How to use body language to create rapport

Your non-verbal communication influences how other people behave and respond to you. So this month’s article builds on the last article about influencing skills, by focusing on how to use body language to create rapport and develop yourself.

How to use body language to create rapport

Why is body language important?

You may have heard the statistic that only 7% of effective communication is the words we use, with 38% being tone of voice and 55% being body language. Although widely quoted as ‘fact’, this research by Mehrabian only applied to incongruent communications (when the verbal and non-verbal elements didn’t match).

Nevertheless, non-verbal communication can be more impactful than verbal as it’s very primal. When we were born, we couldn’t speak; our only method of understanding was to see how people behaved around us and the tone of voice they used.

As a leader, it’s important to think about the effect you are having on other people. The body language you use affects others. Neuro-science is exploring how human beings are ‘soft-wired’ for sociability, attachment, affection and companionship. Our first drive is to belong, and we are naturally empathic. The theory goes that we actually experience another’s plight as though we are experiencing it ourselves. Therefore, it pays to be conscious of the effect your body language has on others, as well as the effect theirs has on you. What’s the impact? Is it helpful?

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what ISN’T said.”
Peter Drucker

How to build rapport

Rapport is fundamental to effective communication and influencing, and body language plays a big part. When two people are in rapport there is mutual influence and respect between them – this is a significant point.

When building relationships, you can consciously work on building rapport by observing people’s mannerisms and reflecting them in your own behaviour to show you understand their point of view (in a way that’s authentic to you). It’s not about copying people in a fake way in order to manipulate them. It’s about ‘meeting them in their world’ in order to achieve the outcome you both want.

You can tell when a couple in a restaurant are in rapport, because they are matching or mirroring each other – they may lean towards each other, and when one takes a sip of wine the other follows. Equally, it’s easy to tell from their body language when a couple are not in rapport!

To build rapport…
“Take a genuine interest in another person; be curious about who they are and how they think; be willing to see the world from their point of view.”  
Adapted from NLP Workbook by Joseph O’Connor

In working with others, use all your senses to spot:

  • Tone and speed of voice
  • Body posture
  • Distance from you
  • Gestures
  • Energy level
  • Rate of breathing
  • Key words

To show you understand their point of view, enter their world by mirroring their speech and other mannerisms using the above clues to guide you.

For example, imagine you are talking to someone who’s at a high energy level and speaking very fast. Initially, you should talk at their pace to establish rapport. Once you’ve got rapport, you can adjust your behaviour to what you believe is the optimal speed – they should follow you. Slow down, and you will both become more reflective and arrive at the insights you need. It’s like a natural dance that goes on between two people, but done consciously without being fake.


Remember, people value trustworthiness above competence, so you also need to build trust. Find out more in my article about trust.

Top tip:
Watch out for clues about the other person’s beliefs and values. If there is a mis-match at that level, you’ll never achieve rapport, no matter what body language you each employ.

Note that cultural differences affect body language. For example, in Borneo it’s offensive to point with your first finger; instead, you should curl your fingers into your hand and point with your thumb.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

Dr Robert Rosenthal of the University of California (formerly of Harvard) has conducted many studies of how body language can affect rapport, by examining silent videos of less than 30 seconds each – he called them “thin slices of non-verbal behaviour”.

By watching the body language used in class, he could predict which end-of-term ratings students would give their teacher. He observed which students would do well academically simply because their teachers had higher expectations and treated them differently. And, when watching doctors meeting patients, he could predict which doctors would be sued and which wouldn’t for making the same error.

Top tip:
When you expect more of the people you come into contact with, you treat them differently non-verbally. They respond by generating better results.

According to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), the eye muscles are connected to different parts of the brain. By watching the direction that people look, you can see which part of their brain is active at the time.

  • When someone looks up and to the right, they are visualising and creating. It doesn’t mean they are not listening to you (they’ll look at you again when they’re ready). It’s important not to interrupt them during this process.
  • When people look up and to the left, they are visualising and remembering.
  • When they look right and sideways, they are hearing and creating.
  • When they look left and sideways, they are experiencing an auditory memory.
  • When they look down and to the right, they are accessing their feelings.
  • When they look down and to the left, they are having a conversation with themselves.

You can test this theory for yourself. If you are experiencing a challenge and find yourself looking down, instead of getting stuck in your feelings, try looking up and right, to ask yourself what options there may be. If you are trying to remember something you heard, try looking sideways and left, to activate the part of your brain where that auditory memory is stored.

People also tend to have a natural preference for being visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. You can spot this in their language: “I see what you mean”, “I hear what you are saying”, “I feel…” Do you have a preference?!

“Your body language shapes who you are”

You might find this 21-minute TED video interesting, where Amy Cuddy explains how your body language shapes who you are.

This video also shows how you can use body language to help yourself to grow and develop.

“Fake it ’til you make it” – If you’re not feeling confident, act as if you are and people will respond accordingly. Over time you should find that you do start to feel more confident as your behaviour re-programmes your mind. If you don’t feel happy, just smile anyway and over time you will feel more positive.

There’s more on this in my article about confidence.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Henry Ford

So, you can see how significant a part body language plays in our relationships and influence with others, as well as our self-confidence and personal development. I hope you have fun experimenting and learning!

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like more information about body language and rapport.

The next article focuses on how to promote the work of your department.