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4th January 2008 at 00:00
How do you build and maintain rapport? It's easy if you use neuro-linguistic programming, explain Richard Churches and Roger Terry.

Teaching is about relationships as well as pedagogy. It is about feelings as well as facts and is as much about what goes on inside your head as it is about what goes on in the heads of your pupils.

We all know that it is our mood when we enter the classroom that has the greatest effect on our lessons. Effective teaching means managing internal responses and external behaviour. There can be few jobs that require such mastery over interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) offers teachers a range of tools to help them achieve this.

The term was used first by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, at the University of California in Santa Cruz, at the time a professor and student of linguistics respectively. Since then NLP has grown in popularity and is widely used outside of education as part of personal development, presentation skills and leadership training.

Despite its name, NLP is very practical and is sometimes described as the study of human excellence. NLP studies not only what effective people do but also how they go about it. Over the next four weeks, in The TES Magazine, we will be exploring how you can achieve excellence too. Our first article deals with rapport.

In Italy on a hot summer's day in 1992 a macaque monkey sat waiting for researchers to return from lunch. The researchers, led by Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neurophysiologist at the University of Parma, had been plotting the areas of activity in the primate's brain when involved in physical activity.

Each time the monkey moved an object, cells in the monkey's brain would fire and a monitor would sound. When a graduate student entered the lab with an ice-cream in his hand, they noticed that when the animal was watching the student lifting his arm to lick the ice-cream the same parts of the monkey's brain were fired as when the monkey was actually lifting its arm.

Today we are beginning to understand the importance of mirror neurons and the way in which they enable us not only to understand the actions of others but also their intentions, emotions and the social meaning of their behaviour.

When one person is talking to another, they understand their emotions and intentions by paying attention to what they do as well as what they say. By subtly mirroring another person's body language and tonality you can give them the experience of feeling understood. This is called creating rapport.

There are two basic patterns for creating rapport - matching (copying another person's behaviour, for example by crossing the left leg over the right when this is what they are doing) and mirroring (adopting their mirror image, for example by crossing the right leg over the left, when they are doing the opposite).

Neither of these means mimicking the person but just adopting a similar posture, words and rhythmic pattern. The aim is to be similar, not identical. All you want to do is have the other person's unconscious mind recognise that you are someone like them.

Liz Robinson, headteacher at Surrey Square Junior School in Southwark, who uses NLP widely in her school says: "Learning to build rapport one-to-one and with whole groups has made a real difference to me."

These simple techniques are effective, particularly in the first stage of building rapport. A more advanced, and more subtle, technique is called cross-over matching. Cross-over matching involves matching another person's behaviour with a different behaviour of your own (eg matching their breathing rate to your finger movement or their eye blinks to your foot-taps). This way of building rapport is very difficult to detect, yet still highly effective.

Anything that is visible in terms of body signals, language and vocal sound can be matched to build rapport. This includes posture, facial expressions, hand movements, breathing, body shifts, small foot movements and even head tilts.

With language, matching the sensory word preference of the person you're talking to (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) is effective as is matching descriptive words, key phrases and even exact words. There is also a lot of detail in the vocal sounds that people make when they are talking and this gives more opportunities to build rapport by matching volume, voice tone, tempo, pace and pitch.

In the classroom, building rapport by matching the body rhythms of a misbehaving pupil before dealing with them often makes the situation less difficult. If a group of pupils are playing up, look out for the group leader, the person they are deferring to, and match them. This is a powerful way to influence covertly without direct conflict. Once you have rapport with the group leader the rest of the pupils will follow. It's also an effective approach if you are delivering a lesson from the front of the class or even if you are delivering training to other teachers.

According to Susan Kelly, headteacher at Birnam Wood Pupil Referral Unit in Havering Essex, the technique has, "assisted me in performance management tasks and enabled me to support teacher development through building positive relationships with staff."

Parents' evenings are another place where rapport is helpful. Ask an open question first and then listen, taking the opportunity to match body signals. Notice the sensory word preferences (visual, auditory, kinaethestic) of the parents and use similar language when you come to speak. If you hear a parent say: "I just don't see how ..." you might want to begin with: "one way to look at this is ..." If you know someone well you can even match the proportions of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic language they use.

Another way to establish rapport right from the start is by getting children to do something that creates group rapport by synchronising movement. Ask a universal question and get them to raise their hand, at the same time raising yours at the end of the question.

A universal question is a question that everyone will answer yes to. For example: "Has anyone seen a TV programme?" This may seem strange, and has a blindingly obvious answer, however what occurs is that everyone in the group agrees. So when you raise your hand so will almost everyone else.

You can do this in a sequence and then deliberately ask a question that generates interest in the topic. For example: "Put your hand up if you have ever had a conversation ... put your hand up if you have ever had a conversation that went wrong ... put your hand up if it would be useful to know how to avoid this ..." The pattern is called a yes set, a concept that we will be explaining next week in our article on influential language.

Richard Churches is principal consultant for national programmes at CfBT Education Trust and a former Advanced Skills Teacher. Roger Terry is an international NLP trainer, presenter and public speaker and runs Evolution Training with Emily, his wife. NLP for Teachers: How to be a highly effective teacher is published by Crown House Publishing.


Matching - Copying another person's body language and intonation.

Mirroring - Making yourself a mirror image of another person's body language.

Cross-over matching - Matching another person's behaviour with a different behaviour of your own, eg, their breathing with your foot-taps.

A yes set - Creating agreement among the group by asking a series of questions to which everyone says "yes".

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