HEAR - Honesty, Empathy, Autonomy, Reflection (Wise Speech 5)

How's that working for you?

It’s Dr Phil’s excellent question and very useful to review our behaviors that have become habitual. This blog is the 5th on Wise Speech and summarizes the previous 4 blogs on honesty, empathy, autonomy and reflection. Since these blogs are about speaking wisely, specifically, how to build rapport, let’s pose the question.

How are your rapport building skills working for you?

First up, let’s look at what rapport means. According to Etymonline, Rapport is a French word drawing on 3 etymological stems. Re means again, ad means towards, per means to carry. Therefore, rapport means to repeatedly carry on together. Although it’s been in English conversation since 1755, it was in 1845 that the contemporary psychological meaning of intense harmonious accord became popular through its association with Mesmer’s hypnotherapy.

Second, how good are you at building an intense harmonious accord in a good conversation? And how good are you at maintaining rapport in a difficult one? How are your skills working for you? Usually the problem with communication isn’t because we intend to cause hurt. We’re just clueless and unaware of other ways to speak. That is, we’re under-skilled.

We’re under-skilled despite being in a society that talks a lot so clearly frequency isn’t the problem. We talk at home, school, work, in relationships with family, friends, partners and strangers and we hear people talking on the radio, TV and social media. That’s a lot of talking.

At school, we’re taught spelling, grammar and comprehension. At home, we’re taught to say please when asking, thank you for appreciation and sorry when we err. Great, we know some basic writing skills and a few simple ways to be polite. But there’s something missing. That something is how to keep a conversation going and to build rapport.

The crazy part about our society is we’re never taught how to build rapport. The single most foundational part of being a human – good communication skills for carrying on well together and having an intense harmonious accord – is a huge gap in our training. Dr Phil’s question is a good one here. How’s that working for us as a society? Is it any wonder anxiety, depression and divorce are on the rise? If you sense failure in your communication skills, maybe the issue isn’t you or any individual. Maybe it’s societal failure. Unfortunately, we can’t change society in one fell swoop but we can learn to change and develop our behaviors and skillset.

So, now we get to the nub of the matter – the third point. Filling the gap in our skillset. What are the skills needed for building and maintaining rapport? Rapport is about being selective. Selective in what we pay attention to when listening. Selective in what we say, how we say it, who we say it to and when we say it. In other words, rapport is the craft of selectively listening and speaking. And like any craft, we need a good foundation which we then whittle through practice and observation.

We’re about to discuss rapport building skills but beforehand, let’s recap this blog.

Rapport means to have an intense harmonious accord, we haven’t been given the skills to do this and therefore we have a big skills shortage as a society. Nonetheless, we can learn these skills on our own. And so here we are, learning how to build rapport. This blog is the 5th in a series on Wise Speech. The previous 4 blogs on honesty, empathy, autonomy and reflection form the basis of Wise Speech and some simple techniques are summarized below.

In essence, Wise Speech is abstaining from unkind speech through lying, being divisive and abusive, and gossiping and bitching. Wise speech is also fostering kindness, for instance, saying what’s true, kind, with goodwill at the right time. When our conversations are easy, rapport is a given. The challenge is when conversations go awry and we don’t know what went wrong.

It’s only by looking at what works that we can figure out where our skill gaps are and where we went wrong. Emily and Laurence Alison write cornerstones for building rapport in their aptly named book, Rapport.

  1. Be honest. Be objective and direct when communicating your intentions or feelings.

  2. Show empathy. Understand someone based on recognition of their core beliefs and values.

  3. Allow autonomy. Emphasize other people’s free will and right to choose whether to cooperate.

  4. Reflect. Identify and repeat back those elements that are significant, meaningful and tactical to help guide a conversation towards the goal.

Be honest. The Buddha said speaking candidly is a big part of speaking wisely. Before words come out of our mouths, it’s good to be honest with ourselves through internal enquiry.

  1. What’s the outcome I’m seeking here and am I the right person to engage in this conversation?

If we’re clear about our goal and are confident we have a right to speak up, here are the next questions to ask ourselves.

  1. Am I being deceptive or using trickery?

  2. Am I clear, sticking to specific facts and being direct?

  3. Can I speak to this person calmly and respectfully showing dignity for both of us?

If at this point, the answer is No for any of the above, do more research into your intentions, emotions, and the specific issues at hand.

In conclusion, honesty is checking in with our goals, style, clarity and emotional presence.

Show empathy. Now, it’s time to look at our capacity for empathy. The Buddha spoke about the importance of kindness in Wise Speech. Empathy doesn’t necessarily include warmth or softness though it often does. The key need is an analytical interest in uncovering the other person’s core beliefs and values. That is, to see the world from their perspective.

Here’s a Gestalt therapy exercise to draw out empathy. Place 2 chairs in a room as if 2 people are in a conversation. Sit on one, that’s your chair. Then swap places so you’re sitting in their chair. Ask these questions from their chair.

  1. What’s it like to feel like them?

  2. Look at your chair and ask How would I feel about you and this conversation?

  3. What was going through my mind when doing this difficult behavior the person wants to discuss?

It might feel a bit weird to go through this exercise but it’s important to see the world from the other person’s perspective and this is one way to do this.

To summarize empathy, it’s seeing the world from their perspective to step into their shoes (or chair as the case may be). Ok, so we’ve enquired about our honesty and empathy.

Allow autonomy. It’s now time to look at our capacity to allow others autonomy so the person feels they have options. We all like to have a sense of control and want to make our own decisions about our bodies, behaviors and boundaries. When someone tells us what to do, we are no one too pleased but given time to come to our own decisions, we are more willing to engage. Here are the questions to ask yourself during the conversation.

  1. What options are possible for this person?

  2. If they act like this, is it a big deal in the scheme of things?

  3. What does this person care about and value?

In essence, autonomy is giving people the right to decide how they’d like to live in the same way you do.

Reflect. Next we’ll discuss reflection. When we are honest, empathic and understanding, it’s time to let them know we get their perspective. By now, we’ve enquired into our motivations and emotions, and understood what’s important to them. Now we can speak, not about us of course, about them, to keep the focus on them.

Reflection is a technique to show how to speak in a timely way that’s kind, candid and empathic.

There are 5 reflective techniques and to make memorize them easily, the acronym is SONAR.

Simple reflections

On the one hand

No arguing



Simple reflections. There are 2 key elements to track in simple reflections. What does this person care about? What does this person feel?

Example: “It was so busy today I didn’t get to the post office to collect the solicitor’s letter”.

Option 1 reply (stops the flow): ‘Not to worry, I’ll collect it tomorrow’

Option 2 reply (better): ‘It sounds like you wondered if it would be a problem not getting the letter and that you felt frustrated with the demands today’.

On the one hand. Seeing two sides to an interpretation.

Example. “I’ve been taking it pretty lightly at the moment to restore myself so I haven’t been productive”.

Option 1 (stops the flow): “So, you’ve been taking a breather.”

Option 2 (better): “On the one hand, you’re producing less but on the other you’re having time to restore the body and have space to think more deeply.”

No arguing (good for power dynamics and someone picking a fight). Instead of getting into an argument, ask for more information. I personally find it the hardest because my mind goes blank and shuts down. See how you go.

Example: “You haven’t finished the report yet.”

Option 1 (stops the flow): “I’ll do my best to get it done today”

Option 2 (better): “Just so I’ve properly understood the issue, can you tell me more about the urgency?” or “What I’m hearing is that you care about is getting the report done well and on time.”

Affirmation. When someone presents a difficult situation.

Example: “I hate my job!”

Option 1 (stops the flow): “Maybe it’s time to look for another”

Option 2 (better): “Tell me what’s good about it”. However, focusing only on the good could become toxic positivity (being a Pollyanna) so follow up with a question to discuss the challenges for instance, “Sounds like there are positives but something is making it unpleasant – what else is going on?”

Reframing. Listening for a preferred situation.

Example: “omg, this report looks messy”

Option 1 (stops the flow): “I’m sorry.”

Option 2 (better): “What I’m hearing is that presentation is important to you” and follow it with a question focused on the content “How do we reorganize it?”.

So, that’s it. Be honest and empathic with yourself and the other, and allow people to feel autonomous. Feed back to the person through reflection. And this is how to build rapport.

No easy feat, but when done well, will bound to make you more connected to people, and therefore happier at work, rest and play.

And how does that work for you?