Building Rapport When You Disagree

“Yes, we are all different. Different customs, different foods, different mannerisms, different languages, but not so different that we cannot get along with one another. If we will disagree without being disagreeable.”

—J. Martin Kohe

I look around and wonder if we’ve lost our ability to “disagree without being disagreeable.” If bringing that skill back sounds good to you, knowing how to build rapport is key.

Rapport is about being harmonious in a relationship or communication. It’s a sense of kinship. In the Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) I teach, we define rapport as the ability to relate to others in a way that creates trust and understanding. You’re able to grasp another’s point of view even if you don’t agree with it or even like it. You may or may not be able to persuade that other person to your viewpoint. But it’s unlikely that the conversation will explode in your face.

We all create rapport automatically in certain interactions. For example, we bend down and talk slowly to a little kid using simpler language, right? When we’re comforting a grieving friend, it’s natural to speak more softly and even breathe more deeply. We are naturally getting into synch with that other person.

Not all of us are professional rapport builders. But many of the people who build rapport for a living use techniques from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) that I’m about to share with you. For example, investigators in the FBI and the police department need to build rapport with witnesses and informants. Once they’ve built that rapport, barriers naturally dissolve, trust grows and information flows more freely. Therapists must first build rapport so their patients feel a sense of intimacy that helps them talk about their deepest wounds. Anyone who is excellent in sales understands that the sale is determined more by the rapport customers feel than the merits of your product.

You may not need to be a rapport builder to succeed in your profession—though I can’t imagine a profession where it wouldn’t help you—but in times when heated arguments have replaced casual water cooler chatter and family reunions look like WWIII, you just might find rapport building skills helpful.

By the way, building rapport is not about being phony. It’s not about pretending to agree with someone or manipulating them in some way. Rapport building is more along the lines of stepping into someone else’s shoes. It sets up a non-threatening atmosphere where real conversation can happen rather than defensive blustering and posturing.

It starts with intent. If your intent is only to change the mind of someone who is on the far end of the seesaw, forget it. If your positions are that far apart, neither of you will change the other. A better intent is to listen, understand and find the higher intention you both share. Build good rapport (with the steps below), and focus the conversation on the major intentions you share. If you want cheaper energy and he wants to protect the environment, what do you share? Desire for a better quality of life? What if you want to stay home for a quiet dinner while your spouse wants to get together with friends? You both might be looking for connection and relaxation.

To find that larger idea you share, start by establishing rapport. (If you prefer the excitement of a good shouting match, you can skip the rest of this article.) NLP has some powerful techniques that are easy to use. It takes some practice and you need to stay aware of how the other person is responding.

The techniques are called “mirroring, matching and pacing” and you apply them both verbally and non-verbally. The point is to minimize differences between the two of you, to become more in synch with how you express yourselves. The key is to be subtle, not to mimic the other person broadly.

Body language: When people are in rapport (like couples who have been together for a long time), they start looking like each other. Their posture, gestures, and eye contact all seem very similar. Matching another person physically is powerful. But it’s also easy to go overboard, leaving the other person feeling weirded out and offended, not in harmony with you. Again, subtlety is the key. Think of how professional skaters move with one another: They move together, like one unit, even as each skater expresses their own personality.

In conversation, if the other person stands up straight with shoulders back, straighten your own posture a bit. If they tend to stand slightly sideways to you, stand at a slight angle as well. If they stand 6 inches from you as they talk, avoid backing up to create more distance. If they keep their hands very still, keep your own gestures to a minimum.

If you’re talking with someone who holds steady eye contact, keep yours as steady as you can. If they sway as they talk, move subtly with them. If they nod as they talk, nod along with them. Notice their breathing: if it’s fast and shallow, pace your own breathing to match.

You may notice that you feel uncomfortable at first if the body language you’re mirroring is very different than yours. You’ve developed your own body language and now you’re using one that is unfamiliar. Practice matching a few physical expressions at a time. For instance, start mirroring posture and gestures only. When you feel comfortable with those, add matching eye contact and maybe synching your breathing to theirs.

Language: People express themselves in their “preferred representational system.” They tend to be auditory, visual or kinesthetic (hearing, seeing or feeling). People with an auditory preference will say, “I hear what you’re saying” whereas a visual person will say, “I see what you mean” and a kinesthetic person might say, “I feel you, bro.” Or in agreeing about something: “That sounds good” versus “We see eye to eye on this” versus “That hits the mark.” Once you figure out what their primary expression is—hearing, seeing or feeling—start incorporating it in your own language.

Also, many of us have been taught to be “active listeners” and to paraphrase back to someone what they’ve just said to show we understand. Someone says “I feel embarrassed” and we respond with “So you feel ashamed?” Wrong! To build rapport, use their exact words. Each person’s vocabulary has specific meaning to them. When you use a different word, you might be close, but they won’t hear that you speak their specific language and you won’t promote rapport.

Voice: Voice has to do with how a person says something. It’s the volume or pace or pitch of their speech. If they speak softly in a higher pitch, lower your own volume and pitch your voice slightly higher. If you’re talking to someone who speaks in a slow monotone, trying slowing your own speech down and use less inflection than normal.

Listening: Most of us don’t really listen. We’re just catching just enough of what the other person says so we can form our next comment or rebuttal. Authentic listening is when you listen deeply, trying to understand another’s ideas, values, and beliefs without judgement. I know it can be tough but it can also be a relief when you decide, “Hey, I’m just going to listen without defending my position.” Listen as if you’ll have to write a term paper on what that other person is truly about. You don’t have to agree with or absorb what they say. Just understand where they’re coming from.

Try practicing these skills with a friend. It may seem awkward at first, but you’ll soon experience the difference it can make in your relationships and communications. People tend to like and trust people who are like themselves. Using these techniques, you can minimize the difference and distance between you and others.

“Embrace a diversity of ideas. Embrace the fact that you can disagree with people and not be disagreeable. Embrace the fact that you can find common ground - if you disagree on nine out of 10 things, but can find common ground on that 10th, maybe you can make progress. If you can find common ground, you can accomplish great things.” — David Boies

To your TOTAL empowerment!


Dr. Matt.


Byline: Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of The Empowerment Partnership. Author of several books, Dr. Matt has trained thousands of students to be totally empowered using Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Huna, Mental Emotional Release® (MER®) therapy, and Empowerment Fit, a program that incorporates targeted mind/body/spirit practices to create optimal physical fitness and health. To reach Dr. James, please e-mail him at or visit his blog at

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