Building rapport: tips for Athletic Trainers

As healthcare providers , we must attempt to establish a positive connection with every client/patient/athlete we work with. Taking steps to develop a positive rapport (when two or more people feel they are on the same page because they can relate to each other) can play huge dividends in improving outcomes. I cannot stress enough how important this is in our professional domain. We work in a human service profession. We chose to do what we do because we wanted to help people. We must seek to be a professional that those with whom we work trust and believe in, and this includes being able to have rapport with a wide variety of persons with variable personalities and backgrounds. Otherwise, we will likely impede our abilities to help them heal and/or attain their athletic/fitness goals. In other words, we must bridge the gap between knowledge and application of that knowledge by improving how we develop rapport and how we communicate.

The last thing we want to do is to give the impression that we “don’t care about their problem”.  I realize that we all have bad days, troublesome personal problems, and other non-work related issue that affect us emotionally. However, we have to learn to separate ourselves from those things in moments when we are needed by those who seek out our assistance for their injuries and healthcare concerns, or those who pay $$ out of their pockets for us to help them achieve their goals. Make every person feel that you truly WANT to help them and that they are your priority, even if only for a brief moment. I think, more often than not, it is merely a case of emotional hijacking that clouds our responses and actions rather than a true lack of desire to help. But don’t worry, we can work to fix this!

I highly recommend that all of us in healthcare, fitness, and wellness professions take some sort of continuing education geared towards improving our communication and developing skills for building rapport. I feel it truly took the application of my professional knowledge to the next level when I focused my time and energy towards improving my interpersonal skills and communication approaches through my Masters educational program. Pertaining to building rapport, here are some essential components of rapport that I have learned.

Essential ingredients for developing rapport…

  • Match with verbal and non-verbal communication

Matching is a powerful tool. Matching while you mirror can lead to a subconscious connection with whom you are communicating. In order to further your connection, match the tone, tempo, volume, “key words”, posture, and gestures of the other person. Be sure to do this in a subtle way that isn’t seen as “mocking”, but moreso connecting. This is the art that takes time to develop! Matching can be quite powerful in situations where emotions are running high.

  • Mirror

Attempt to reflect back the “content” of a message from your client in a way that demonstrates understanding. Some call this “backtracking”. Doing so is key for validation.

  • Validate

Communicate understanding. Remember, this does not always = agreeing with their opinion or approach.

  • Display empathy

“Seek first to understand, then be understood”, as Stephen Covey posited. Sincerely attempt to gain an idea of the other person’s perspective, separate from any preconceived notions you may have. Do you take a moment to put yourself in their shoes? Sometimes by demonstrating a true understanding of their opinion or approach, a) you will learn that you may have been wrong (it is OK for us to admit being wrong when we are!), or b) you may end up bringing them over to your side of the fence.  Answer this: how often do you ask your client/athlete/patient questions like…

“How is your day going?”          “What are your personal goals?”  

“Besides participating in sports, is there anything else on a day to day basis that you are having difficulty with because of your injury?”  

“Is there anything else that you feel I could do to help you with your problem/ towards your goal?

  • Stay in “uptime”

Be present in your conversation. This can be a challenge in a busy room, when in a bad mood, or in highly emotional situations, however we must make every attempt to focus on the client in that moment. Eye contact is key.

  • Empower the client

Educate the person on their injury (as much as they wish to be educated on it), offer coping strategies (if needed), present activity modification ideas, and provide “tools” to help them recover (i.e. home exercise programs focused on what they need the most).

  • Refer out when appropriate and warranted

Know your professional limitations. People will gain much respect for you for referring them to someone else who can help them in a way that you cannot or may be ill equipped to. Also, be sure to know and be familiar with your referral sources – a bad referral can reflect poorly on you.

I fully realize this is only a brief summary of how to build rapport. I plan on delving more into this general topic in the future with specifics in each of the categories. Developing this “art” takes time, a personal commitment, and a genuine passion for being better at what you do.

Make an impact.

– RS

Like this blog?  Please share with others, and subscribe!

Ryan Stevens, MPS, ATC, CSCS