FBI Secrets of Establishing Rapport: Interview with FBI Veteran Robin Dreeke

Even if you’re the biggest introvert in the world, Robin Dreeke can get you to talk.

As a 15-year FBI veteran and lead trainer for social engineering and interpersonal skills at the agency, Dreeke is a master of establishing rapport with just about anyone, and that includes the IT guy who never looks up from his keyboard.  As head of the Behavioral Analysis Program, Dreeke often is asked by companies to help their leaders better communicate with their teams and increase collaboration.

Dreeke says he finds the best way to establish rapport with others is by asking himself, “What do I want the other people to tell me or do for me, for the team or for the company?”

Then he contemplates this question: “Why should they do it?”

“In other words, not why I think they should, but why they think they should.  I need to understand their priorities as well as their context of how they see the world,” he says.

That’s a formula any leader can use and is critical because it’s focused on developing trust, he says.

Another critical element is that team members feel listened to because the human brain is geared to respond favorably “when we feel a sense of belonging because others seek and validate our ideas,”  he says.

Dreeke, the author of “It’s Not All About ‘Me,’” provides more insight about how to build rapport in this interview with Anita Bruzzese:

AB:      What is one of the biggest mistakes that leaders make when trying to establish rapport with their team?

RD: The first mistake is the superficial flattery some might try to consciously establish rapport, such as commenting on a nice tie, pen, watch, etc. These compliments can be nice and may be well received, but they can also seem obvious and potentially fall flat.

AB:    So what’s the fallout from such a strategy?

 RD:  If leaders don’t listen to employees’ ideas and ask follow-up questions, it may fall flat and come across as contrived. I think it is always best to explore why people think the way they do. The key is to do so in an encouraging and non-judgmental manner. Team members generally understand they are not the final authority on what is done or not done.

AB: If a leader uses your strategy, what’s the payoff?

RD: People crave to be listened to because it tells them they are accepted and part of the group or team. As human beings, we seek social acceptance and belonging in every aspect of our lives. Some of us this more than others, but it is a core function of our genetics. When a leader can use this knowledge and skill with his/her team, then trust and productivity will definitely increase.

AB:     In your book, you write: “I have had total strangers tell me their deepest darkest secrets from really unusual sexual experimentations to obsessions with designer blue jeans.” You say that asking open-ended questions can be very effective in getting a conversation started and prompting people to really open up. Can you explain?

RD:  If the leader of the team asks one of the members about how they would start a project, the leader might consider first validating the idea. Then, as a follow-up the leader says something like, “That’s interesting Karen, how did you come up with that?”  Or, the leader might say, “I’d like to explore that idea some more.  Jim, what do you think some challenges might be?”

The key is to first validate the idea in some way. If you quickly agree without exploring the idea with an open-ended question, then you have a greater chance of sounding patronizing and losing the trust and rapport with the team. Once it is lost, I think it is nearly impossible to get back, at least in the short term.

AB:  If a leader has a team that appears to be struggling or under stress, what technique can be used to figure out what’s really going on and the source of the problem?

RD: There are a few techniques that I like in these situations. I remain flexible with which I use, although often times I use both.

First, you can use something called “emotional labeling”. It is a technique that crisis negotiators will use as well.  Basically, when you see stress, you attempt to name it.

You may say something like, “Karen, you appear upset,” or “John, you look stressed.” Most times (if the leader does have trust) the individual will either confirm the observation or they will correct the observation with a more accurate description of the emotion. (Humans have an incredible need to correct others. Leaders can use this very effectively.)

The second method I like, and generally prefer, is to seek what those individuals think are the challenges involved with the project, mission, etc. I love the “challenges” question. It is a wonderful open-ended question that not only allows you to get an understanding of what may be causing the stress, but you get an understanding of the team member’s context as well.

The question is also a form of seeking thoughts and opinions so their brain is rewarding them for sharing (as long as there is trust). Then, validate their thoughts and don’t negate them or argue with them. Have the team member explain why they think certain things are challenges. The next step is to ask them what they think we can do about resolving the challenges. Again, the same result.

AB:     You say that suspending the ego is probably the most difficult thing for an individual when seeking to establish rapport. What are a couple of ways that leaders can learn to do this?

RD: If you look back at the techniques that we have discussed, who has been the focus? It’s the other person or team members.  By practicing the above techniques and methodologies about seeking thoughts, opinions, ideas, and challenges, a leader is beginning to suspend his or her own ego because they aren’t trying to insert their own.

The second step is to then explore and validate all the great information they have coming in from their team members. The hardest part for the leader is when a team member shares an opinion and the leader quickly has a response, retort, explanation, etc. True ego suspension is not saying it. Let the team member continue while the leader listens, explores and validates.

These methods can take extra time, but the trust, morale, cohesiveness and productivity will make it well worth it.

What methods have your found effective in establishing rapport with your team?

Disclaimer: The views and information expressed do not represent the views of the FBI.






Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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