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  • Kathy O'Brien

Can Listening Repair Rapport?

As it was an unplanned meeting, I introduced our topic in my opening line as I introduced myself to a business associate. Her immediate reaction was an emotional outburst. With a raised voice, rapid-fire words and angry energy, she made it clear I had offended her.


My offense? Poor word choice. My tone was cheery, my facial expression was friendly; but one word set her off. And this was, indeed, my fault.


This missed connection reminded me of two things : that neutral word choice is a tremendous rapport-builder; and that good listening can repair broken rapport.


Why neutral word choice? When approaching a sensitive topic – one with opposing views, or simply two perspectives – the speaker must describe the situation without judgement. This is a core piece of any ‘difficult conversation’ model we’ve learned in corporate training; and it’s much harder to achieve than even I, a communications coach, appreciated. Take these examples:


Provocative word choice: When you criticised my writing

Neutral word choice: When you asked me to rework the draft


Provocative word choice: Your plan to destroy our team’s harmony

Neutral word choice: Your plan to change the office layout


Provocative word choice: It’s clear you don’t care about showing up on time

Neutral word choice: You were late on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday


Each provocative word choice uses language based on the speaker’s values, concerns or point of view. To the listener, they can sound like name-calling, criticism or defensiveness.


Neutral language provides common ground for a conversation. It keeps the temperature in the room steady.


Having set off a negative dynamic with the woman I’d approached, I knew the only chance of recovery was through much-improved self-management – right then. It was up to me to rebuild that broken rapport. I chose one strategy: listening.


I listened for a long time. My statement had struck a nerve, and my companion spent hundreds of words telling my why I was wrong.


A quick self-check, and I knew I wasn’t in my best physical state: racing heart, tightness in my chest, shallow breathing. I had set off the fight-or-flight mechanism, and my body was in panic mode – not a prime state for good listening.


So I moved to self-management. I needed to project, with my nonverbal presence, all the positive intentions I had brought to this moment.


I gave her my full attention, both inside and out. My frame was pointed toward her, my eyes fixed on her face as she spoke. I pulled my shoulders wide to demonstrate openness (as opposed to the cowering stance they wanted to take). I nodded to show I understood her. I was holding something in my hands, so I checked: is my grip light? Am I holding myself like someone who’s really open to listening?


My self-talk – the instructions I was giving inside my mind – was all about her: Pay attention to her words – they matter to her. Notice the emotion – what does this mean to her? Listen to what she offers: she wants me to hear her conviction, her insights, her views. Note the things she repeats: repetition is a sign that she feels she has not been heard.


I knew in my heart that she deserved to be heard. And I knew in my head that I needed to listen carefully so I would understand not only the issues, but why they mattered to her. Only through listening would I gain an understanding from her perspective.


Slowly, as she spoke and I listened, her state changed. She slowed down and spoke with less vehemence. She paused thoughtfully and checked my face for understanding. She let me speak. I said little. Sure, my head had plenty of contrasting arguments – and they wanted to come out. Even so, my self-talk reminded me that now was not the time for scoring a point; it was a time for building a connection.




There was warmth between us when the conversation ended. We made direct eye contact and thanked each other. I admit, I was still trying to slow down my heartbeat, as my physiological response had been dramatic. But self-management and a total focus on the other person had enabled me to bring my better self back into the encounter, repair rapport, and project my real intentions to the other person.


It’s a journey, this business of improving communication. Having a few good tools in my pocket helps on the journey. I plan to use them more deliberately in the next leg.



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Kathy O'Brien is an executive communications coach and lifetime member of the International Listening Association.



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