difference between complex and complicated). So much so that I think we can only apply a heuristic understanding to it, a bit like we do with modern physics… we go with our best working theory even though we know it’s not absolutely perfect.

The good news is that we don’t have to perfectly define something to affect it. Rapport is subject to change via feedback. A shared understanding of a moment of rapport improves the rapport between individuals, and crucially acting in rapport actually increases the rapport response from others.

This technique is used by sales people, pick up artists, cult leaders, brain washers, insurance agents  and other agents of evil.


Acting in rapport is achieved through “congruency” and so is the main mechanism for altering the see-saw. Congruency in geometry is having roughly the same shape and size, congruency in people is the external behaviour and internal behaviour being roughly the same. Congruency between people is them acting externally and thinking internally in roughly the same way and interestingly changing one of these changes the other.

For example, do you think you’re more likely to give a positive winning performance when presenting if you think of really sad thoughts beforehand or really happy thoughts? Are you more likely to believe someone’s happy if they’re smiling as they talk to you or frowning? If you’re fidgetting and looking around you at stuff do you think the person talking to you will believe you’re paying attention?

Congruency then is matching the external representation with the internal representation, your actions being in tune with your thoughts, being in rapport with yourself. Belief in the truth of what you’re communicating is directly affected by how congruently you present your communication.

Congruency: the practical bit

You can practice being congruent by looking at the messages you’re trying to present and working out what emotion or feeling goes with the statement and then what physical representation you’d expect to observe (this is mindfulness or emotional intelligence). Then make the statement and see if your body language matches what you expected. Try it with a few variations and see what difference it makes.

An example: You’re giving a presentation about some future plan (technical, project, sales, whatever) and you want to excite the audience. You need to build rapport with the audience, and that’s a complex issue in itself, but assuming they’re with you so far you’re at the point where you want them to get excited about the thing you’re doing.

Option A: Deliver in a flat voice, while not moving your body, slow breathing “I’m excited about…”

Option B: Deliver in a voice changing pitch and speed, moving about waving your arms around like a mad (wo)man, snatching breaths where you can “I’m really excited about..”

Which will be more compelling for the audience? Option A which is incongruent, or option B which is congruent? Which is more likely to get the audience excited?

Basically congruency gives a message integrity.

Congruency exercises:

  • As above consider the external representation that matches a message and deliver it to a mirror, tweak and improve.
  • Watch foreign language tv with the sound off (particularly soap operas) try to define the emotional dynamic between characters just from their body language and then predict whether they’ll fight or kiss – both are usually inevitable.
  • Look for when something is off, when you feel someone is being dishonest or duplicitous. Examine what about the interaction made you feel that way, it’ll be incongruency between your opinion of their internal state and their external behaviour. This is even more interesting when you’re wrong about the dishonesty.
  • Look out for sarcasm, the difference between interpretation of something as fact or sarcasm is an interpretation of congruency.

Ok, so how to I improve rapport? The other practical bit