Change Work October 2006

Mirror, mirror ?

The other day I watched "Death of a President" on TV.  It's a fictional account, set a year in the future, of George Bush's assassination. It mixes drama with real news footage in a very convincing way.

The circumstances of the fictional assassination are completely plausible - after all, several Presidents, and aspirants, have been shot.  What's more speculative is how the succeeding President responds - but if you haven't seen it I won't spoil the repeat for you!

Now, this article isn't about politics, or the arguments for and against making the programme.  Rather, I want to pick up on how Bush, and others, gain trust and affection - even adoration.

In the film, Bush is visiting Chicago to make a speech.  Despite large crowds of protestors turning out, his supporters seem to love him even more. One "eyewitness" talked about how George W was (is?) brilliant at making contact with people. They said something like, "When he shakes your hand and looks you in the eye, it's like you're the only person in the world. For that moment, he gives you 100% of his attention."  One man in the crowd (and I think this was genuine archive film) was overwhelmed and giggled like a child when Bush spoke to him.

From my own observation, his self-deprecating manner clearly wins over people who are "friendly" to begin with (even if it invites ridicule from his opponents).  It seems that all successful politicians in America have perfected their own way of "connecting".

In contrast, I once met several members of our Royal Family and got absolutely no sense of connecting at all. Admittedly, I only had about one second with each of them (passing down the line), but that was long enough to pick up the mood: "polite" rather than "warm". What you might expect from people with hereditary positions and a certain dignity to maintain?

So, what is it that George Bush and his fellow politicians are doing?  How do you gain such instant rapport?

The direct eye contact and complete attention say, "I'm interested in you" and that implies "We're equal" - at least for this moment. And it's this sense of equality that characterises rapport. By "equality" I don't mean being on the same social, intellectual or economic level.  Rather, in this context it implies being the same.

Rapport has been defined as "unconscious sameness" - if you perceive another person as being the same as you in some sense then you will feel more comfortable with them than if you perceived only differences.  So when you meet someone for the first time you automatically check for similarities - although you're probably not aware that you're doing this.

And what are the first things you notice?  By necessity they are the superficial aspects of appearance, posture, gaze direction and gesture, followed by voice (tone, volume, accent, pace) and language.  You unconsciously compare some or all of these factors with yourself.  If they pass the threshold of "sameness", then you feel comfortable and inclined to trust them.  If they aren't sufficiently like you, then you will feel uneasy, even repelled.

Health warning:  In what follows, it's assumed that we are looking for a win-win result and not trying to manipulate.  "Manipulation" means forcing someone to do something that's not in their interests.  In management (and life in general), it's usually helpful to be able to establish rapport with others as quickly as possible so that interactions can proceed more easily and productively.  This will be in everyone's interests.

You can build rapport by paying attention to the other person's physiology and behaviour and then matching as many aspects of them as possible. So, for them, it's a bit like looking in a mirror - but not exactly.  This has to be subtle.

The great communicators, the charismatic leaders all do this unconsciously.  Whether they learned it deliberately from a presentation consultant or just assimilated it during their social development, they are now so practised that they don't have to think about it.  Anyone can do the same - it just needs the practice.

Summarising the key factors: you have to look for and match:

And for longer term, deep rapport, matching:

When you can do these things easily and unselfconsciously, as you will after practising, you'll be able to gain rapport with most of the people you meet almost instantly.

So what do you do after that?

See next month's article!