Building Rapport in Coaching

Developing Mutual Understanding and Trust

Building Rapport in Coaching - Developing Mutual Understanding and Trust

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Is everyone on the same wavelength?

Many of us naturally work at building rapport with others in our everyday relationships, both at home and at work. In coaching, building this rapport is even more important.

For coaching to be successful, coaches and coachees (the people being coached) must work together and share information about each other. So it's essential for them to be "on the same wavelength." Then the coachee can trust the coach, and feel emotionally safe as the relationship develops.

In this article, we'll look at ways you can build and maintain trust and rapport with the people you're coaching. This helps you get the best from your coaching relationships.

Building Trust

Mutual trust is critical in a coaching relationship, and building rapport can help people gain that trust. David Maister, an expert in professional relationships, identified the main characteristics of our behavior that help to build trust as credibility, reliability, intimacy, and care.

You can apply these characteristics to improve coaching relationships, as follows:

  • Credibility

    Helping coachees find their path is not just about having the right skills – it's also about demonstrating your knowledge and your access to useful resources. This shows that you have expertise, and can do what you say you can do.

    Credibility may come naturally from being personally recommended by someone the coachee already trusts. But it can also come from being confident and avoiding hesitation. The right balance is to speak clearly and authoritatively, yet avoid being dictatorial – you can learn this with experience and practice.

    This doesn't necessarily mean that you'll always know the answers to the questions that your coachees are asking – the best solutions usually come from the coachees themselves. But it does mean that you should be genuinely resourceful and well informed, and you should admit it when you don't have the right knowledge or information.

  • Reliability

    As well as being able to support coachees, you keep your promises by doing what you say you're going to do.

    This could be as simple as arriving at meetings on time, or returning phone calls promptly. It could also include following up on previous conversations, conducting research on the coachee's behalf, and generally being sensitive to the coachee's preferences and expectations.

  • Intimacy

    Sharing feelings and information will happen only when the coachee feels comfortable and at ease with you – and the more that people share, the more comfort they usually feel.

    This doesn't mean that you have to share everything about your own life with coachees. But revealing emotions, experiences, values, and beliefs, can help show coachees that the relationship works both ways, and show that you trust the coachees to keep your confidences as well.

  • Care

    Demonstrating care isn't something you can do by following a formula. It relies on the coachee believing that you genuinely have his or her best interests in mind, and that the relationship is not just about work and work performance.

    At its simplest, this means being a good host during a meeting. But it often extends beyond this – being available to the coachee at short notice (for example, by telephone or email), or taking an interest in what's happening in the coachee's life.

The Six Levels of Rapport

Establishing and maintaining rapport is also about understanding the importance of sharing what we have in common, and then using these shared elements as the building blocks for a successful coach-coachee relationship.

We can explore what we have in common in many ways, but one of the most useful is by using six "logical levels."

As we go further down the six levels, the items become more psychologically intimate, and therefore, more relevant to building a deeper level of rapport.

Level Example
1. Environment Do we share a workplace or live in the same town, city, or region? Do we experience similar weather, do we have a similar background, or do we know the same people?
2. Behavior Do we do the same things, share the same hobbies, or act in similar ways?
3. Capability Do we share any skills or abilities?
4. Beliefs Do we share principles, values, or beliefs about what is important in life?
5. Identity Do we share a sense of who we are? (For example, "I am a hardworking and loyal husband" or "I am a carefree artist.")
6. Spirit Do we share a sense of how all things are connected, or how we're connected to a god or to the rest of humankind?


The above levels were originally developed by Gregory Bateson, and then developed further for use in neurolinguistic programming in the book 'From Coach to Awakener' by Robert B. Dilts 2003.

These levels are not exclusive, but they can help us to recognize what type of rapport-building conversation we're having at any one point in time.

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Typically, we start conversations at the environment level, and we share and build from this to more personal topics, as we build more trust.

Conversations about beliefs, values, and identity are particularly valuable in coaching, because these topics are often the basis for motivation, performance, and building good relationships with others.

Asking the Right First Question

Another important part of building rapport is getting off to a good start. This can be trickier than it seems. Putting coachees at ease with everyday conversation helps ensure that the relationship doesn't start uncomfortably. So, it's best to avoid making jokes or offering too many personal observations until coachees have spoken more about their likes and dislikes.

At some point, though, you need to start a more structured conversation with a general and open question. Good examples include "What's been happening for you?" or "How are things going for you?" or "What's on your mind today?" The actual question doesn't matter too much, but it must invite the coachees, in an open and natural way, to talk about themselves and how they're feeling.

Maintaining Rapport

Rapport building isn't something you do just once. Each coaching session needs to build from the last.

By doing the following, you can help ensure that the coaching relationship stays on track, and you continue to build and maintain rapport:

  • Show respect for what the coachee has achieved, the coachee's perspective on life, and his or her life goals.
  • Show consideration and empathy for any stresses and complications in the coachee's life.
  • Be courteous.
  • Appropriately nurture or care about the coachee, but don't be a "parent."
  • On occasion, playfully challenge the coachee as a prompt to move on.
  • Exchange confidences.
  • Be authentic.
  • Provide relevant knowledge and information.
  • Avoid using jargon.


In this article, we're looking at building rapport in coaching. In fact, these same skills will help you build better relationships in all parts of your life. Explore using them more generally!

Key Points

Building and maintaining rapport is vital to the success of any coaching relationship.

In coaching conversations, it's best to start simply and build on common ground. Use credibility, reliability, intimacy, and care to help you build trust. You can also use the six levels of rapport – environment, behavior, capability, beliefs, identity, and spirit – to help you form questions during your coaching conversations.

Remember that building rapport in coaching is ongoing, and each coaching session needs to build on the last.