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"Free" Coffee and Rapport

by Jeff Thompson
May 2011

From Jeff Thompson's Enjoy Mediation Blog

Jeff Thompson

Rapport building is often cited as critical characteristic of a successful mediators. As a mediator, I agree, and think it must also be genuine. Additionally, establishing rapport, or building it, is something that mediators probably do and use not only as a tool in their Mediator's Toolbox but rather something they use throughout the day during daily interactions.

Now of course this is written for mediators, my usual audience, yet take out the word "mediator" and change with the work you do. I am fully confident it applies to your profession as well.

I think rapport, when genuinely used most times, is something that comes naturally, and in order to be natural, it is displayed without wanting or expecting something in return other than a friendly, respectful interaction.

Elements of rapport include verbal and nonverbal elements such as:
Friendly tones
Open hand gesture
Empathy and concern,
Back-channel/paralanguage to display you are listening ("mmm", head-nodding, etc.),
Smiling and
Eye contact (not playing on your mobile device!).

I experienced a great un-intended result of building rapport the other day. I live and work in New York
I often do work in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn and part of my usual morning ritual is to make sure I have 4 quarters (25 cent coins for my foreign readers!) in my pocket along with my paper currency. Two of the quarters are to buy the newspaper, and the other two go towards the $1.50 coffee I buy from the coffee cart on the street corner near my office.

Well, a few days ago I recalled, while after ordering my coffee that I successfully put the quarters in my pocket while at home but I forget to take my money clip with the paper money. I asked the "coffee man" if I could pay him the dollar tomorrow and explained the 50 cents is all I had as I forgot my money at home.

He replied in his thick yet fully understandable middle eastern accent, "Of course, not a problem. I can lend you some money too if you want for today."

I smiled and said thank you, I can go to the ATM to withdraw cash later but I appreciated the offer.

Why did the "coffee guy" allow me to get the coffee without paying the full price? Why did he offer me money for the day?

I like to believe it is due, despite neither of us knowing each other's name, the rapport we have developed. Not necessarily a friendship but rapport. A few month's prior he was was not there one day. The following day I asked if everything was ok, and he said he overslept.

Another day he heard my voice affected by a cold and allergies, and asked how I was doing. He then told me how his wife was sick and had to go the doctor. The following day I asked how she was doing and we engaged in brief conversation.

On a different day, again briefly, he explained to me how he had another job and how when his son gets a little older, he will take over the food cart business.

Rapport is developed over time. Picture a screen with hundreds of different little circles of all different colors with a black background. Taking away one little element of rapport, a circle, and no big deal- right?

Take away enough of them and you all of sudden you have less bright color circles and just a black screen. [See the video below for the circles!]

So why did this "coffee guy" give me my coffee despite not having the dollar to pay? Why am I discerning this interaction? because I think the little things matter.

If we work towards creating an environment where rapport building is natural, then wonderful, unexpected "little things" happen.


Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School having researched the impact nonverbal communication has in conflict situations with respect to developing rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism.

Dr. Thompson has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, (crisis and hostage) negotiation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally for a variety of audiences including police personnel, government officials, judges, attorneys, physicians, sales people, business professionals, and both graduate and undergraduate students. He has also been published in numerous professional and academic publications.

He is the co-chair of ACR's national Crisis Negotiation Section, and he is an ad-hoc reviewer for multiple academic journals. He received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Werner Institute, Creighton University School of Law.

(All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions and not that of any organization.)

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