Building Rapport: An Essential Counseling Skill

Rapport is the emotional connection between counselor and client. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “The definition of rapport is a friendly, harmonious relationship. A relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.” 

Rapport-building begins at the initial counseling session and continues as the counselor builds a strong foundation for all future therapeutic work. This part of the process, along with building trust, is not rushed or forced. 

Can you experience instant rapport with a client? Yes. This natural connection can happen when you have similar personalities, interests, or values. For most counselors, however, rapport with their clients is built over time. Even if a free-flowing exchange forms, it is important to foster this relationship throughout the therapeutic process. 

It is understandable and normal for most clients to feel overwhelmed or anxious when they first reach out for therapeutic services. The counselor can ease this transition through empathy, to ensure the client feels as comfortable as possible. Normalizing initial anxiety helps clients relax and opens communication. Counselors can also utilize small talk or talk about neutral subjects to ease a client’s anxiety. 

Rapport is beneficial throughout the therapeutic relationship. Linda Ross (2013) explains in Facilitating Rapport through Real Patient Encounters in Health Care Professional Education, “Establishing rapport is central to any healthcare professional-patient encounter. Developing a positive relationship with a patient enables the healthcare practitioner to elicit pertinent information and make informed clinical decisions about their treatment. This consequently leads to greater patient adherence, satisfaction and ultimately outcomes.”

Trust is Everything

Trust is a part of building rapport and is the foundation of any successful counseling relationship. If the client does not trust the counselor, he or she will not commit to the therapeutic process. Counselors build trust and rapport by demonstrating their desire to understand the client’s experience of life through compassionate care and limit setting.

The American Counseling Association (2014) defines the counseling relationship in the introduction of section A in the American Counseling Association’s “The Counseling Relationship” as:

Counselors facilitate client growth and development in ways that foster the interest and welfare of clients and promote [the] formation of healthy relationships. Trust is the cornerstone of the counseling relationship, and counselors have the responsibility to respect and safeguard the client’s right to privacy and confidentiality.

Trust is built over time through the counselor’s consistent actions, calm manner, and competency. As a counselor, you need to be aware of your own behaviors and what they communicate to your client. 

One way to build trust is to have consistent and clear boundaries. Highly intuitive clients notice everything. This can include cutting the client’s hour short, allowing for extra time at the end of a session, and not returning a phone call in a timely manner. It is important for counselors to demonstrate integrity and take responsibility.

Limit Setting

The American Counseling Association (2014) “Code of Ethics” in the introduction of section B (“Confidentiality and Privacy”) states,

Counselors recognize that trust is a cornerstone of the counseling relationship. Counselors aspire to earn the trust of clients by creating an ongoing partnership, establishing and upholding appropriate boundaries, and maintaining confidentiality.

Boundaries demonstrate professionalism. Creating and maintaining professional boundaries allows clients to feel they are in a safe, predictable space.

It is important for counselors to clarify expectations at the first meeting and throughout the therapeutic process. Clearly communicate what will happen and when. For example, at the first session, discuss what happens during the evaluation session and subsequent appointments. Discuss the costs of treatment, limits to confidentiality, HIPAA, and releases of information.

Before each session, review your clinical notes. This reminds you of the important points of your work together and can be summarized at the beginning of your next session together. Nothing is worse than forgetting or talking about a different client’s experiences than the one you are with. 

Stick to the treatment plan and follow up after the fourth session regarding progress on goals. Ask clients what is and is not working for them, in regards to these goals. You can adjust your approach if needed.

Compassionate Care

Counselors show compassionate care through active listening, empathy, and the contemplative use of questions. One way to help your client feel comfortable is to show warmth through your words. Another technique is to utilize appropriate humor, which can ease any tension and build rapport. Authentic moments of laughter can form a meaningful connection between counselor and client. Remember, humor can be subjective. It is important to know your client’s sense of humor. 

Throughout the therapeutic process, active listening is key to building and maintaining rapport. Active listening is a process of engaging with the client, in order to hear what is being said. At times, it also means hearing what is not being said and commenting on the context of these nonverbal communications. Active listening is not a silent process but rather one of receiving, processing, and responding. 

Empathy allows you to put yourself in the client’s shoes. Counselors show they care through validating their clients’ thoughts and feelings, without judgment. Empathy demonstrates an understanding of the other’s experience through reflecting and paraphrasing. This communication process allows for the client to confirm that you are on the same page. When this happens successfully, a client feels heard and understood. If the counselor misinterprets, it allows the client to more fully express and the counselor to correct his or her understanding. You do not have to be perfect for a client to trust you, but you do have to be willing and open.

Another part of the empathic process is holding the space or silence for your client. There are times it is best to say nothing at all. This pause allows your client to process and integrate. 

A contemplative use of questions shows you are authentic, interested, and engaged. There are times in counseling when you need to inquire more deeply. Counselors can ask who, what, when, where, and why questions to gather more information.

There needs to be a balance between questions and the holding of space. Too many questions in a session can feel similar to an interrogation, which erodes trust and rapport. For some clients, too much empathy can feel suffocating and uncomfortable. 

Tune into what your client needs. Speak your client’s language by using the words your client uses. Throughout the counseling process, it is wise to periodically check in with your client and ask for feedback about the therapeutic process. 

What Is Not Said

What you don’t say can communicate more than your words. Clients pay attention to not only your words but also your nonverbal body language. They can tell if you are stressed, tired, angry, tense, or scared. 

Therapists are human and far from perfect. You can be a model for healthy relationships when you take responsibility for your behaviors. If a client initiates a discussion about one of these inconsistencies, admit it. This serves as a psychoeducational moment for your client. They learn it is okay for them to be imperfect human beings. Your authenticity builds trust.

Make appropriate eye contact and be aware of your nonverbal communication. In many cultures, eye contact shows the client you are listening and interested in what he or she is saying. Too much eye contact could feel invasive, while not enough may suggest you are distracted. Keep in mind cultural norms. In some cultures, eye contact is considered rude or offensive.

A genuine smile can put your client at ease and demonstrate warmth and friendliness. Be aware of your body posture and mirror the body posture of your client.

The authors, Foley & Gentile in “Nonverbal Communication in Psychotherapy, Psychiatry (Edgemont)” (2010) discuss three nonverbal behavior elements which influence rapport. Although this journal article references psychiatry, the same principles can be applied to any type of counseling:

  • Attentiveness – The psychiatrist can display interest in the patient by giving undivided attention to the conversation at hand and can encourage further communication with nonverbal behaviors, such as making eye contact and nodding.
  • Positivity-negativity – Are they enjoying one another’s company and showing this through nonverbal behaviors such as smiling, laughing, leaning forward in their chairs, and adopting open postures? Or are they uncomfortable with one another and displaying indifference or hostility and creating physical distance or barriers between one another?
  • Coordination – This can be conceptualized by thinking about how one person mirror’s another’s behavior. Examples include making eye contact at the same moment, returning a smile, or adopting and changing position in tandem with the patient.

To Share or Not to Share?

Self-disclosure is when the counselor shares his or her personal experience with the client. This is a deliberate process, with the client’s welfare first and foremost in mind. Self-disclosure is useful when it benefits the client—not the counselor.

Some clients feel a counselor’s self-disclosure shows his or her genuineness and care for the client. Sharing a personal story, along with the experience learned, can help clients feel less shame and normalize their experience. Clients learn the counselor has gone through a similar situation and survived.

Too much self-disclosure can erode rapport. When clients specifically ask personal questions, it is important to keep your answers brief and focused on the topic at hand. Some clients who ask too many personal questions of the counselor may indicate their unwillingness to sit with their own thoughts and feelings. It is normal for clients to be curious and you can validate this fact. 

In addition, a gentle but assertive reminder brings the focus back to the client. You can say, “Let’s get back to you,” or “What were you thinking or feeling before you asked me about myself?” This maintains proper therapeutic boundaries and protects rapport-building.

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She works for professionals who want to treat and prevent compassion fatigue. With over 18 years of psychotherapy experience, she helps her clients assert themselves, set boundaries, and increase their coping skills. Her specialty is decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing realistic methods of self-care for those who help others. Ms. Hutchison’s psychological advice has been featured in Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines, including Grief Digest and Today’s Caregiver.

Lisa is the bestselling author of I Fill My Cup: A Journal for Compassionate Helpers and a faculty member writer for NetCE. Her latest continuing education unit publication is “Setting Ethical Limits for Caring and Competent Professionals.” She has taught creative writing in colleges and presented on boundaries for the compassionate helper; the use of expressive art to heal grief, anxiety, and depression; inspirational and motivational topics; and creative writing techniques.