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The Nuances of Rapport

In an information-saturated global society, many people assume that communication is a common sense process. Any modern court room or mediation process reveals the absurdity of such a statement.  With all the information mainstreamed into our lives, people make assumptions about what others know and often communicate in unintentional ways. People feel overwhelmed when deciding how to manage information because this process is tied to how others view our professional and personal identities.

The process of exchanging messages to create shared meaning – communication – is becoming simultaneously more difficult and more readily available. One example of this paradox is the contemporary shift in how businesses market themselves. Organizations are always in search of fresh ways to connect with new customers and maintain loyal relationships with existing ones. With the advent of Facebook, industrialized societies have moved beyond the Information Age and are approaching what I call the Relationship Age. This subtle but important shift involves the use and dissemination of information for the purpose of developing and maintaining relationships rather than solving problems, answering questions, or selling products and services.

As a mediation business owner, the bread and butter of my job is to be relationally focused, to create a comfortable conversational environment, and to establish trust with my clients. Rapport is a necessary foundation for mediation. The essence of mediation – as I see it – is to create safe conversational spaces and help people identify and articulate their assumptions, expectations, and intentions. The nuts and bolts of mediation are secrets, lies, accusations, misunderstandings, and emotionally intense moments; these are the seeds from which mediators must try to develop trusting relationships.  

Developing professional rapport is an essential part of most professional services, however, there are many types of rapport and many ways for achieving this elusive goal. Although a Formulae for Rapport does not exist, there are guidelines that mediators can follow to establish authentic, respectful, and helpful relationships with their clients. The following is a brief list I have compiled through mediation research and my private practice. The list is organized in ascending order and begins with the least effective means for building rapport and ends with the most effective.

1. Starbucks and Cheers – Should Everybody Know Your Name?
Hello. Welcome to Starbucks – what will you be having today? Can I get a name for that drink? How is your day going Zach? Did you hear about our newest biscotti specials Zach? Zach, is there anything else I can do to make your visit extra special?

We have all heard or seen this type of interaction pattern. The obvious goal is to use the customer’s name several times to build “rapport” with this individual. Psychological research clearly shows that people find the sound of their own name pleasurable, and many sales departments have applied this knowledge by encouraging their sales force to use a customer’s name three times during an initial introduction.  I understand that names can help employees remember customer preferences and make people feel comfortable, however, I can’t help but feel awkward during these interactions. People go to Starbucks to buy coffee and not to make friends with the staff. It may seem like a good business practice but it is also going to turn away people who just want to buy coffee and leave. We don’t need to make friends with employees during every commercial transaction. This rapport building style is even less effective during mediation. Mediators should never force rapport by overusing the client’s names, discussing irrelevant events, or coercing clients to talk when it is clear they do not want to.

First Lesson: Using a name does not equal rapport. Repetitive name usage often feels condescending and manipulative rather than friendly.  Starbucks isn’t Cheers – where everybody knows your name. Although you get to know people during mediation, don’t come off as a cunning barista looking for tips.

2. A Gendered Perspective of “The F-Word”
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. This New York Times best seller by John Gray introduced much of Western society to the different ways men and women think and talk about the world. His book unfortunately offers a dualistic perspective that highlights the differences between the sexes and downplays the similarities; however, it is still based on useful claims and assumptions. For instance, Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist, has an entire research program devoted to understanding how men and women talk. One of her most useful findings expands Gray’s idea that women talk more about feelings than men, and men tend to discuss more concrete facts and provide information. Tannen summarized this by showing that women do more “rapport talk” and men do more “report talk.” In other words, women often talk in ways that value and preserve relationships whereas men tend to talk in ways that highlight their objectivity and problem solving abilities.

Understanding how the sexes communicate about “feelings” is extremely important for mediators because what we do is so closely tied to how people feel. Effective mediators need to ensure that clients have an opportunity to express their feelings while at the same time not overusing the phrase, “And how does this make you feel” – especially with men.

Second Lesson: Exploring feelings is a necessary but not sufficient part of the mediation process. Go beyond asking how people feel and search for the causes of those feelings. Few things can kill rapport more quickly than overemphasizing the F-Word during mediation.

3. Authentic Relational Development Includes Discomfort 
Family, friendships, and businesses all require authentic effort from multiple parties for a useful outcome to emerge. Mediation is no different. It amazes me how many conflict management professionals assume that because people agree to mediate that they automatically inherit a sense of respect for and comfort with the mediator. Respect and comfort are related to rapport but are also processes that need to be incrementally earned and reciprocated.

Any interpersonal communication scholar can regurgitate the phase models for relational development. No matter the type of relationship, there are two universal components that are always part of the process: time and discomfort.  Mark Knapp’s relationship development model is a perfect exemplar, as he argues that relationships take time to build/maintain because they go through five phases. These phases include initiation, experimentation, intensifying, integrating, and bonding.
Most personal and professional relationships spend a great deal of time in the experimentation phase.

Experimenting in a relationship includes learning about the other, asking questions, figuring out similarities and dislikes, and ultimately determining whether or not the relationship will progress. A key element in this phase of relational development is the idea of discomfort. To determine if an authentic connection can be made people will encounter awkward pauses, will criticize and make assumptions about the other’s tone of voice, and will judge body language.

Third Lesson: To assume that an authentic client relationship (one based on trust) can be quickly developed without periods of discomfort is naïve. Relationships are difficult to build and more difficult to maintain.

4. Leading through Listening
One of the privileges of being a college professor as well as a mediation practitioner is the ability to learn new information, discuss it with students, and then apply it in a professional setting. The classroom serves as a quasi-experimental safe space that enables me to develop and hone my mediation skills in combination with student feedback. I was re-reading some of the leadership literature from one of my courses and reacquainted myself to the idea of Service Leadership, or leading others by serving their needs rather than focusing only on your goals.

A Service Leadership perspective argues that great leaders are humble people who effortlessly build relationships and masterfully craft solutions to problems. They rarely seek recognition and do not need formal leadership titles or positions. Great mediators are service leaders. They listen, ask questions, approach problems optimistically, and continually remind clients that the mediation process is theirs. When trying to facilitate a difficult conversation, the best thing a mediator can do is keep an open mind and an open ear. Mediators best serve clients by listening to them. Unfortunately, when meeting with clients many professionals cover their ears with a filter that directs certain comments into a “relevant” cognitive folder and other comments into an “irrelevant” cognitive folder.

Fourth Lesson: Remove professional filters and just listen. By letting go of the idea that mediators are here to solve clients’ problems and instead focus on listening to clients, mediators will be leading by following.

The Complexity of Rapport
As a mediation educator, practitioner, and researcher, this brief article offered my opinions on building rapport. Most people hear “rapport” and think about being nice to clients so that they will like us. I hope this article demonstrates that building rapport is more complex, and whether the client likes us should be irrelevant. What mediators should strive for is trust, which is a difficult concept to build. This article offered four lessons for developing trust and rapport:

1. Using people’s names does not equal rapport. Be careful not to come off condescending or too chummy with clients. Find your style and stick with it.

2. Nothing can kill rapport more quickly than overemphasizing the F-Word. Exploring how people feel is only part of the mediation process – instead search for the causes of expressed feelings.  You can easily reframe feelings by saying, “Tell me what you are thinking…”

3.  Developing a professional relationship with a client includes periods of discomfort and takes time. Don’t be concerned if periods of discomfort emerge, as research shows this is normal.

4. Be aware of how your professional filters can influence the mediation process. The best way to build rapport is to listen first and ask questions second.

Gray, J. (1993). Men are from Mars, women are from Venus: A practical guide for improving
communication and getting what you want in relationships. NY: Harper Collins.

Knapp, M. (1984). Interpersonal communication and human relationships. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Tannen, D. (1990). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation


Zachary A. Schaefer

Dr. Zachary A. Schaefer is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Communication at Saint Louis University and the owner of Mediation and Communication Solutions, LLC. Zachary earned his Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in organizational communication, where he investigated how organizations, groups, and individuals deal with conflict. His dissertation… MORE >

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