building rapport in a listening session

many pale green eggs in a carton

newsletter #24  |  16-May-2017

Building rapport with participants takes some skill and concentration. Here’s an explanation to help you become aware of what it takes.

First, the foundation: There are two types of empathy that I focus on in exploring the problem space. (Do you remember them? Quick mental quiz … take a second. Remember?) The two kinds of empathy are emotional and cognitive. In my application of them, emotional empathy is supporting a person through an emotional process. Cognitive empathy is consciously cultivating understanding of other perspectives (developing empathy before applying it), like I do when creating mental model diagrams and behavioral audience segments.

A listening session, especially as a participant, is an emotional process. The participant is wondering about you. They might be thinking, “Who the heck is this person? Can I trust them? Are they going to try to get something from me that I didn’t agree to give? Can I figure out what information they’re after? Do they seem to like what I have to say, or are they judging me?” There is a lot of emotion there. If you are aware of the particular emotion a participant is experiencing, you can step up to support them. You can demonstrate warmth, human support, and clarity of direction to the participant. You may also need to do this again and again as different threads get picked up during the conversation.

I’ve heard professional researchers occasionally sound like robots. “I see.” “Interesting.” “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.” These might be fine in interviews, but in listening sessions you need to break through the shell of explanation/opinion/preference down into reasoning/reactions/guiding principles. Phrases like the above interfere with the emotional empathy side of listening sessions.


Apply emotional empathy to develop rapport and trust during a listening session with a participant. Let me give you a set of examples to illustrate what I mean.

In this first example the Listener skips over the emotional content, which is about feeling reassured that there is a process for the participant to follow. Out of habit the Listener focuses on dollar amounts. And then they say thank you, which calls too much attention to the process of the interview.

Participant: It would protect me. So if they say, “Okay, I’m going to sue you for doing this,” my insurance would protect me. Like okay, this is the step you need to do. These are the legal steps that you need to do. My insurance would help me do that. And then if my business got broken into, my insurance covers my business too. Say someone broke a window; I’d be able to fix that because I have insurance. And I wouldn’t be paying a bunch of money out of pocket to get that window fixed.
Listener: What’s a bunch of money out of pocket?
Participant: Um, I’d say like maybe $1,000 for a window. That’s a lot of money.
Listener: Completely understandable. Thank you for answering that.

Instead, reflect the person’s own wording and intonations; make them feel like they’re with someone who supports them. You might think of it as “buttering them up” … which might sound judgmental as a phrase. But if you’re in the habit of sticking with the neutral responses, reaching for the “buttering them up” end of the spectrum will pull you at least one or two steps in that direction and provide the warmth that we need for developing emotional rapport.

In this next example, the participant is the cook for his family, which includes three kids under 7 years old. He expresses a bit of parental frustration at kids being picky about food, and I use supportive phrases to show that I recognize that emotion in him.

Participant: We serve everything family style at the table. Then we go around the table and ask, “Would you like this? Would you like this? Would you like this.” Everybody gets to pick what they want and then hopefully we make it through dinner without too much chaos. Occasionally the kids will say, “This is delicious,” or “I love your pizza.” And that’s like, oh yeah, finally. Somebody threw me a bone. This is good.
Listener: They have no idea what kind of a Dad they have.
Participant: The other day my son goes, “This is what’s for dinner?” And I’m like, “There’s a meatball here. There’s macaroni and cheese.” Like, do you know that a lot of Moms and Dads open up the microwave package for their kids for dinnertime at night?
Listener: They have no idea.

This third example shows how telegraphing the kind of thing you want with questions about inner voice during specific events makes it easier for participants to give you answers.

Participant: A lot of this kind of stuff is an American issue because we live in a country where people like to sue people. I’ve worked on zip line courses and ropes courses, but it’s a high risk activity. This guy told me that he went bungee jumping in New Zealand and all he had to sign was something saying, “I realize I’m about to do something very stupid.” That was his entire waiver. Here we have lawyers who try to switch it around. We have to make sure that somebody doesn’t come in and say, “Even though I knew that there were risks, I’m claiming that you’re the one who’s at fault.”
Listener: Why do you think Americans are litigious?

That’s one path you don’t want to take. Here the Listener’s question is about the participant’s opinion. If you question anyone’s opinion, they will probably become defensive. It isn’t about “Americans are litigious.” It’s about the emotion they were talking about: I’m disgusted that American society encourages you to blame someone when you knew the risk. Here are some better paths to follow:

Listener: What led up to your thinking there?

Listener: What did decide to do about this?

Sometimes it doesn’t go well. In one case, the Listener had a head cold, but bravely conducted the listening session anyway. Toward the end of the session, she was so exhausted that she started asking questions the participant thought they’d already answered, so the participant became suspicious. All the trust that was built started coming apart, and the session didn’t end on a positive note. Take heart, and chalk it up to experience. There will still be usable data in the transcript.

Practice, with a Perennial Question

Practice is the only way to improve. Here’s one trick I use: I choose a pretty global topic, and I ask that one topic over and over to different people. My topic is, “Do you have a particular memory of a time and place where you ate a dessert that stood out?”

I’ll ask when I’m in conversation with a teammate at work or a peer at a conference. I’ve heard some pretty good answers and been able to dive into that particular moment to see what went through that person’s mind, and their reactions. There was a Boston Cream Pie at a company picnic that shocked someone with its amazing homemade flavor, causing that person to seek out the employee who made it to compliment them. This act began a helpful work relationship.

You can pick your own perennial question and try it out over time with the people you are in conversation with. It’s a great way to switch a convention from a conventional chat, which tends to remain in the explanation, preference, or opinion mode, into a chance to listen to someone about their deeper thinking. Here are some examples of general topics:

  • When you run across someone who isn’t totally happy with their job, ask about their thinking in terms of what they are doing about it. (Or thinking of doing about it.)
  • Rather than their opinion about the last movie they saw, the thinking that lead up to the decision to go see it at the particular time they did.
  • If they have a pet, what was the thinking that lead up to getting the pet in the first place? (This works for not getting a pet, too. It may not work as well when the person has lots of pets.)
  • If you’re having a meal together that you ordered, what was the thinking that lead up to the person choosing the dish that they chose?
  • Vacations are good topics. What was the thinking that lead up to deciding on a particular vacation? From there, you can also proceed into listening mode for the vacation description, itself.

Over the years you’ll start to see patterns emerge. You’ll remember those recurrences because they recur. The unique things may fade away, but that’s okay because this isn’t serious work. It’s practice.

Thought Provoking

“Listening begins with humility, I learned — the humility to ask an earnest question without assuming you already know the answer. And it is powered by authentic respect.” You Are Either Listening or You’re Not, Andrew Forsthoefel, posted on OnBeing.


From Sonja Bobrowska, August 2016:

Q: I find the way that you explained the process in Practical Empathy quite illuminating. You approached it from a different perspective. While Mental Models is about the process, Practical Empathy is about the philosophies and reasoning that guide this kind of research (see what I did there? :D )

I’m now trying to incorporate the learnings from both of your books into my process. I’m having a hard time summarising the concepts because while in Mental Models the tasks seemed to lean towards things people do, feel, and believe, in Practical Empathy the concepts lean towards things people think, feel, and believe. If I take the Mental Models approach, I’ll have a lot more data but more surface-level (which is totally fine according to Mental Models). And if I take the Practical Empathy approach, I’ll have less but richer data, but maybe too detailed for a mental model diagram. To give you an example: “Discuss film over dinner” is a fine task in Mental Models but according to Practical Empathy it lacks the why so it wouldn’t be included.

A: Great description of the differences between the two books! You are exactly right. I don’t think I was skilled enough to write about the philosophies in the first book. I hope to combine the two books a bit for the second edition.

Things have evolved. getting the depth is more important–the thinking behind the actions. Previously this depth was hidden in the transcripts and didn’t really make it into the mental model diagrams. These days I’ve made three changes that allow for both breadth (a lot of data) and depth (richer data).

  1. In the listening sessions, I get at the inner voice more, plus the history of thinking that lead up to that moment, and the actions, decisions, and thinking that occur next.
  2. I write longer, more empathetic summaries. You can see examples in the example Eat, Smell, Prey.
  3. I allow the longer summaries to appear directly in the mental model diagram, rather than folding them up together by affinity. “Discuss film over dinner” was actually made up of a few summaries from different participants. Now I only fold summaries together if they are nearly identical, from different participants.

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