Achieving Rapport: Expressivity, Coordination and Flow

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Rapport is important. We need
rapport to influence others, to teach and learn, to achieve difficult tasks in
groups and even to mate. The latest research reveals gaining rapport is not
just about matching body language and being positive, the picture is actually
much more complicated. Studies have shown that expressivity is actually one of
the most important factors in rapport. An expressive person displays their
emotions nonverbally to those around them. Those who are more expressive have
been found to elicit greater levels of liking and rapport from others.
The interesting thing is that
much research argues that it is not just the expression of positive emotions
and states that is related to liking, but also the negative. There are,
however, some conflicting findings in the research. Some find negative
expressivity is related to liking, others not. This apparent confusion is
explained by Tickle-Degnen (2006) in terms of the situation. For example, when
talking with someone new it builds rapport to hide negative emotion. But when
talking with a good friend, showing negative emotion builds rapport.
This also opens up the
question of the dynamic nature of expressivity: how do changes in expressivity
across time affect rapport? One effect discussed earlier in this series on
nonverbal behaviour is synchrony. This study finds it’s not so much copying
each others body language that predicts rapport as whether it’s in
synchronisation. Patterns of synchronisation are actually set within rhythmic
structures that interact and coordinate.
While this research is
interesting, the analysis from that study is extremely complicated – too
complicated to provide a rule of thumb. Luckily other research suggests there’s
a shortcut for spotting nonverbal rhythms associated with rapport. This is
based on how ‘tight’ the coordination is between individuals.
High ‘tightness’ in nonverbal
behaviour can be seen when one person matches another very quickly. Studies
have shown this is associated with anxiety and a forced attempt to gain rapport
with someone else. This is the type of behaviour people often display when
first meeting.
At the other extreme, very
loose matching of nonverbal behaviour is associated with little rapport. It’s
at that intermediate level of nonverbal coordination where rapport is highest,
when rhythms are neither too loose nor too tight.
One fascinating question
Tickle-Degnen (2006) asks is what aspects of a situation make for high levels
of rapport building between individuals? This question is interesting because
instead of focussing on individual nonverbal behaviour, this puts the focus on
the situation and which aspects of it lead to higher levels of rapport.
To get some purchase on this
problem, Tickle-Degnen (2006) uses Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow’ – a state
when we are operating at our peak, when we feel ‘in the zone’
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). When playing sport this means the ball always goes
exactly where we want, and in nonverbal behaviour it means we can establish
rapport very quickly.
Csikszentmihalyi finds that
reaching a ‘flow’ state tends to happen when people are involved in tasks that
push them somewhat, but not beyond their abilities. Also, structured rather
than unstructured tasks seem to support flow. What this suggests for flow in
rapport is that it will develop more quickly when we are engaged in
ability-stretching structured tasks with others.
Perhaps this explains why
individuals involved in complicated tasks for which they are trained – say, two
people at work – are able to establish rapport very quickly. In contrast, those
in an unstructured situation not pushing their abilities – say, two people at a
party – can take much longer to achieve rapport.
These are, of course, only a
few of the factors involved in developing rapport. There are still many, many
questions to be answered. For example, how does rapport building relate to our
motivations in particular encounters? What effect do different cultural
contexts (cf. with cultural differences in nonverbal behaviour) or even
computer mediated communication have on rapport building (cf. research on
emoticons and capitalisation)?
All these questions and more
remain to be answered, but the conclusion we can draw from the latest research
is that rapport is not all down to slavishly copying body language and being
positive. The picture is much more complicated.
Not only can the communication
of negative emotion be important in rapport building, but nonverbal behaviour
needs to be coordinated to just the right degree. Finally, there are certain
situations in which we can get into the ‘rapport zone’ when we are at the top
of our interpersonal games.
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.

He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.