Millions of children grew up with a simple rhyme that their parents verbally pounded into their heads over and over to prevent them from approaching people they didn’t know: “Stranger Danger.”

As adults, some of us have never forgotten the lessons of our childhood, and when around people we don’t know we still default to “Stranger Danger.”

Have you ever been in a room full of strangers and didn’t feel comfortable starting a conversation with any of them, like at a networking event?

What about in a conference room, perhaps at a project interview, sitting or standing across from strangers?

Stranger Danger! Stranger Danger!

Alas, this particular parental advice does not serve us well in the business world. Most of us regularly interact with strangers, and it is imperative that we feel comfortable with them – and that they feel comfortable with us. But how can we do that?

Establishing rapport is a critical soft skill for A/E/C professionals, yet it is rarely taught in schools or at firms. So how can you create rapport with someone you’ve just met? How can you get them to trust you? How can you drive a meaningful conversation?

The good news is that anyone can do it, and it doesn’t take much more than confidence, common sense, and potentially the willingness to step outside of your comfort zone. 

Here’s a short primer on establishing rapport so “Stranger Danger” will be a thing of the past!

Project Confidence. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If you can’t make it, fake it!” Rather than acting like someone you’re not, play the role of a more confident you. If you are intimidated when talking with people you don’t know, pretend it doesn’t bother you at all. Be the version of you that excels at this type of encounter. If you “fake it” a few times, you’ll find there’s no faking required: it will be the “real” you!

Make Eye Contact. I’m continually amazed at the poor eye contact I regularly see in the business world. I’ve been at engineering conferences where everyone walking through the trade show floor is literally staring at the carpet, as if looking for something or trying to avoid tripping over the carpet pattern! Look the person you’re addressing in the eyes and maintain eye contact when they are addressing you. If you are in a group, share the eye love – make eye contact with everyone, not just one or two people. Hold eye contact when you make a point, then move to the next pair of eyes to make your next point. 

Be Authentic. Okay, so I advised, “If you can’t make it, fake it.” Isn’t that inauthentic? No! There’s a difference between playing the role of a more confident you and trying to be someone you’re not. I have an acquaintance that loves to name drop. Every time we cross paths, he’s bragging about all the deals he’s involved with and all the wealthy, successful businesspeople he knows. Well, I assume they are wealthy and successful; I don’t even recognize half the names he drops! But he’s very inauthentic. I have no idea who he is or what he really stands for, because he hides behind a façade of being someone he’s not (one of those wealthy, successful businesspeople he name-drops continually). Let the real you shine through! Don’t be afraid of, or embarrassed by, who you are. People want to know other people, not faux façades. 

Be Professional. You probably have those friends with whom you feel comfortable letting your guard down. You may talk differently or act differently when around them. The new connections you are trying to build rapport with are not those friends – always stay professional! Even if you’re having a great conversation, don’t relax your level of professionalism. One off comment could irreparably damage their perception of you. Remember, you’re working on that all-important first impression. (Bashing a competitor or talking ill of another person are examples of inappropriate behavior.) 

Watch Your Body Language. Looking down. Drooping your shoulders. Shaking hands weakly (aka, the “limp fish). Folding your arms. These are all examples of ways that you can negate the words coming out of your mouth. There’s a somewhat erroneous statistic that 93% of communication is nonverbal. If you’re familiar with that percentage, know that it was a very specific example that was studied, and doesn’t apply across the board. Yet the spirit of the statistic is very important: much of how people perceive you does relate to the things you do beyond what you say. What you say is important. And your body language while saying it is also critical to how the other person interprets your words.

Monitor Your Tone. Just as your nonverbal communication reveals a lot about you, so does your tone. If you speak too softly or mumble, you’ll demonstrate a lack of confidence in what you are saying. If you speak too loudly, you might come off as overbearing. If your sentences tail up at the end (tone goes higher), everything will sound like a question. Likewise, if your sentences tail off at the end (tone goes quieter), you’ll potentially come across as someone who doesn’t believe what they are saying. If you sound sarcastic, people may take offense. Think of the communication trifecta here: What you say, how you say it, and your corresponding body language all greatly impact another person’s perception of what you really mean.

Have Empathy. Work can be hard. Life can be hard. One of the key ways you can establish rapport and build trust is to have empathy for the other person’s challenges. Empathy is understanding another person’s feelings, selfless compassion, and even taking action as a result. My firm operates on the facilities side of the A/E/C industry, and we’ve found time and again that facilities managers are under a lot of pressure. They don’t have enough staff. They are not being asked to take part in strategic decisions that impact their facilities. They are often viewed as the “ugly step child” because they are a non-core function. Just understanding the issues they are facing and truly caring is a positive step toward building a relationship. 

Ask Good Questions. One of the easiest ways to establish rapport is to get the other person talking. Ask them about their background or experience. Ask how they got into the profession they are in. Ask about their most unique business or project experience. As you feel more comfortable with them, you can ask about where they went to college or about their family or hobbies. Depending upon the environment, you might want to ask them about what their firm or institution does (don’t do this during a project interview or start-up meeting – you better already know!) or what their specific responsibilities are. These aren’t project-focused or even business-focused questions, those may come later. These are the general “getting to know you” type of questions.

Listen Actively. One of my pet peeves is when I’m having a conversation with someone who seems to be more focused on what they are going to say to me. Somewhere along the way, they lose interest in what I’m saying and become impatient waiting for me to finish my thought. This is a very poor, but all too common, approach to listening. Be present in the conversation. Listen to what the other person, or people, have to say. Listen with your mind, not just your ears. You’ll have a chance to respond, don’t rush it! And by all means, never interrupt the other person when they are talking.

Look for Points of Commonality. If you went to the same college as the person you are speaking with, you have a great point of mutual interest. You can talk about the majors, the campus, the sports teams, the professors. If you find out they coach their kid’s soccer team and your child plays soccer (or even better, you also coach!), you have a lot to talk about. When you identify these commonalities, the conversation will flow more smoothly. So how can you identify things in common? By asking good questions! 

Stay Positive and Smile. Did you know that smiling is infectious? A smile is typically returned. Be upbeat during the conversation. Again, be true to who you are, but don’t be Droopy Dog – or Negative Nellie! A positive attitude will put the other person, or people, at ease. Demonstrate that you are someone they want to know, be around, and even work with. 

As the conversation flows, you’ll find a mutual trust and respect developing. This is foundational for any relationship. A former colleague used to always tell me, “The business of business is business.” When you’re interacting with another professional – be it at a networking event, project interview, or project meeting, there’s a business angle that is driving the opportunity to be interacting. Don’t lose sight of that. There’s a reason that you should be speaking with one-another. Make the most of it. Don’t stick to “Just the facts, ma’am,” because the conversation will be stifled, and mutual trust will not be allowed to flourish.

Be yourself. Be confident. Ask quality questions. Listen attentively. Stay positive. Create trust.

Trust still drives business. People still make decisions to hire other people (for projects, for consulting gigs, for employment). And people prefer to hire those individuals that they like and trust. The path to achieving this begins and ends with rapport, so make it a focus to elevate your rapport-building skills.

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