Quick Rapport Tips
As anyone who is dedicated to self-development will know there are no shortage of tools, techniques and shortcuts for helping to gain rapport and build, or improve, harmonious relationships.
These shortcuts frequently come from genuinely original thinking and can help in stimulating new behaviours. In many cases though they become over-used and people perversely refuse to try them simply because they seem to be faddish.
Here is a short and simple tool that anyone can use, with minimal fuss and maximum impact.
All it needs is to embrace ‘and’… In particular how we should use it to replace ‘but’ or ‘however’, and fight the tyranny of ‘or’.
Leonard Marcus, founding codirector of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, has written and spoken about this powerful technique for years now. Over his many years of researching and teaching negotiation and conflict resolution, he has discovered how it subtly reframes whatever topic is on the table. Many of the best negotiators include this technique in their toolkit.
The Simon Cowell Feedback Technique
Let’s start with what’s wrong with ‘but’ and ‘however’. To do this let’s dip into popular culture and look at the work of Mr. Simon Cowell. He, rightly, has quite a reputation for harsh feedback and to be fair is in an industry where the feedback will, by the nature of the industry, be public. There are many examples where I’m sure he imagined he was being helpful, but he is a master of the destructive two-part feedback, like the one I have just used.
Essentially, he has two contrasting messages to deliver, one positive and one negative, like this gem:
“Yes you have personality, but dogs have personality.”
Because Simon is on TV it is unnecessarily cruel, presumably to get a cheap laugh. The important thing to note here is the use of ‘but’. When we do this we send a subtle but distinct signal suggesting that the negative message is more important or more true than the positive, and the impact of the positive message on the recipient is diminished or cancelled out. The word could easily be replaced with ‘however’ and some people who know they shouldn’t use ‘but’ will throw this into the sentence instead. In reality, to most of us it makes very little difference which of these is used.
“Yes you have personality, however dogs have personality.”
In the world of work, when you faced with situations where you are expected to give feedback presumably you are more restrained. For example:
- I know you’re doing your best, but it’s not enough.
- I love working with you, but I’m really frustrated with you right now.
- I know that you were helping the customer, but you’ve wasted a lot of time today.
In each case the message the staff member or colleague hears is:
- …it’s not enough.
- …I’m really frustrated with you right now.
- …you’ve wasted a lot of time today.
Obviously on some level that was what you wanted them to hear but consider how false the first half of the sentence may sound from their perspective. Time to test your self-awareness, instead of defending your position consider the last time you were given feedback of this nature. Did it improve your relationship with the person giving it? Did it lead to you having more respect for them? Did it affect your self-esteem?
The point of this article is not to say that you should never give feedback designed to improve performance or correct mistakes. Of course we should, particularly if we are in positions of leadership. It’s how we do this that demonstrates our own emotional intelligence and understanding of others’ behaviour and motivation.
The Tyranny of Or
In order to fully embrace the ‘and’ model, we also need to understand a concept called the ‘Tyranny of Or’.
From a young age we have been taught, both intentionally and unintentionally, to adopt Or thinking. We are told by, largely well-meaning, parents, teachers and other significant influencers, to believe that in order to enjoy financial abundance we must work faster, harder, be more analytical, and have more education than the next person. This mindset is very hard to resist and comes with us into our adulthood. We believe that if we seek to have a creative job, such as musician, artist, poet, or any other similar profession, that our lives will be rich with empathy, purpose, culture and love. But we will, almost certainly, end up flat broke.
Alternatively, if we become a leader, executive, or other respected professional, we will economically prosper, but we will pay the price in our personal lives. Our lives will lack purpose, our relationships will be empty, our health will be compromised due to stress, and we will have little to no intuition or empathy.
This is the Tyranny of Or and it is a challenge to realise that this separation is an illusion.
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not we can all balance creativity and logic within ourselves. We are both artistic and accurate, open-minded and detail-oriented, empathic and cerebral, brain and brawn. We become the best version of ourselves when we have these twin resources working together. This harmony of self is what our organisations, our relationships and, indeed, society need.
So, what makes Or so attractive. On the one hand, we like ‘or’ questions because they are simple – it’s either one or the other. We don’t have to bother with boring things like analysis. It also rewards urgency, “Quick! Choose, what’s wrong with you, it’s either one or the other?”
‘Or’ questions also promote a pretty simple view of the world in which we live. Reflect on the most heated discussions at home. Many will have featured an ‘Or’ proposition. Think back on the most ugly and divisive work negotiations you’ve been involved in; again ‘Or’ propositions probably feature heavily.
The reality of our world is almost nothing is as a simple as an A or B choice; the world is an infinite number of shades of grey – not all black or all white. In fact, this approach to a world view is more destructive than can be adequately covered in this article. This type of world view is actually one of the most common cognitive distortions.
In 1976, psychologist Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and in the 1980s, David Burns was responsible for popularising it with common names and examples for the distortions. To give ‘black or white’ thinking its proper name, it is known as polarised thinking.
In polarised thinking, things are either “black-or-white” — all or nothing. We must be perfect or we’re a complete and abject failure — there is no middle ground. A person with polarised thinking places people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of grey or allowing for the complexity of most people and most situations. A person with black-and-white thinking sees things only in extremes.
When we buy into the ‘Or’ proposition, we are creating a fantasy world that doesn’t really connect with the real world. The stronger our ‘Or’ view is the harder it is for us to embrace ’And’.
Which leads us to an alternative approach.
Rejecting ‘but’ and ‘or’.
By now you are hopefully reflecting on your own approach and are ready to consider an alternative. There are two parts to this.
The first part is so simple it feels like we should all have known this from when we first started communicating. Remember the contrasting messages approach used by Simon Cowell, along the lines of, “That was your best performance yet, but you’re still not very good.” The positive nature of the first half of the feedback is destroyed by the second half. Depending on the individual’s self-esteem they may not even acknowledge the first part at all.
Here’s the first technique, swap the feedback around; put the first part second and the second part first. Yes, it’s that simple. When we receive feedback most of us focus on negative comments and the last thing said, so when the last thing is also negative it really hits home. This simple trick lessens the impact. This is another Simon Cowell quote:
“When you started, you were annoying; then you got more annoying, but then I liked you.”
Would you rather receive this one or the one about personality? While your brain is dealing with the ‘…annoying…’ bit you hear ‘…I liked you’ and it gives you a lift that there is something positive to work on.
Let’s swap around the work-related examples from earlier:
- It’s not enough, but I know you’re trying hard.
- I’m really frustrated with you right now, but I love working with you.
- You’ve wasted a lot of time today, but I know that you were helping the customer.
You’re still opening up the conversation to address any issues and you’re not, unintentionally, damaging someone’s self-esteem. The negative part of the feedback is softened by placing the positive part last.
The second simple remedy is to substitute “and” for “but” when we’re looking to convey a complex message that includes both positive and negative elements.
- It’s not enough, and I know you’re trying hard.
- I’m really frustrated with you right now, and I love working with you.
- You’ve wasted a lot of time today, and I know that you were helping the customer.
The ‘and’ is implicitly an invitation to solve a problem, whereas the ‘but’ tends to be heard as blaming.
Now, all that’s needed is a way to continue the dialogue further by using an open question. For example, “How can I help?”, “What support do you need?”, “Any ideas?”
Which would you rather hear from a colleague or manager?
- “I know that you were helping the customer, but you’ve wasted a lot of time today.”
- “You’ve wasted a lot of time today, and I know that you were helping the customer. What could I do to help next time?”
This suggestion isn’t foolproof, of course, people may still miss the positive message and focus on the negative. Nor should it be followed in a rigid or inflexible way; once someone thinks you are trying out a technique they can feel patronised, even if your intentions are positive