My mother used to tease me by saying that I could talk to a rock and get it to talk back. As a child I would go up to strangers and start asking questions and more likely than not, they would stop and answer my questions and I got very smart, at a very young age, about how things work in the world.
When I finished college, my first job in research included door-to-door interviews about the new Head StartTM program under President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” umbrella. My respondents lived in substandard housing in a remote rural community deep in the southwest corner of Virginia.
The town looked as if nothing had changed since the Civil War. Among those of us assigned as interviewers, I had the highest rate of “access” – actually getting them to open the door and letting me in to do the interview. These interviews predated today’s current rules of never going alone to someone’s house and never eating the food or drinking beverages once inside.
On that project I drank a lot of “double sweet” Kool-Aid from mason jars and ate a lot of boxed sugar cookies and Fig-Newtons in the homes of the respondents. In looking back, I realize that my high access rates related to quick rapport building.
I never much thought about what techniques I used to gain their trust so they would let me in the house. I used the same “script” as my colleagues: “Hi, I’m Naomi and I’m doing a project for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington, D.C., and I would like to ask you some questions as part of a survey. I don’t have anything to sell.”
In looking back, I realized I didn’t start with that phrase! I did say it, but not as the first thing spoken to the resident.
Here’s what I did:
- I tapped on the door – a polite, not imperious knock, and when it opened, I said “Hi,” and I smiled.
- I waited until I got a smile back and I kept eye contact until I did.
- I said, “It sure is hot out here – can I come in and talk to you for about 15 minutes? I’m not a salesman – I’m Naomi and I……. That’s when I said the words in the script.
Most of the time, I got into a house and when I didn’t, the rejection came fast, through a door only opened a crack and I heard only a voice saying, “Go away – we don’t want any of whatever you are selling!” – I didn’t see any eyes and the next thing I did see included a really close look at a closed wooden door.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen too often. In retrospect, I can see what small elements contributed to my success rate: “Hi” + smile + “I’m Naomi” + a timeline. Small elements that added up to open doors and long interviews – not to mention refreshments!
Just recently, while teaching a fundamentals class about the “Art and Science of Moderating,” a student asked: “Doesn’t it take a long time to establish rapport, and won’t it take time away from the research?”
I forgave her both her assumptions and double-barreled question and said, “Rapport can take a few seconds or a few minutes and if you don’t take the time to create it, the quality of future comments and interactions is reduced. Good rapport actually saves time in the long run.”
Without strong rapport, the research interview can often be just a long series of “I ask/you answer” dialogue, where the moderator is pulling answers out of respondents rather than having spontaneous comments light up the discussion like Fourth of July fireworks.
Listening and watching that style of moderating is quickly boring for observers. Another victim of poor or limited rapport: a moderator runs the risk of tiring easily and figuring out how to ask questions that lead the witness in the desired direction of the study objectives rather than emerging on the other side of those objectives, driven there by the respondents themselves.
Limited or poor rapport bridges reduces the effectiveness of the wonderful tool that qualitative research can provide: forwarding client knowledge about respondent perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes (POBAs).
The rest of the class gave me ample time to demonstrate that fact via mock interviews with the class and with recruited respondents. At the end of the course she said, “I get it – rapport is the key to the game – if you take time to make a relationship with respondents – they will probably about tell you anything you want to know.” I praised her perspicacity, and I knew the rapport lesson had been learned well.
As I continue to lead focus groups, one-on-ones, and in-home ethnographic interviews, I have found, over the years, that rapport is a multilayered process, and while it doesn’t take long to make it, it isn’t composed of just one activity. It reminds me of the act of walking – not something I think about when I’m doing it, but when you break it down, it is composed of many different activities that encompasses the whole body – head, shoulders, arms, quads, knees, calves, and ankles and not just the feet.
The research definition of rapport is to be in close or sympathetic relationship; in harmony. It is the same thing that is created when you shake hands with someone in a social setting. In many respects, rapport is an “emotional handshake.”
Once created, an unspoken agreement to engage in conversation is reached via a bridge called rapport. The moderator has…
- created a safe space for respondents to answer a wide variety of questions.
- demonstrated a non-judgmental listening style and respondents step up to answer because they know that they will be listened to and respected.
- established guidelines for behavior.
- presented an open manner and attentive attitude.
It starts with ten seconds of eye contact and moves on to the critical first three minutes of a group where participants form their first opinions about me and that is where the platform for rapport is built.
Without rapport, discussion can take place, but will invariably lack the richness of interviews where it is present and may well affect the level of candor achieved.
I know it is my job, as a moderator, to establish and manage rapport as early as I can and be willing to rebuild rapport at any stage of the interview as needed.
Yes, I probably can talk to a rock and get an answer. Now I know that ability is a well-honed skill called building rapport.
Written by: Naomi Henderson, CEO & Co-Founder