For many, starting a conversation with a new client is a stressful event; we can be lost for words, awkward with our body language and mannerisms. Creating rapport at the beginning of a conversation with that new client will often make the outcome of the conversation more positive. However stressful and/or nervous you may feel, the first thing you need to do is to try to relax and remain calm. By decreasing the tension in the situation, communication becomes easier, and rapport grows.
Breaking the Ice
When meeting a prospective client for the first time, some simple techniques will help you reduce the tension in the situation enabling both parties to feel more relaxed and thus communicate more effectively:
Use non-threatening and ‘safe topics’ for initial small talk. Talk about established shared experiences, the weather, how you travelled to where you are. Avoid talking too much about yourself and avoid asking direct questions about the client.
Listen to what the client is saying and look for shared experiences or circumstances - this will give you more to talk about in the initial stages of communication.
Try to inject an element of humour. Laughing together creates harmony, make a joke about yourself or the situation/circumstances you are in but avoid making jokes about other people.
Be conscious of your body language and other non-verbal signals you are sending. Try to maintain eye contact for approximately 60% of the time. Relax and lean slightly towards them to indicate listening, mirror their body-language if appropriate.
Show some empathy. Demonstrate that you can see the client’s point of view. Remember rapport is all about finding similarities and ‘being on the same wavelength’ as the client - so being empathic will help to achieve this.
Make sure the client feels included but not interrogated during initial conversations. Just as you may feel tense and uneasy when meeting and talking to a new client, so may they.
Put the client at ease, this will enable you to relax and the conversation to take on a natural course.
Although initial conversations can help us to relax, most rapport-building happens without words and through non-verbal communication channels.
We create and maintain rapport subconsciously through matching non-verbal signals, including body positioning, body movements, eye contact, facial expressions and tone of voice with the client.
Watch two friends talking when you get the opportunity and see how they subconsciously mimic each other's non-verbal communication.
We create rapport instinctively; it is our natural defence from conflict, which most of us will try hard to avoid most of the time.
It is important that appropriate body language is used; we read and instantly believe what body language tells us, whereas we may take more persuading with vocal communication. If there is a mismatch between what we are saying verbally and what our body language is saying, then the person we are communicating with will believe the body language. Building rapport, therefore, begins with displaying appropriate body language - being welcoming, relaxed and open.
As well as paying attention to and matching body language with your client; it helps if you can also match their words. Reflecting and clarifying what has been said are useful tactics for repeating what has been communicated by the client. Not only will it confirm that you are listening, but it also allows you to use the words and phrases of the client, further emphasising similarity and common ground.
The way we use our voice is also important in developing rapport. When we are nervous or tense, we tend to talk more quickly, this, in turn, can make you sound tense and stressed. We can vary our voices, pitch, volume and pace in ways to make what we are saying more interesting but also to come across as more relaxed, open and friendly. Try lowering your tone, talk more slowly and softly, this will help you develop rapport more easily.
If you are sitting, lean forward towards your client, with hands open and arms and legs uncrossed. This is open body language and will help you and your client feel more relaxed.
Look at your client for approximately 60% of the time. Give plenty of eye-contact but be careful not to make them feel uncomfortable.
When you are listening, nod and make encouraging sounds and gestures.
Use your client’s name early in the conversation. This is not only seen as polite but will also reinforce the name in your mind, so you are less likely to forget it!
Ask your client open questions. Open questions require more than a yes or no answer.
Use feedback to summarise, reflect and clarify back to your client your interpretation of what they have said. This allows any misunderstandings to be rectified quickly.
Talk about things that refer back to what your client has said. Find links between common experiences.
Try to show empathy. Demonstrate that you can understand how your client feels and can see things from their point of view.
When in agreement with your client, openly say so and say why.
Build on your client’s ideas.
Be non-judgemental towards your client. Let go of stereotypes and any preconceived ideas you may have about your client.
If you have to disagree with your client, give the reason first then say you disagree.
Admit when you don’t know the answer or have made a mistake. Being honest is always the best tactic; acknowledging mistakes will help to build trust.
Be genuine, with visual and verbal behaviours working together to maximise the impact of your communication.
Offer a compliment, avoid criticism and be polite.
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