Building Rapport With Your Therapy Clients – 5 Verbal Techniques to Help Make a Positive Connection

Rapport is a key element of unconscious human interactions, and good rapport relates to our being effortlessly and positively “tuned into” the person with whom we are engaging. The dictionary definition of Rapport states: Rapport: n. relation; connection, esp. harmonious or sympathetic relation; a sympathetic or harmonious relationship or state of mutual understanding. Synonyms include fellowship; camaraderie; understanding.

Rapport encompasses both the verbal and non-verbal aspects of our interactions: some of which are explicit and some are not. In this article, I will discuss some verbal elements of our interactions that impact on rapport.

We are primed to unconsciously watch and listen for signals that tell us that we are being “heard” or otherwise. If we perceive a mismatch between what is being said and/or how it is being said, we experience a dissonance within this interaction that gets in the way of our establishing a good, cooperative rapport with the other person.

We often find that we can establish rapport relatively easily when we are engaging with people who share our interests or with whom we have a professional commonality, as we speak the same “professional” language. When we can be sure that we understand and are understood, this allows us to engage more naturally with others. However, professionally, we frequently engage with new, unknown individuals: new referrals, enquirers calling to find out if we can help them, or people we contact to promote our services to. In each instance, it is vital that from the start, we establish a good rapport with them so as to allow them to feel that we are the right person to provide them with the service they seek.

1. Getting alongside your client

For me, rapport is about getting alongside someone, making a connection that allows them to feel that I am interested in their story. It is vital that I make this connection early on in my involvement with a new client because without it, we will not move forward very easily.

My goal from my initial contact with someone is that by the end of our first conversation, they feel that I have listened to them. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to use open questions. These are questions that invite expansion, not closed “Yes/No” answers. I use “What/When/Why/How/Where” type questions that gently draw the other person out and let them explain why they are calling me. In responding to these sorts of questions, a person feels the enquirer is interested in them; they feel heard and understood. By questioning in this way, and listening attentively to their answers, I aim to make a positive early impression with the other person that allows them to feel that I may be someone who can be helpful to them.

2. Help them understand

As professional therapists, we have a degree of insight, self-understanding, and the ability to be reflective upon our feelings in given circumstances (hopefully). Many of our clients do not have this understanding, and they need us to help them to make sense of their situation. When you serve as their “knowledgeable guide”, someone who listens to their story and clarifies the complexities, you are creating a relationship where the client views you as supportive and knowledgeable, an ally in their effort to make sense of this world.

3. Vocal tone

How you use your voice can have a major impact on how you establish rapport with your client. As you match them for pitch, tone and volume, you begin to establish a link with them. However, if they are angry and loud, do not match this directly: perhaps start with a similar urgency in your voice, acknowledging their level of upset, but then start to slow things, modelling speaking more calmly, lowering your voice even more than normal (but use limited eye contact, as this can be threatening in such circumstances). When angry people are supported to move towards this calmer, quieter way of speaking, their tone will alter towards yours, and they will feel more connected with you.

If they are very quietly spoken and flat in tone, you can start alongside them, keeping things quiet and gentle, and then gradually lift your tone and energy to try to carry them along with you.

Use humour where you can (and where appropriate) to lighten the mood and let people see that, while you are dealing with serious matters, you can still smile about it.

4. Words

The language we use can sometimes interfere with our rapport building efforts. It is best to avoid jargon and to try to use the vocabulary that your client is using. If they are talking about feeling tired and “weary of it all”, reflect these terms back to them rather than commenting “so you are pretty depressed”: it may simply be that they slept badly and are tired, and your assumption puts you on the back foot in terms of empathy with them: you now have to play catch up to regain the position you had with them.

5. Silence

Do not forget that silence is an important aspect of verbal communication too. Clients need time to reflect on what is being discussed, so give them this time. If you find silences uncomfortable and feel the need to keep talking to fill the void, you are not allowing the client time to reflect on what has being said and figure out their own thoughts. Allow at least 5 seconds between finishing your comment/question before assuming that you have to elaborate. Similarly, wait 5 seconds after your client has spoken to ensure that they have finished. In this way, you are showing that you respect their right to think about all that is being discussed and creating that atmosphere of good, cooperative relationships and rapport.

Awareness of these verbal communication pointers can contribute greatly to the development of better rapport with your clients.