Building Rapport in Your Therapy Sessions

By Lynn Massey-Davis  ·  8th Aug 2018   
Building Rapport in Your Therapy Sessions
Building rapport between therapist and client (Photo by © Photographee.eu - stock.adobe.com)
Rapport in hypnotherapy

In engaging with someone in hypnotherapy, you must earn your client’s trust. Without trust there is no relationship. Without trust a person will not to let themselves be led into a trance and the therapeutic intention cannot be achieved. The client will leave dissatisfied and the therapist will feel deskilled.

Achieving rapport is central to any therapeutic relationship but is even more central to the practice of hypnotherapy.

 

The origins of rapport

Rapport is, an English word derived from the French verb “rapporter” meaning to bring back or refer. The English word has connotations which link back to - harmony, accord, affinity and generally ease of understanding, all of which are essential to successful communication.

 Rapport is a social phenomenon and most of us do it unconsciously most of the time.

In our social world we are most often in rapport with our friends and our life partner(s) or those we are attracted to.

Sit in any coffee shop or bar and watch people socialising. It will be a sea, teaming with rapport at every table.  

It doesn’t take much skill to spot people who are in love or attracted to each other. One will pick up their glass, the other will too. One will cross their legs or sweep their hair back off their face, the other will too (which is an even more interesting gesture to watch when the bloke has a shaven head!). 

In some couples there is an ease where they can finish off each other’s sentences, or anticipate moods based on the rapport between them. The opposite is true too. You can spot discomfort a mile away, the cold prickles are almost touchable.

Rapport in therapy, means consciously using this social mirroring of gesture, nonverbal sounds and language to artificially build an ease with a client. It isn’t manipulative, it is professional skill.

Take for example the case study of therapy, where the rapport was poorly established. This is what the client reported: 

 “I was having therapy anxiety. I have suffered from it all my life and family members used to say I was “highly strung”.

As a child I though this had something to do with telegraph wires, not the high-pitched screech of a tightly strung instrument ready to break at any moment as the metaphor implies.

I felt uncomfortable in my sessions and I couldn’t work out why. I really wanted the help, especially to help me stop waking up at 3am with noisy thoughts racing around my head and being overwhelmed by negativity which hadn’t been as bad before. I committed myself to the intervention. The truth was though, the sessions grated.

I sat down across a low table from my therapist, at the correct angle for good communication (so I am told), and he introduced the process of the session and objectives for what was our second session.

Then he gave me a resume of what I had said the previous time and that is where it all went wrong.

I didn’t recognise me from the description he gave, it jarred. 

There were several discords, but the worst was he changed my chosen word anxiety - which for me means a physical response to stress - to the word “worry” which has a completely different meaning to me.

It went downhill from there.  I felt he hadn’t listened or understood my world and when he leaned back in his chair and un-subtly looked at his watch five minutes before the end I felt we were in completely different places. I didn’t go back”

It is easy to spot what went wrong in that case, but even if you are skilled in your approach; a good understanding and practice of rapport can make it even better.

 

Why rapport is important

Building rapport takes effort, skill and the belief that it is an important part of communication.  It is tiring because not only do you have to consciously manage the process of the session, you have to manage every aspect of your body too. Someone said that as a hypnotherapist, you must behave like a swan. Seeming to glide effortlessly on the river of therapy whilst all the time, beneath the surface, paddling furiously in a way that is unseen and unnoticed.

SwanWe learn about the world through our sensory experience and build an internal working model of how we relate to it. We develop categories, learn what we prefer, including language, food, music, people, knowledge etc.. Understanding rapport starts with the knowledge that we all have different models of the world inside our heads which are important to us but hidden from others in their detail. Building rapport involves a genuine attempt to understand that model of the world offered up by the person we are with and it is quite easy to demonstrate to you, even as you read this article. 

Please stop reading now and give your attention to your idea of “A basket of fruit”.

Give the thought time to crystallise in your head so that you can see the basket and its contents clearly from any angle you choose.

You can look at it in any way, walk round it in your mind or manipulate it, put it under a spotlight even, but the more intense you make the experience, the better your reflection will be.

Think about colour, texture and shape and even note the fruits you know are there.

If you have done the exercise properly (there is still time to give it a go if you haven’t!), you will have a very clear idea of what is in your basket and even what the container is made of and looks like.

It might link to a real-life basket from a memory.  The basket might be from an experience of a long-ago harvest festival, a present when sick or be a complete fantasy basket.  

Mine will have red russet apples whilst yours may have bananas, cherries and strawberries.

Reading these words, I can guarantee that you will be thinking “mine’s not like that”.

You will spot differences between the words on this page and your own mental image and it may cause a feeling of minor irritation, discomfort, or even pleasure that yours is better. But to achieve rapport, as skilled helpers we must try to enter this internal model of the world of the person we are working with, or at least appear to understand it if we want to achieve more in our professional relationships.

 

How to build rapport with your body

To be in rapport ideally you need to match some aspects of a person’s physical movements – crossing the same leg for instance, shifting balance when seated, leaning forwards or backwards after them, but not too closely.

You need to match them gradually and “just enough”. If it is forced, instant, stiff and too precise it looks creepy and unnatural. You might of course find yourself doing it quite naturally but if not, you need to practice.

If you need to practice you can do it in an informal training or skill share, failing that with a family member.

Designate the person you are talking to as a leader and you as follower explain what you are doing, and the first time ask them to change their posture from time to time while you talk. 

This is important because unless they are naturally good at rapport, they could end up following you!

Make your changes natural, time it with pauses in conversation and don’t make it too accurate.

 Be aware of your own body too, for example if you find crossing your legs difficult and they do it then don’t, cross your ankles instead.

Ask for feedback at the end; not “how good was I?” but instead ask “how was that for you?” The question is deliberately vague and invites open ended comment. Don’t let them get away with “good”. If they simply say “good” return with “good, how?” seek as much information as possible without interrogation.

Another fun technique to try is to pretend to be a mirror. Stand facing your partner. Designate a leader and follower and try as best you can to follow every gesture as if you were their image in a mirror. Whist it has less to do with rapport than more subtle mirroring, it is good for honing your observation skills. To try to make is more like real life, add a conversation to the process. There is a wonderful video on YouTube of Dawn French in her role as The Vicar of Dibley doing “The Mirror Dance” with Darcey Bussell demonstrating how not to do mirroring !

Someone who is skilled at rapport can bring another down from an angry state by mirroring anger or distress somewhat and then gradually dropping the emotional pitch to de-escalate a situation, but this takes skill and practice and knowing when and when not to do it. However, you must not be highly emotionally aroused yourself or you will end up in the same position as them which undermines the skilled helper role you are trying to have.

 

How to build rapport by matching language

When you describe something, (an emotion or a thing which matters to you) the words you chose to express it are important. These phrases are often consistent over time and are clues to our model of the world.  They link to the way we see the world and give a subtle clue to how we interact with it.

Imagine you are trying to sell an idea to someone and they want to better understand the benefits, they might say:

I want to see the features more clearly”

“I want to hear the detail in your proposal”

Or:

“I want to feel I understand every part better”

We all have a register which we use habitually, and it is to do with how we sense and think about the world.

Some of us think in pictures so we will use language a metaphor which relates to colour, light and shape, referring often to what we can see.  

Others, particularly those with a more musical or linguistic bent, work in language related to sound. So, these people will refer to their sense of hearing when talking about how they perceive the world. Such phrases as:

“That sounds good to me!”

“Music to me ears.”

“You are speaking my language”

And many more besides. A third category are those who work with the kinaesthetic which relates to feeling, texture and emotions.  It is interesting that in schools, 85% of teachers think and talk visually which creates an instant mis-match between them and those who learn best through the senses of touch and feeling. Such children seem to do better in sport and practical activities.

Language rapport also involves using words chosen skilfully to demonstrate that you are listening. You can’t fully enter into someone’s model of the world, because of “the basket of fruit conundrum” mentioned earlier. You can however, give a sign that you are listening, and they have been understood by reflecting the words which are important to them.

Beware though; beware of the age, education and culture of a person you are working with.  

Language changes rapidly, never more so than now. Don’t try too hard to use words and phrases which are unnatural to you or the insincerity will show.

Just remember David Cameron’s attempt to be “modern” by signing off a text to a friend with LOL which he thought meant “lots of love”

In the example above the therapist changed the word “anxiety” to “worry” without any exploration of what anxiety meant for that person. There was a presupposition that worry was the most important aspect of anxiety, when it could have been things.  A simple “tell me about anxiety” or even “Anxiety?” would have demonstrated rapport.

In any problem situation, listening to the key words and reflecting them back simply and accurately, demonstrates you are listening, increases rapport, and invites clarification.

Rapport makes your working invisible. When good rapport is established, our work with clients is superior.  This can be demonstrated with reference to another story. 

Imagine you client is down a metaphorical pit of despair.  If you have sympathy you can stand on the edge of the pit and shout down to them: “I am sorry you are in the pit”

As a therapist, if you over-empathise with your client, you end up entering the pit with them.  This can be exhausting and unsustainable.

 “I know how you feel; I will join you in the pit”, is a demonstration of rapport however;  we enter their world, but we have a lifeline back to ours so that we can be with them and guide them through hypnotherapy back out of the pit and into wherever they need to be.

 

Endnote

Whilst walking their dogs, the husband of a therapist admitted to her he was feeling overwhelmed by a particular, negative feeling.  Because she had been working on her rapport skills she simply responded:

“Overwhelmed?”

What followed was a very useful conversation indeed.

 

Further Reading

De Shazar, S (1994) Words were Originally Magic W.W. Norton and Company ISBN: 978-0393701708

 Lawley,J & Tompkins P (2000)  Metaphors in Mind, Developing Company Press  ISBN: 978-0953875108

Owen, N (2001) The Magic of Metaphor 77 Stories for Teachers, Trainers & Thinkers Crown House Publishing  ISBN: 978-1899836703


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