Connection starts with rapport
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In 2010 I presented my first personal and professional development workshop with a course entitled Journey of Discovery: Awaken Your Inner Power. It was a special moment because I was eager to share the principles and practices that had been of tremendous value to my own life, but it was also a special moment because up until then I wasn’t known as a speaker, coach, or facilitator. Up until then everyone simply knew me as a comedy magician. Sure, in the years leading up to that moment I had already begun to incorporate inspiring stories, and motivational lessons into the magic act, but that wasn’t the main focus, and meeting and event professionals weren’t booking me to teach them anything—they just wanted something light and entertaining!
Booking a magic act is far different than booking a speaker or facilitator. With one you expect your attendees to be entertained and perhaps even distracted for a time as a way to relax and let the rest of the day sink in. By contrast, with a speaker you expect your attendees to be changed by gaining knowledge, developing a new mindset, or learning a special practice or strategy. There can be good reasons to call for one service over another—and there are certainly times for both—but during that particular season of my life I was ready to transition from the entertainment business to the transformation business.
There was just one problem: hardly anyone showed up to participate in my four-day workshop! Sure, the few people who did attend gained high personal value from the material, but there was a disconnect—they just didn’t seem to have the same passion for the material and they didn’t openly contribute to the class as much as I had envisioned. Not only had I failed to inspire people to care enough to show up, but those who were in attendance acted more as a polite movie theatre audience, sitting quietly as they absorbed the material. There had to be another way, but what was I doing wrong?
Over the course of the next year I revamped the approach. I kept all of the same material but added a different kind of facilitation technique to the lesson plans for each day, and then overhauled the course description to reflect that change. The following year when I premiered this new version of the workshop we had standing room only! There were literally too many people that we couldn’t all fit in one room so we had to take the class outside! It was an incredible turnaround!
What was this magic something that turned everything around? What did I not do the first year that when implemented the following year produced increased influence and extraordinary results?
Don’t Make This Mistake
My mistake was simple: I wanted to provide encouragement to the attendees. Now, don’t get me wrong, encouragement is great—in fact it’s one of my favorite things to do—but the problem is that something has to come before encouragement and I had failed to recognize this despite my years of experience as an entertainer.
We can’t simply say to people “You can do it!” and expect others to follow. As one of my mentors points out, we can’t ask someone for a hand until we ask for the heart. After all, no one really cares what we know or what we have to say until they know that we care.
In a previous article I discussed the three questions everyone wants to know:
The first step to communication and influence is not to jump right in trying to get people to accept our message, but rather simply to demonstrate care, understanding, and acceptance. In other words, to encourage others we must first engage them.
The Engagement Gap
Engagement is the process of meeting others where they are—it’s about connecting with them on common ground and demonstrating relatability and care, and caring calls for a shift of focus: a shift from inward focus to outward focus. In other words, instead of focusing on where we are and what we want, we must instead place our focus on where others are and on what they want, and then adjust our plans to meet them there. This shift in focus is a game changer that can bridge the gap between expectation and outcome.
General George S. Patton once suggested that “successful generals make plans to fit circumstances, but do not try to create circumstances to fit plans.” This suggestion speaks to the heart of engagement, because trying to influence others without first getting to know them is like a general going into battle with no understanding of the battlefield. No matter how well thought out a plan may be, if it ignores the reality of the circumstances it will fail every time. This truth struck a chord when I failed to match my lesson plans to the reality of the students I was working with in my first workshop, a lesson that I would never forget.
Bridging The Gap: The Key to Engagement
Being a source of encouraging influence requires engagement, and engagement requires a bridge from expectation to outcome, and this bridge is created by meeting with those we hope to influence where they are. Consider that when helping to lift someone you can’t do it by standing high above them; rather, you must bend down to meet them where they are. The same is needed when influencing others to follow your lead. You don’t simply tell them what to do (because maybe they can’t do it or just don’t want to do it) and you don’t demand that others act in a certain way (because maybe they don’t yet trust that you have their best interests in mind). To overcome these obstacles there’s a valuable key to engagement that can unlock your influence. This Key To Engagement is Rapport.
People like to work with those who they like, who are like them, or who at least understands and accepts them. In other words, before asking for a hand, ask for the heart. Rapport can get you there.
A simple way to facilitate this is to ask exploratory questions and then genuinely listen to the answers. This does two things. First, you gain knowledge and understanding of the people you’re working with, and when you understand where they’re coming from you are better aligned to build a bridge from their motivations to the desired outcome. Second, by asking questions it communicates to the other person—whether consciously or subconsciously—that you care enough about them to be curious about who they are and where they’re coming from. Most everyone enjoys talking about themselves and you can build instant rapport with someone simply by asking a few exploratory questions.
When I shifted my focus from inward focus to outward focus I achieved extraordinary results with the people I aimed to influence in the Journey of Discovery: Awaken Your Inner Power workshop. Instead of diving right in with the message on day one, I first invited everyone to share why they were there and what they were hoping to get out of the class. With this knowledge only then was I able to build a reliable bridge that connected to their goals and then lead them safely across. In the process, listening and echoing back their answers demonstrated genuine care for them, which further developed instant rapport.
But that’s not all I did. To get them into the room I used another sneaky trick of engagement: I got inside their heads to understand what could motivate them to come to my workshop over the other offerings. This course was aimed towards juniors in high school, between the ages of 16 and 17, and this course was in the middle of the day at an intensive leadership camp. Their days were filled with classes, assemblies, and other activities, and I knew that for many of them they would be tired and mentally burnt out every day by the time they got to that breakout session period. Touching on this pain point, in the workshop description I added one small sentence at the end that simply read: “There will be a magic show at the start of every class.” This engagement hack worked by addressing an immediate need of the people I was working with, motivating them to follow my lead.
Everything else about the course remained the same. It was the exact same content with all the same information, but with an altered description, a simple question on the first day, and a few minutes of magic at the start of each class. The magic got them in the room while also serving to illustrate the key takeaway points for each lesson, and it also woke everyone up, got them paying close attention, opening them to receive the message and share their own insights. These small changes were quite simple and ordinary, but their results were extraordinary.
If your goal is to influence others by inspiring them into motivated action, then it is your responsibility to build a bridge that connects where they are and lead them across to where you want to take them. This bridge is created by building an engaging rapport that demonstrates care, relatability, understanding, and acceptance. When you apply these practices to your relationships at work, at home, and in your community, you're sure to be a positive influence for the people you serve.
Jonas Cain is an educator, facilitator, and coach, working to engage, empower, and encourage leaders and the people they serve to experience joy.