The average person who works in corrections is not often inspired by the term evidence-based or when shown recidivism statistics in the same way I imagine a typical Amazon employee doesn’t consider the company’s fluctuating stock prices as they go about their daily business. So while senior managers and executives should use data to drive their decision making, I’ve found that approach to be less convincing for the people who carry the water every day.
The concept of rapport however, is unique as I’ve found it to be almost universally valued. We appreciate the power of rapport because it’s backed not just by empirical research but our own anecdotal evidence. When you work directly with clients on supervision or in custody, you see and feel the effects of rapport every day. It’s almost tangible. But even though it’s highly prized, I’ve found there to be very little training or coaching aimed specifically at rapport building for the people who need it most.
Instead of citing a bunch of research that ties rapport to improved outcomes (there are many) or making an impassioned plea to invest more time and energy in this area (you should), I want to use this post to share how I think about rapport and hopefully inspire others to reflect on their own approach.
First, let’s split rapport into two buckets and label them Be and Do. Think first about who you are, then we’ll get to what you do and the relationship between them.
If you haven’t read my post titled Hats, you might go there to understand why I think professional identity is so important in corrections. Simply put, the way we view ourselves drives our actions. So while I understand the original intentions of a phrase like dual role in the context of working with involuntary clients and its related labels (police officer/social worker), I make the case that constantly trying to balance between opposing identities is exhausting, unsustainable for many and unnecessary.
If you view yourself simply as a coach tasked with professional responsibilities that include teaching, discipline, and many other complex tasks, this section should make a lot of sense. If you view your identity as constantly having to change depending on the action you take, it may get a little more complicated, but stay with me.
Many people’s inclination is to skip to the Do section and take the conventional approach to learning any new communication skill. We familiarize ourselves with phrases or statements written by someone else without examining our own motivation, concern or empathy for the person the technique is designed for. Anyone who has experienced someone robotically utter the phase “What I hear you say is…” during a contentious conversation knows the feeling this evokes. Even though the speaker may be trying to demonstrate reflective listening, it doesn’t come across as authentic or genuine, because it often isn’t.
Any technique used without empathy is just a device
Many people in corrections are attached to the phrase firm but fair, and I don’t disagree that statement reflects an authoritative position that actually has been shown to be a pillar of effective relationships between officers and clients. So I won’t argue semantics, but I would like to add a few labels I think make a little more sense given the task at hand:
Be fluid. Be curious
Rapport is a moving target. There is no one size that fits all. The reason I love working in this field is also what makes it so incredibly complex. There are so many days when we are faced with a new challenge from a different individual. Even if it’s the same person, their mood, motivation and even mental state may have changed since the last meeting. No matter how long you stay in this field, there are always going to be new challenges with new solutions to discover, and you should always be refining your process. For this reason, I think it’s important we adopt a mindset that encourages fluidity, not rigidity. One that accurately captures the need to be adaptable to the responsivity of each client.
Any approach to rapport building that isn’t agile or doesn’t give you the ability to account for the other person in the relationship defies the very definition of rapport. So be like water. Remain open to changing your approach and you will reduce the friction that arises when the standard approach doesn’t work.
Lastly, be curious. Be genuinely interested to learn your client’s story and what makes them unique, even when it seems like you’ve seen and heard it all before. When someone expresses interest in learning about another person’s experience or ideas, it can be disarming. This is especially important given the power differential between the corrections professional and the individuals they are trying to help.
Typically, when I ask someone what they do to build rapport, they respond with “motivational interviewing.” Now the spirit of MI absolutely fits here. Unfortunately, my post on MI highlights a few problems that have come out of poor implementation efforts and a general lack of continuous quality improvement around MI skills.
Beyond MI, efforts are generally limited to a static approach of setting clear expectations and following through to hold clients accountable when they fail to meet them. Firm but fair, right? When a client doesn’t respond to this approach, the officer is rarely the one to adapt. The client is generally labeled pre-contemplative (a reference to MI training) and the officer feels justified to embrace their identity as a police officer or referee, leaving the burden on the client to conform.
I hope my tone doesn’t suggest we shouldn’t set goals or disregard conditions of supervision. We should always disapprove of antisocial behavior and no violations should ever go ignored. A common mistake is assuming holding someone accountable damages rapport when it can actually provide an opportunity to reinforce it. What’s important here is understanding there is more to rapport than setting expectations and holding the line.
The first action I’ve found to be most helpful in building rapport can be done at any point, but I’ve found it to be most beneficial when done early in the relationship.
Role clarification is nothing revolutionary in this field. It was originally developed by Chris Trotter about 20 years ago. It’s an exchange between people where the goal is to establish clarity of intentions and set the tone for the relationship moving forward, but this dialogue is especially important when you consider some of the common misperceptions that can exist in the context of corrections.
The person you’re working with may have already built a narrative in their mind as to who you are and what your role is before they’ve even met you, and it’s important to recognize these perceptions may be based on real experience. Of course, the way an officer may be portrayed in the media can create an image in someone’s mind that isn’t always productive, but you may also be the 4th officer they’ve worked with and the last 3 weren’t collaborative or empathetic. Perhaps this is their first entry into the criminal justice system but all they’ve heard from others in the jail or office lobby are negative portrayals of your position, and those portrayals may have been based off of someone else’s very real experiences.
Although it’s worth acknowledging the obvious power differential that exists, it’s more important to clarify how we intend to use the authority we have. If you are curious to know how your client sees you and what they think your agenda is, you will ask questions to better understand their perceptions of you and the system you represent. And by seeking first to understand, you will not only create an opportunity for clarification to occur, you will be taking the first steps toward building a strong foundation for rapport.
Separate the person from the problem
Beyond intake appointments and initial meetings, expectations are fairly consistent across most corrections agencies in the state I live and work in. An assessment of some kind will need to be done followed by referrals for service in a community corrections setting. Inevitably, problems will arise whether they are identified in the context of a case plan or simply because violations and other issues emerge. In either case, it’s important to act consistently within the role described during the clarification process. We can do this by separating the person from the problem.
When we treat the person as the problem, rapport tends to erode and any momentum we may have built to this point can dissolve. The relationship becomes adversarial and we are no longer working along side the person on supervision, we are working against them. When someone relapses or gets into a fight, it can be easy to blame the person, label them, and focus solely on the consequence. Unfortunately, all that does is reinforce the stereotype or perceptions they previously held. That you actually aren’t there to help them, only to monitor the rules and punish them when you can.
Now in the two examples I listed, it would be appropriate to hold the person accountable in whatever form is appropriate, but in doing so, we have to keep one thing in mind. It’s their decision making process or justifications that are the enemy, not the person. In fact, those issues are the enemy of both of you. So on the other side of that consequence, establish what led to the problem, but do so while coming along side of the person so you can actually work together to prevent the next violation from happening. It may seem counterintuitive, but when we take this approach, holding someone accountable can actually reaffirm our roles and strengthen rapport.
Whatever goal is set between an officer and client, whether it’s tailored to the individual in the form of a case plan or it’s generic and tied to the conditions of supervision, inevitably there are factors within each person that make the goal more or less achievable. 3 options emerge when you take the time to explore those factors.
- Identify and leverage strengths to overcome the barriers
- Adjust directives and prescribed action steps, still aimed at compliance and the stated goal, but designed to establish momentum and a feeling of success
- Change nothing and expect a different result even in the face of repeated failures
As you can tell, two of those responses are constructive and one of them is essentially the definition of insanity. But this isn’t a post on interventions, it’s about building rapport. My point is this, when you take the time to explore what may prevent success or make it more difficult, you aren’t just increasing your chances of gaining compliance, you are listening. You are demonstrating empathy, even though you are still clearly an authority figure with a job to do.
In my experience, simply taking the time to acknowledge barriers can be enough to get momentum and strengthen my rapport with clients. I wasn’t even always able to develop the best solutions out of those conversations but rapport isn’t about solving someone else’s problems for them. It’s about listening, acknowledging, and working together.
This post was designed to challenge some traditional views of rapport and help you think differently about your own practice. The key points I’ve made here are certainly not the only methods to effective rapport building but hopefully I’ve framed a somewhat complex topic into something digestible and provided actionable information.
Be fluid. Be curious. Do the work needed to better understand the person you are trying to help. If you adopt this mindset and take this approach, rapport will be there. And when you have it, the door to learning and change opens. The only question is, what are you going to do with it?