guest blogger product management

A Framework to Automate Rapport Building

Guest Post by: Niveditha Jayasekar (Mentee, Session 11, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Patrick Hoffman]

Have you ever had to talk a difficult customer down from the ledge? Or work with a difficult person, period? What about stepping up to lead a team while a coworker is out on leave or joining a new team and having to earn their trust in less than a month? 

Communication is a critical skill in today’s workplace and rapport is essential to facilitating good communication. For product managers, it’s even more important because we intersect with different people in different scenarios every day with the ultimate goal of aligning the product to the customer and the business. 

As I was exploring this topic, I was determined to find a process that was simple, effective, and automatable. There are a lot of articles today about how to build rapport but a quick Google search reveals that a lot of them are written in a listicle format where the ideas are either abstract and therefore too vague or situation-based and therefore not easily applicable

I was determined to do better. Using existing behavioral and habit formation research, I developed and employed a simple and effective framework.

Existing model

Our brains are continuously analyzing all kinds of inputs from our internal and external environments. These inputs can be anything from the temperature change on your little finger to experiencing hunger pangs. Most of the time, we process these cues with habitual behavior installed in our brains through biological, social, and personal programming. When someone screams at you, you fight or flee. When someone smiles at you, you smile back without thinking about it. 

Your deliberate decision-making power is limited to what your brain hasn’t already automated. However, if you want your work communication habits to enable successful work outcomes, then it’s problematic to be influenced by thousands of years of human survival programming or social biases that don’t benefit you today.

Evolving your communication model

Left alone, the brain automatically processes inputs from your internal and external environments and allows you (the speaker) to focus on the message and the receiver.

However, practically speaking, it’s more important for you to automate how to ask, identify, and communicate to people and instead pay really close attention to the inputs. In a fast-paced work environment, nuances in the speaker’s (your) current mood, the receiver’s body language, your changing relationship with the receiver, and changing group dynamics are more uncontrollable and therefore, impractical to automatically process. Instead, it’s more important to focus on automating your communication process to identify internal/external inputs faster, react automatically using pre-established routines, and then iterate from your successes and/or failures. 

The framework


Create rapport in a new relationshipFix rapport in an existing relationshipMaintain rapport in an existing relationship
ObserveDevelop and refine your understanding of you, particularly as you operate in a work context. A good baseline is the DACI personality test or reflecting with your coworkers that you already have good relationships with. You can also try paying attention to yurself in real-time.
When you meet with the receiver (the other person) for the first time, take the time to establish a baseline for their behavior. You could ask a simple “how are you” and observe their speech and body language. If you know of them from other people or circumstances, you should take advantage of knowledge from that context. 
Continue to develop and refine your understanding of you and your interactions with them.
Ask other people who have good relationships with them. Ask them also how they work best with others — it is powerful to hear it in their own words. It’s important to figure out what isn’t working and develop hypotheses on what could.
Reflect on what works. Regularly start meetings by observing their current mental state and if it’s the same or different than their baseline.
HypothesisDevise basic tests that help you to quickly identify the kind of person the receiver is and how to interact with them. You could start with using DACI as a baseline: develop ways to quickly identify / guess at their DACI profile and how your DACI profile and theirs can interact positively. Over-time, you can evolve your tests to be faster and more in tune with you.Use your learnings form your observations and “listening” tour to develop hypotheses.
If they have bad relationships wih most people, while it’s still important to try, there might be very little you can do. On the other hand, if only you have negative rapport, then you can incorporate elements from your learnings while still being authentic. 
Your existing model of their behavior is already working. So, you can continue to trust that.
TestSee how that initial test works in the actual meeting. Form a high-level understanding of the alignment in your relationship (positive, negative, or neutral). Based on that, you can revise your model of how to interact with them and continue to iterate to a positive relationship.First, do a reset with them (“I’d like to form a better relationship with you”) and allow them to provide feedback on how you can improve.Then, apply your hypotheses to the situation.
Monitor the changes in your relationship closely for atleast a couple of meetings until the relationship improves. You might need to do a lot more experimentation in this scenario. It’s harder to fix rapport than to build rapport with someone new or maintain rapport. 
Continue to use your existing model of how to interact with them. Be flexible in your meetings with them as they react to sudden events or start to become a different person so that you can refine your model over time.
AlignmentYou know if you’ve reached a positive state of rapport if the other person starts to confide or rely on you longer-term. If you’re able to work efficiently together but the other person isn’t actively confiding on relying on you, then you’re likely in a neutral state. Lastly, if you’re having a lot of difficulty working together, then you’re in a negative state.
The key thing to note is just like you react and learn from your environment, the other person is too. Perspective changing events can happen over a weekend or even in your meeting. Always be open to learning who you’re talking with as that person changes. A test to assess your current state of relationship can be as basic as “How are you (today)?” and allowing the other person to educate you on their current state and any changes from the last time you met.

Extending to handle group dynamics

In a work environment, people are strongly influenced by the following types of people: organization leaders, their team/department, and work friends. Understanding the influences at play helps you know the following:

(1) You. Who are you influenced by, who do you influence, and what relationship do these people have with the person you’re trying to build rapport with? 

(2) Them. If you know who they are influenced by, you can convince those people first or conversely, if this person has no influence and isn’t a gatekeeper, then you know its not worth it to convince this person at all.

(3) Both. Are there overriding group dynamics between your team/department and theirs? What about your boss and theirs? 

You can then incorporate these new observations into your hypothesis and test accordingly.

Interesting applications

  • Unbiasing yourself. Achieve a better understanding of your existing biases and practice letting go of them.
  • Founder or real dating. Assess their core personality for longer term relationship potential.
  • International team. It’s important to meet face-to-face or video to allow your brain to capture all the signals. But remember, your brain is used to interpreting signals a certain way. If you haven’t or don’t interact with people of those cultures often, then it’s better to not form early assumptions and do additional research/practice.

Followup reads

  • The Culture Map by Erin Meyer – for international behavioral cues
  • What every Body is saying by Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and leading expert on body language 
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Atomic Habits by James Clear – habit loops

If you tried this out, let me know how it went here.

About Niveditha Jayasekar

Nivi Jayasekar is a relentlessly curious product manager in San Francisco, CA on a mission to solve hard b2b problems. She’s worn a lot of hats, including engineer, engineering manager, and meditation teacher. Learn more about her side experiments and past lives at heynivi.com.


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