Building Rapport


If you’ve been following this blog over the past few weeks and putting its suggestions into practice, you’ll have been using the word ‘vegan’ liberally. You’ve also have opened up some conversations and started to get people to think about how we use animals and why that’s wrong. You’re equipped with a copy of Eat Like You Care to give you a template of how you might map out your discussions with nonvegans, engaging their moral concern and moral impulse, and using logic and rationality to lead them to veganism (see here for a superb analysis on the role of justice and empathy in making moral decisions). But there are many other tricks that will help you to advocate effectively, and I’ll reveal a few of my favourites over the next few weeks.

The topic for this week’s post is how to get your interlocutor on side by creating rapport—essential for establishing points of concurrence and creating a positive and fruitful advocacy experience.

In order to persuade, we must establish some areas of accord with those to whom we are speaking. Kenneth Burke writes that

As for the relation between ‘identification’ and ‘persuasion’: we might well keep it in mind that a speaker persuades an audience by the use of stylistic identifications: his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker’s interests: and the speaker draws on identification of interests to establish rapport between himself and his audience” (A Rhetoric of Motives, 1034).

Creating rapport cannot be underestimated in advocacy. You’re more likely to be able to convince if your interlocutor’s contribution to the conversation is valued, and if you share at least some similar views and attitudes. To build rapport, use humour where appropriate (not directed towards the injustices you’re trying to address, of course); ask questions to get to know something of the attitudes and beliefs of the person to whom you’re speaking; listen and pay attention; be patient. Think about shared experiences, similar perspectives, points on which you will already agree. Use these as the foundation of your advocacy, and return to them when areas of disagreement look as though they might become divisive. The following paragraphs will suggest ways in which you may build rapport.

Nonverbal communication
Much has been written about how we can use nonverbal communication to aid persuasion. Useful techniques include using open body language (not crossing arms or legs), holding eye-contact, matching the speed and volume of your interlocutor’s voice, etc., and I won’t reiterate all of that here. All of the writing on body language makes assumptions about ability, and tend to presume a traditionally-abled audience. Remember that each of us communicates (both verbally and nonverbally in different ways), and so you should only use techniques that appeal, if they are appropriate to you, and not stifle your own personality or natural gestures in doing so. Don’t be too preoccupied with body language to the detriment of your message or your focus (controlling body language uses a lot of mental energy, and too much control may make you seem insincere), but you can try the following techniques:

  • Keep your arms unfolded and your hands visible to create a sense of openness and trustworthiness.
  • Sit or stand tall to reinforce your confidence and authority.
  • Don’t fidget; try to be still and not reveal any anxiety.
  • Mirror the body language of the person to whom you’re speaking in order to create a sense of commonality: lean forward when your interlocutor leans forward. Be subtle and sparing in your use of this technique: mirror repositions rather than small gestures, and give your interlocutor a few seconds to settle into position before you mirror.
  • Try as hard as you can to avoid pause fillers (‘um’, ‘er’, ‘like’), which can make you sound uncertain and invalidate your authority.
  • Listen to words that tend to be repeated by your interlocutor, and you will be able to garner a sense of their main concerns, attitudes or assumptions. You can repeat these words later in the conversation to address concerns, question attitudes further, or challenge assumptions.

Choosing pronouns: ‘you’ versus ‘we’
The pronoun ‘you’ should be handled with caution in advocacy when talking about our unjust treatment of animals. It sounds accusatory, it estranges, and it undermines rapport. Your interlocutor may feel judged, alienated and attacked, and all of these will be detrimental to advocacy. When talking about our use of animals, the pronoun ‘we’ points out beyond the conversation to a larger system, and it is this system that you want the interlocutor to reject. ‘We’ also helps to create an unconscious bond that will allow you to persuade more easily when the conversation turns to examining solutions to the problem.

Asking questions
Because questions mostly require responses, they create a sense of dialogue and will allow your interlocutor to participate more fully and openly in the conversation. We’ll be looking at this in a lot more detail in a future blog post, but here are some useful ways to use questioning to build rapport:

  • Open the conversation with some tag questions to which an affirmative response is inevitable: ‘it’s busy here today, isn’t it?’; ‘it’s cold today, isn’t it?’. Although the research on the effectiveness of using such questions to create rapport doesn’t suggest that the impact of these will be overwhelmingly powerful, they will at least establish some points of agreement between you and the interlocutor.
  • Open questions (those requiring longer answers, usually beginning with interrogative pronouns such as ‘who’, ‘how’, ‘what’, etc.) are useful for eliciting moral concern. Asking about beloved companion animals is particularly useful in this regard; make sure that you listen and allow the interlocutor to respond at length. If that response is somewhat reticent, ask further open questions to try to draw the conversation out. Attempt to enable your interlocutor to think about what sets that companion animal apart from others in terms of behaviour, preferences, interests, and so on. This will help to reinforce the idea in your interlocutor’s mind that animals are persons, and you can later relate the injustice of our use of other animals back to this part of the conversation by persuading your interlocutor to think of ‘other animals’ in terms of this companion (use the companion’s name to personalise it even more).
  • Use closed questions to establish shared moral concern and moral impulse. If you’ve read Eat Like You Care, you’ll have seen that its argument is based on shared moral principles. You can use closed questions to seek agreement on these principles, and if you phrase them in such a way that a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is the only possible response, then you have established a firm foundation on which you can build quite rapidly and effectively to convince your interlocutor to adopt the moral standpoint that is veganism.
  • Third-person questions can be useful in allowing your speaker to see the moral problems that you want them to reject in an objective way. Instead of asking people about their attitude to their participation in animal use, you can preserve rapport by asking them to think about the attitudes of other people. This helps to embed your use of the pronoun ‘we’ and creates a sense of common ground between you and the speaker, while othering the concepts and behaviour that you are seeking to change.
  • Socratic questioning will be useful when you move from eliciting attitudes to animal use to trying to convince your interlocutor to adopting veganism. They can help your interlocutor to clarify a position (‘Why do you think that?’, ‘Are you saying x or y?’, ‘Can you give me an example?’), to investigate assumptions and viewpoints (‘Do you agree that…?’), to consider rationale (‘Are these reasons good enough?’, ‘What do you think causes us to…?’). Such questions help to uncover potential objections that may then be addressed.

Encouragement and reinforcement
Be positive about the positives, and redirect the negatives. Instead of explicitly pointing out where your interlocutor is wrong, probe the response with further questions, reinforce the answers with which you agree, and reframe the undesirable response in relation to these areas of commonality. In the near future, we’ll discuss scaffolding techniques that will help you find points on which you concur. Stay calm and assertive (rather than frustrated or aggressive) if you reach an impasse, and know when to close the conversation by reinforcing any consensus that you have uncovered. This will help to water the ground for the planted seed, leave the interlocutor thinking about points of agreement with principles of animal rights issues as the conversation draws to a close or moves on, and allow you to reflect on how to move the conversation forward from these shared principles should you choose to do so in future.

These techniques will help to make your interlocutor more responsive and receptive to your message, but they will also leave you with a more positive impression of advocacy and encourage you to do more.

My interest in, and confidence about, advocacy is largely down to one particularly effective advocate, so it seems fitting to close this post with his words:

1. Every conversation is different, there is no ‘one size fits all’ advocacy situation. It’s the skill of the advocate which makes the most of each one.
2. The best way to get someone to agree with a new idea is to get them to believe they actually thought of it!

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