How to Start Building Rapport

What You'll Learn
  • Build personal and professional alignment before you talk about the issues
  • Find affiliations
  • The secret to getting to know a person is to build affiliations with them
  • Discovering connections nourishes growth in a relationship
  • In many cultures, business is conducted only with people known and trusted
  • You cannot lose by taking the time to build a relationship

YBuild personal and professional alignment before you talk about the issues. You can use these reference points throughout the negotiation and the relationship to initiate conversations, emails and phone calls, and to interject humanity in stressful encounters.

Find Affiliations

Ultimately you are not negotiating with a company or organization. You are negotiating with a person – only people negotiate. The secret to getting to know a person is to build affiliations with them. Affiliations are the connections we have with others that provide areas of commonality.

Find the connections you have in common professionally and personally. Taking time to discover connections between you and your negotiating counterpart nourishes your conversation for growth in the relationship.

  • It is best at an early stage in the relationship to avoid topics that can just as easily cripple your rapport as build it. As the relationship deepens you will know whether these types of issues are areas of alignment for you and the other side or areas of stark difference, and you will know if they are likely to be helpful or hurtful to the conversation.

Common areas of affiliations

  • Birthplace
  • Universities attended
  • Sports
  • Weather and traffic
  • Travel nightmares (delayed planes; lost luggage; no taxis)
  • Children
  • Hobbies (e.g., cooking, skiing, theater, etc.)
  • Holiday plans
  • Books
  • Culture, religion, politics, history

Interesting Research

You are six times more likely to get an agreement with people you like.


Affiliations Example

Jeri and Seek Yu work in the same company. Jeri directs IT services, and Seek Yu is an account manager. They are meeting to work out how IT will handle the company's number three customer's latest application need. The following conversation begins after a few comments about the rain and the company's surprising stock price swing.


Did I hear that you were an attorney before you switched to Client Services?

Seek Yu:

Yes, I was a litigator. It was fun, but so acrimonious. I much prefer this work. I used these applications as an attorney, so I can really understand what our clients need.


Where were you an attorney?

Seek Yu:

In New York, at a trademark law firm you’ve probably never heard of.


What a coincidence. My brother’s a trademark attorney in New York. I’ll bet he knows the firm. So what got you to move to Philadelphia?

Seek Yu:

I was down here twice a month for special chiropractic treatments for my back and found it a more livable city. So this fit was perfect for me.


Back problems? Me too. I have a slipped disc that goes out of whack every once in a while. See this ergonomic desk chair I got? With a doctor’s note about what I needed, the company purchased a special chair to support my back. Not one slip since!

Seek Yu:

Really? Can I try it out?


Tell you what? If you can make my life a little easier on this application deadline, I’ll give you my chair. Now, tell me about the client’s needs so we can start thinking about this project.

  • Practice finding affiliations: Try it with a restaurant manager, your child's teacher, taxi cab driver. Who else?
  • Add the personal touch to those email and phone calls as well. Open every email with a pleasant sentence (i.e., "Hope this note finds you well", "Glad we had time last week to cover so much", "I was thinking about that vacation you were headed off to; you'll have to fill me in next time we meet.") Soften them up before you press on with business.

How much time to spend on building rapport?

As much as it takes. But keep perspective.

Take the amount of time that makes sense for the result you want. Will you always be dealing with the same person, or will they change regularly? Are you forging a new supply channel on another continent? Is this one of 20 new customers a month you are closing? Will the exchange lead up to several bargaining sessions, or are the issues minimal?

The idea is to keep the amount of time you spend on building rapport at any one session in proportion to the situation and desired relationship. How much time is spent in the Warm Up depends on four main factors:

  1. Stage of the relationship (new, renewed, long established)
  2. Anticipated difficulty of the issues
  3. Amount of information you still don't know or are assuming
    More unknowns = More rapport needed
  4. Culture

Culture Can Matter

In many relationship-oriented cultures, business is conducted only with people known and trusted. Period. So they cannot do business with you until you go through the rituals of Exchange. Depending on the culture and the stage of the relationship, this could take hours, weeks or months.

In many relationship-oriented cultures, such as Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, building rapport is an essential step before any negotiation begins. You may have experienced or heard entertaining stories where fast-paced Western negotiators reluctantly socialized for hours, even days, with the other side. They became frustrated by the lack of business-related talk over fabulous but extravagant meals. Similarly, those who value relationships more than contracts are frustrated by an approach of "let's get down to business" urged by those from more task-oriented cultures. In most cases, you want to find a way to honor the cultural norms of both parties.

In the Exchange Stage of a negotiation, you cannot lose by taking the time to build a relationship.

  • If you become too comfortable you may over-disclose unnecessary information about your interests and position.

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