Some questions about empathy and rapport


This article reports on a side-issue that has arisen within a much larger research project. A separate part of the large research project was presented to the ADRRN at its last Round Table in December 2017.

Empathy and rapport are complex aspects of human interaction, and there is a significant literature on them dating back at least to Alfred Adler in the 1920s.  The literature occurs principally in the research fields that include sociology, linguistics, neuroscience, social psychology, and cognitive psychology.  In essence, empathy is accepted as being able to identify with another person, to understand what it might be like to be that person, while simultaneously retaining your own sense of self and maintaining your own sense of emotional control.  It has been established that empathy and rapport are essential prerequisites for building trust and maintaining effective communication, and that establishing empathy will increase a person’s sense of satisfaction with business services.  Empathy has been said to be underpinned by what are called the “rules of communicative competence” by which individuals calculate the appropriate levels for relating to others depending upon cultural and personal influences at any given time.  Where one person has high levels of communicative competence, in any given situation, they remain sufficiently aware of the presence of others that their behavioural and linguistic preferences will enable them to assume an appropriate level of relationship with those other people.  These rules of communicative competence have since become better known as the “Rules of Rapport”

It is widely accepted that empathy and rapport are different states.  Research in other fields has shown that empathy plays an important role in developing rapport, rapport plays an important role in developing trust, and trust plays an important role in creating a cooperative atmosphere in which mutually beneficial outcomes can be crafted.  However, understanding and acknowledgement of the differentiations in that sequence is rare in the mediation literature, as are explanations of how the researchers intend any of the terms to be interpreted in the context of their study.

Given what is known about empathy and rapport, it is a pity that the mediation literature includes very little about what mediators actually say and do to establish an empathic relationship with and between the disputants in any particular mediation; nor what the mediators say and do that enables that empathy to contribute to building rapport and trust.  For example, researchers often report a general sense of what mediators say (e.g. the mediator described the mediation process), or of what the mediators do (e.g., the mediator created an atmosphere suitable for negotiation), yet they do not report what the subject mediator actually said or did: when the mediator described the mediation process, did they use formal or less formal language, did they speak to the disputants jointly or separately (or both), what was the mediator’s tone of voice and demeanour (It has been reported elsewhere that actual demeanour is important in the development of empathy and rapport)?  What did the mediator say and do that created a sense of the atmosphere being suitable for negotiation?

There is a reasonable amount of research outside the field of mediation that has reported on how empathy and rapport are established and the range of effects they can have (e.g., improving witness recollection, and increasing engagement in and commitment to business relationships).  It is likely that, because of mediation’s essential links to conflict, empirical studies of mediators and of mediation would be a significant contribution to knowledge about empathy, rapport and trust.  Well-designed, rigorous empirical studies could investigate: how can empathy, rapport, and trust be established in situations of conflict; how do the indicators of empathy, rapport, and trust differ in the context of conflict; how do the effects of empathy, rapport, and trust differ in the context of mediation generally (compared with other contexts); how do they differ between mediations conducted in different contexts?

How much does the establishment of empathy, and the building of rapport, influence the often-reported mediator experience of disputants and other participants reporting high levels of satisfaction with the mediation process despite not having achieved any form of settlement?

Finally, during all the emphasis on the mediator’s role in establishing empathy and building rapport, have we forgotten a different perspective: how often do the disputants seek to establish an empathic relationship with the mediator?

Some Readings and Sources

  1. Adler, Understanding Human Nature (Greenburg, New York, USA, 1927).
  2. J. Clark, ‘Empathy and Alfred Adler: An Integral Perspective’ (2016) 72(4) The Journal of Individual Psychology.
  3. Lietz, K. E. Gerdes, F. Sun, J. M. Geiger, M. A. Wagaman, and E. A. Segal, ‘The Empathy Assessment Index (EAI): A Confirmatory Factor Analysis of a Multidimensional Model of Empathy’ (2011) 2(2) Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research.
  4. Madsen, Therapeutic Jurisprudence in Investigative Interviews: the effects of a humanitarian rapport-oriented and a dominant non-rapport oriented approach on adult’s memory performance and psychological well-being, PhD Thesis, Department of Psychology and Logopedics, Abo Akademi University, Finland, 2017.
  5. Davis, L. Jiang, P. Williams, A. Drolet, and B. J. Gibbs, ‘Predisposing Customers to be More Satisfied by Inducing Empathy in Them’ (2017) 58(3) Cornell Hospitality Quarterly.
  6. T. Lakoff, Stylistic Strategies within a Grammar of Style (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, USA, 1979).
  7. Tannen, ‘Framing and Face: the Relevance of the Presentation of Self to Linguistic Discourse Analysis’ (2009) 72(4) Social Psychology Quarterly.
  8. Zaki, ‘Empathy: A Motivated Account’ (2014) 140(6) Psychological Bulletin.
  9. Holmberg and K. Madsen, ‘Rapport Operationalized as a Humanitarian Interview in Investigative Interview Settings’ (2014) 21(4) Psychiatry, Psychology, and Law.
  10. P Vallano, J. R. Evans, N. S. Compo, and J. M. Kieckhaefer, ‘Rapport-Building During Witness and Suspect Interviews: A Survey of Law Enforcement’ (2015) 29 Applied Cognitive Psychology.
  11. Holmberg and K. Madsen, ‘Rapport Operationalized as a Humanitarian Interview in Investigative Interview Settings’ (2014) 21(4) Psychiatry, Psychology, and Law.
This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by AlysounBoyle. Bookmark the permalink.

About AlysounBoyle

Alysoun has a PhD from the University of Newcastle (2020) and her main area of interest is empirical research methods. Her major research project applied a metaresearch approach to empirical studies of mediation, in an effort to find out what is known about mediator effectiveness. In addition to ADR Research Network, she is a founding member of ADRAC, a member of the Law & Society Association (USA), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She was a member of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Dispute Resolution Task Force on Research on Mediator Techniques until that Task Force's disbandment following publication of its Final Report in 2017. She is a Director of National Mediation Conferences Ltd. Alysoun is an experienced DR practitioner and educator/trainer. She is also the Call Out Officer for her local brigade in the NSW Rural Fire Service. Contact:

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