We need to talk about rapport

I just don’t understand. I wasn’t bowled over but a word has stealthily crept under my radar and brought about behaviour which can only be described as rummaging. It settled quietly, hibernating in my subconscious, breaking out as sporadic searching of boxes, bookshelves and stacks of lever arch files.  As the dust settles and glimpses of a bigger picture flash momentarily in a visual part of my brain, I’m instantaneously hijacked by another impulse which pulls me to another part of the bookcase or stack.

 It’s unsettling, discombobulating and I’m struggling to make sense of why a small 7 letter word has such an effect. I haven’t even got to thinking about its meaning, importance and application yet.  All I know is that many decades ago I thought it relevant and important enough to investigate through a small (petite) research project. And an emotional temporal connection was made between this and a media report. Through my rummaging and spluttering through the dusty boxes I locate a plastic wallet containing the hard copy (well I did say it was petite). I’m disappointed as I thought it would have more detail, more references, greater insights and results. However, I console myself with the realisation that even then I was exploring the relational nature of teaching.

The sticky word is ‘rapport.’  It’s a strong word to use. It’s a good word to use as it’s about what precipitates communication. Goffman  describes ‘rapport’ as the etiquette initiating an encounter, and, if we ignore it then there’s a danger that no real communication takes place. It’s about identifying and meeting emotional needs,  it’s a little about impressions and perceptions rather than the message. Goffman also expresses how successful etiquette strategies result in a mutual and preferential openness to spoken communication.

Going back to my research it appears that I did a quick literature search and review and identified a number of etiquette strategies teachers and students might employ within the first 5 minutes of a class. Subsequently, I devised a little observation schedule and observed the first 5 minutes of a number of student nurse teaching sessions. My observation schedule was to record events every 30 seconds but I was ‘bowled over’ by the number and scale of interactions occurring. I couldn’t keep up. I recorded 96 teacher interactions within the first 5 minutes in one class including (in descending order); establishing eye contact, open body posture, pleasant voice, giving a warm response, asking questions, smiling, listening, giving praise and being uncritical. The learner activity depended upon the climate the teacher created and the maximum concurrent interactions was 20, including (in descending order); silence, responding to the teacher and initiating questions.

This wasn’t a piece of research which would be considered sufficient for consideration on an evidence hierarchy. It was a piece of practitioner research for the development of my classroom practice and skills. I also discussed my observations with my colleagues who had been kind and brave in letting a newly qualified nurse teacher observe their practice. I think we discussed it with some of the student classes afterwards too.

On reflection, it wasn’t a rigorous research study, it was never intended to be. However, it informed my practice and the practice of those who shared the experience with me. Would I do it differently now? Of course I would. I don’t believe researchers when, in retrospect, they say they wouldn’t do anything differently. Having said that, measuring rapport is probably not the wisest thing to do. I didn’t really mean to quantify it, but explore the strategies, the teacher behaviours, which encouraged a trusting, safe yet challenging and supporting classroom climate.  If we teachers don’t get the initiating etiquette of rapport right then what does happen in the classroom? Does rapport matter? If we believe Goffman this heightened period of access enhances and facilitates what follows. It comes before ‘mindset’ or ‘set induction.’ French identifies it as a pre-requisite ‘a mutual recognition of each others interactional needs, acknowledging them, communicating to the other person that you do realise his/her needs and meeting them wherever possible..’ Argyle adds that ‘by rapport is meant a smooth pattermn of interaction in which both feel comfortable and there are few pauses and interruptions, together with some degree of mutual trust and acceptance… treat each other as an equal and eliminate social barriers … show a keen and sympathetic interest, listen carefully, be accepting and uncritical of what is said and indicate that there is plenty of time.’

Fred Lee stresses the importance of impressions and assurance:

Sense people’s needs before they ask (initiative)

Help each other out (teamwork)

Acknowledge people’s feelings (empathy)

Respect dignity and privacy of everyone (courtesy)

Explain what’s happening (communication).

I’m left with a whole raft of questions and connections I’d like to consider. The ‘Hiddden Curriculum’ of Benson Snyder along with the symbolic interactionist writing of David Hargreaves on roles and relationship aspects of teachers and pupils are just two.

Thank you for reading, and, if you want to read a little more I suggest:

Michael Argyle’s The Pyschology of Interpersonal Behaviour

Erving Goffman’s Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behaviour

David Hargreaves’ on Interpersonal Relations and Education

The French source is P. French. Social Skills for Nursing Practice

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