Rapport is Rubbish

Ideas and Issues

July 9, 2021

New Orleans     

We are all talkers in pretty much any language.  In fact, many might argue we talk too much.  We live in a social world, which is why the pandemic has been so unsettling for so many, and conversation, whether with intimates or strangers, is a defining grace in our humanity.  But, how much do we really think about conversation, what we say, what works and what doesn’t in trying to engage others, whether in work or play?  Not enough and not correctly is the answer, according to Professor Elizabeth Stokoe, who is specializes with her colleagues at Loughborough University in England in “conversation analysis.”

I visited with Dr. Stokoe at length recently on Wade’s World in order to get a better idea of her work and its application to organizing and other endeavors.  She has us understand clearly that this is a science, and science often upsets opinion.  Conversation analysts come to conclusions after listening to thousands of recordings “in the wild”, as she terms it.  All of us are familiar with the warning when interacting with customer service reps of one variety or another, when we are advised that our conversations are being recorded.  Whether a call to the bank, 911, or a help or suicide line, these recordings have become the raw data for Stokoe and others to determine what works and what doesn’t when they are contracted to do so by clients, police, salespeople, and others wanting to know how best to persuade or interact.

Organizing was of course my interest, but the importance of understanding effective conversation in questions of life or death ranks higher of course.  Talking about dispute resolution, crisis mediation calls about abuse, or people on the ledge adds huge weight to getting this right.  Conversation analysts have found that, in Stokoe’s words, “rapport is rubbish.”  People want to hear action, not talk.  If they don’t, they reject the call, and the consequences can be terrible.  In English, asking to “talk to you” comes off as a one-sided lecture versus asking “to speak to you.”  People don’t open up, they shut down.  “Willing” is a word that makes all the difference in transferring agency and power to the other party, rather than “can” or other words.  Listening is critical, but it’s listening to all the words and inflections, not just what you think you want to hear or expect to hear.  She gave the example of how 911 operators learn to listen and respond correctly when a call for a pizza isn’t a prank, but a signal that an abuser might be listening into the call.

In organizing, the notion that being “relational” or empathetic sharing is critical to engagement or persuasion in creating rapport is just plain wrong from what the scientists have found.  People are most interested first in the organization and what is does, and are turned off by the pleasantries and the “how are you” attempts at faux interactions.  Rapport comes after the engagement, not before.

I won’t say Stokoe told us so, but our experience aligns with her science.  She was speaking truth.