The Dangers of Rapport

In category Communication Theory

In writing on Asperger’s Syndrome, much is made of rapport. Rapport is good. It is what normal people achieve naturally, and what people with Asperger’s are so bad at. It is what psychologists, therapists and clinicians aim to establish with their clients. So how can rapport possibly be dangerous?

Rapport is a social phenomenon created through interactions. You can’t have rapport with yourself. You feel rapport with others when you find that you share experiences, values and interpretations. Rapport is built up by phatic communication acts – eye contact, small talk, shared jokes, shared topics, shared attitudes – all those communication acts that build group cohesiveness.

When communication is genuine, rapport builds and the participants are left with positive feelings – trust, friendship, security, a sense of being validated.

When communication is genuine, when the interests, attitudes and values match sufficiently, rapport builds and the participants are left with positive feelings – trust, friendship, security, a sense of being validated.

Even then, this rapport is not solid and unbreakable and any participants who think it is are likely to become disillusioned. We can feel rapport with someone until one day a new topic intrudes and we suddenly find that we have widely diverging views on politics, religion, sex and all those other topics banned in small talk. Then, the stronger the rapport and the more we have assumed, the stronger the feeling of disappointment, anger or even betrayal.

Many quite genuine, honest and socially competent people have things they hold back from general conversation because they know it will pop the bubble of rapport like a pin in a balloon. They know they will be accepted as long as they keep quiet about their special interest, sexuality, background or other digression from the “norm” of the dominant person or group. Their exception must be kept like a guilty secret until somehow certain others send signals that it is safe to bring it out.

All is not lost when rapport is broken. If all parties wish to maintain a good relationship, it can be strengthened or even rebuilt by stepping back into safe and shared topics and avoiding or at least more carefully broaching difficult topics.

A problematic use of rapport is deliberate persuasion. Rapport is a necessary tool of trade for salespeople, managers, politicians, therapists, con-artists, cult leaders, child molesters, etc who operate in situations where rapport is built artificially in order to try to get the other party to buy something, do something or believe something. There is nothing wrong with trying to build rapport in itself, but there are many situations where varying degrees of wariness are advisable.

Within the discourse of Aspergers Syndrome, it is assumed that the failure to establish rapport is both the fault of the person diagnosed, and proof of the diagnosis. The accuser never seems to question their own assumptions of the situation or the parties involved. Earlier I said…

When communication is genuine, when the interests, attitudes and values match sufficiently, rapport builds and the participants are left with positive feelings – trust, friendship, security, a sense of being validated.

Within all social communication contexts, rapport is an essential ingredient. I have discussed above where rapport is a much more problematic concept within certain situations. One place where simplistic ideas about rapport are at their most dangerous is in the discourse and practice of psychology.

There is nothing genuine about a therapist simulating phatic communication in order to make a child trust them (this is one way trust, not reciprocated trust) or pretending to have an interest in dinosaurs when they clearly don’t know the difference between a Diplodocus and a Triceratops. Their attempt to come across as all warm and friendly is likely to come across as patronising, creepy, or simply weird by the recipient. A sensible and polite response to this behaviour would be to withdraw and put up the barriers, not make eye contact, answer as  required but nothing more, not engage.

Regardless of whether the diagnosee is a child or an adult, their reactions and viewpoints have been pathologised and invalidated by the discourse of the Asperger Syndrome experts. They are told that the source of their difficulties to respond in the expected manner is within themselves and a result of their lack of “Theory of Mind” or mind-blindness. But real rapport is built when the participants share and validate each other’s world view. Who is it that is kidding themselves that they understand the other person – the therapist or the “patient”?

In scientific discourse every idea is open to challenge and debate, ensuring both ongoing progress but also an essential protection against theories developing a life of their own. In my opinion, the simplistic use of the concept of rapport by Asperger’s Syndrome proponents, and the way that feeds into their diagnostic criteria and proof, is anything but scientific. Add to that, the use of rapport to build support and invalidate opposition to their theories in both academic and wider community discourse means that these theories escape adequate scientific scrutiny.

If you take away the assumption that the current theories about Asperger’s Syndrome are scientific “truth”, what is left? You are back at the beginning, trying to make sense of a difficult and confusing world. Perhaps that is why adherents are so resistant to critical examination of the theory.

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