Two trees shaped like human faces with birds flying between them to symbolise connecting with others.
Making connections with people becomes easier when you know the right tools and commit to practice.

How to connect with people

Interviewing success hinges on your ability to build rapport with the participant to draw quality information from them.

So what do we mean by ‘rapport’? You can think of it as a connection or an understanding of mutual respect. Without it, it’s difficult to establish trust and a sense of ease with the person you’re interviewing.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and reflect on conversations we have had in the past, where that sense of ease, trust and respect was lacking. How did it make you feel? Most likely, you felt guarded and even shut down. This is a natural human response when we’re having to communicate in situations where rapport is missing.

With this in mind, how do we build rapport in our interviews to encourage rich, descriptive data from participants?

How to create rapport

In the 1950’s, psychologist Carl Rogers identified three key behaviours that build rapport and they hold true today. They are unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy. Let’s look at each in more detail.

1. Unconditional positive regard

It may seem like a complicated term, but essentially it means leaving behind your judgement when you interview. If you’re thinking ‘I’ll just pretend I am not judging the other person’, your strategy won’t cut it. Our words and body language can unconsciously reveal our judgements of others. Participants who are feeling judged in the interview are likely to shut down or become defensive.

When we hold another person in unconditional positive regard, we accept them as they are. We suspend our personal judgements and biases and respect any differences.

2. Congruence

In its simplest sense, congruence refers to authenticity - a sense of you being ‘real’, ‘genuine’ and ‘adding up’ when other people meet and interact with you. The following examples of incongruence highlight how words and body language can be inconsistent.

  • Someone laughing while talking about a painful emotional experience or a story of loss.
  • A person screaming in rage at their partner “I love you!” or “I’m sorry, alright!”
  • When someone tries to reassure you they are listening, but their body is turned away from you.

If your interview participant senses incongruence or mixed messages, they can become confused, make incorrect assumptions and withdraw.

When we are genuine, we are being present in the moment, and our words and body language fit with any emotion being discussed. For instance, if the participant is discussing grief, our expression, tone, and words acknowledge this experience.

3. Empathy

Let’s start by differentiating empathy from sympathy. Sympathy can be described as having a sense of pity or despair for another person’s situation. The opposite to this is having no response at all. Neither extreme will help you with your interviewing.

Empathy, on the other hand, is showing understanding and compassion. It’s usually described as being able to walk in another person’s shoes. When we empathise, we see the other person’s perspective. This doesn’t mean you need to agree with the behaviour or perspective, simply that you can see the situation as they saw it and you understand it.

Demonstrating empathy requires more than saying ‘I understand’. A better approach is to listen intently and acknowledge what the participant says. Statements like ‘it sounds like that experience had a powerful effect on you’ also show empathy.

Putting theory into practice

To develop these qualities, commit to building self-awareness. If you want to be less judgemental, start becoming more accepting of yourself - faults and all. If you want to demonstrate more empathy, develop the habit of turning off your self-talk while you are listening. This allows us to be more present with the other person, and to suspend judgements. To become more authentic, begin to show more honesty in your feelings and communication, when it’s appropriate to do so.

As we learn in the next step, active listening is a powerful technique for building rapport. When we listen actively, we are putting our judgements aside, checking our understanding of what the person is saying, and reflecting their emotions in a way that they truly feel heard.

Your task

Select the comments link and post your thoughts on these three elements of rapport. Do you agree that a combination of unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy are key ingredients to building connection, trust and respect with interview participants?

In your response share your own experiences of connecting with people and building rapport.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

Griffith University