'Identifying people’s interests is easy – you only need to ask, but it’s how you do it that counts'

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By Dennis Sale

Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) Techniques for Building Rapport

In the previous column, I referred to the notion that ‘people like people like themselves’, as well as quoting Anthony Robbins (2001) who wrote: ‘Rapport is the ultimate tool for producing results with other people’. Also, I outlined the key framework of NLP, and its approach of asking the following key question when seeking to develop excellent performance:

  • What is it that highly effective people do (at the cognitive, affective and behavioural levels)?

  • How do they do it (what resources and strategies are involved)?

I then invited you to think of people you know who have excellent interpersonal communication skills who easily build rapport with other people, and then try to identify specifically what they actually do to achieve such outcomes. The following are useful techniques and illustrative examples from an NLP frame:

Use Sensory Acuity to identify other people’s interests, and calibrate your communication style to their primary representational systems

Now this seems complicated – but it is not. Remember, NLP (e.g., Dilts (1980), asserts:

When the confusions and complexities of life experiences are examined, sorted, and untangled, what remains is a set of behavioural elements and rules that aren’t too difficult to understand at all.

Sensory Acuity refers to the ability to notice, monitor, and make sense of the external cues provided by other people’s communication style. You may have noted that some people are able to ‘read’ other people well. You may think that you can do this also, but beware, there is also a tendency for most people to blame other people when things go wrong – it’s called attribution bias. However, expert psychologists, detectives and barristers tend to be better at ‘reading people’ than the lay public, and there are reasons for this. Most notably, such folk have a detailed understanding and deep skill in seeing slight changes in people’s voice patterns and body language features, that would not be significantly noticed and fully understood by most people. However, it is this capability that processes such subtle cues to enable the modelling, analysing and subsequent effective engagement with the inner psychological activity of others – how they are thinking and feeling. You know where this goes – right.

Identifying other people’s interests is really easy – you only need to ask them, but it’s how you do it that counts. Top customer service professionals don’t learn how to speak, smile and use their voice in certain specific ways just to fill up training hours on their staff development plans. As Mlodinow (2012) summarised:

The gestures we make, the position in which we hold our bodies, the expressions we wear on our faces, and the non-verbal qualities of our speech, all contribute to how others see us.

He goes as far as to argue that:

The pitch, timbre, volume of your voice, the speed with which you speak and even the ways you modulate pitch and volume are highly influential factors in how convincing you are and how people judge your state of mind and your character.

The smile is such a powerful interpersonal communication tool and means of building rapport. For example, if you smile at a student, he or she is likely to smile back at you and this can quickly spread to his or her classmates. This has such face validity – excuse the pun – but it is not so easy for many people to do this and, even more importantly, to do it well. In my first year in Singapore, there was a National Smile Campaign, as it was felt that local people did not smile much, and this would be a good thing to encourage in the community. The intention was well-founded, and it provided me with the opportunity to conduct one of those ‘strange experiments’ that social psychologists often partake in. The basic experimental design was simple, I smile at everybody I walk past in the local community. For the first day or two, most folk looked at me as though I was from another world. Persistence is a trait of most psychologists, so I continued the daily smiling routine, and guess what? Some started smiling back to me and, for one week (my designated time for the coverage of the experiment), I had several brief conversations with local Singaporeans. One even congratulated me on my bravery. Of interest, no one during this week initiated smiling at me. That experience may support the view that smiling is not particularly easy for many people. 

NLP focuses on the use of predicates used by people as a means to identify their preferred ‘Representational System’ (e.g., visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic). For example, people with a strong visual preference will tend to use terms like, ‘let’s imagine’, ‘we are drawing a blank here’, etc. In contrast, more kinaesthetically orientated people are more likely to use terms like, ‘let’s get a grip of’, ‘it strikes me’, etc.

Hence, through sensory acuity, it is possible to identify significant aspects of a person’s communication style and, of course, their interests, and then subsequently use appropriate content and form to calibrate with their Map of reality. In a nutshell – am I revealing a linguistic cue here? – people respond better to those who ‘speak their language’.

It is important to bear in mind that, as Molden (2001) makes clear:

It is our behaviour that directly connects to results, even though our thinking may be responsible for generating behaviour.

Developing Productive Learning through Reframing

I have taught across all educational sectors at some time as well as many cultural and ethnic contexts. There are many observational and comparison points that can be made, but I will say that teaching students who lack motivation in learning – in terms of the curriculum outcomes – is perhaps one of the most challenging.

A major aspect of low motivated students, apart from lacking certain important competences and dispositions for school learning, is the perception that schoolwork – including teachers – is not worth bothering with and that they are not likely to be particularly successful anyway. In NLP terms they have developed negative and limiting beliefs – for whatever reasons – relating to school learning. Unless an experience can be created in which these beliefs are challenged strongly, such students are likely to continue with the typical behaviours associated with such beliefs and accompanying psychological states (e.g., poor attention, apathy to schoolwork, possible antagonism to teachers). They are in the classic self-fulfilling prophecy scenario.

The crucial point is that to change student’s behavioural patterns, it is essential to create experiences through your communication style and the learning activities provided which influence their ‘here and now’ perception of you and what you have to offer them. They must see meaning and purpose in working with you, and this is as much a subliminal and affective process as it is a conscious explicit one – students need to feel you care. There is much neurology involved here, but detailing such features goes beyond the scope of this column.

In summary, if done successfully, many students will change their belief systems through this continual perception of meaningful experiences. In NLP terms, you have brought about a change in their Personal Maps, modified belief systems and got them to Reframe in more productive ways for learning – at least in relation to you.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as Advisor, Researcher, and Examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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