Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
By Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.
A psychotherapy session is well underway. The psychiatrist sits in a wooden armchair, stiffly formal in manner. His patient slumps on a leather couch, her very air one of defeat. They are not on the same wavelength.
The psychiatrist has made a therapeutic gaffe, an off-kilter interpretation of what the patient has just said. He offers an apology: "I was concerned I was doing something disruptive to the treatment."
"No-" the patient begins.
The therapist cuts her off and makes another interpretation.
The patient starts to reply, and the therapist just talks over her.
Finally able to get a word in, the patient starts complaining about all she had to put up with over the years from her mother-a back-handed comment on what the therapist has just been doing.
And so the session wobbles on, off-key and out of synch.
Switch to a different patient and psychotherapist in the midst of a session, at a peak moment of rapport.
Patient Number Two has just told his therapist that he proposed to his longtime girlfriend-now fiancée - the day before. The therapist had spent months helping him explore and overcome his fears of intimacy, in order to work up the courage to commit to marriage. So they both share in this moment of triumph. Their mood is upbeat, therapist and patient both quietly exultant.
Their rapport is so thick that their posture and movements mirror each other as though intentionally choreographed: when the therapist shifts one foot and then the other, the patient immediately does the same.
There's something peculiar about these two therapy sessions, both of which were captured on videotape: two rectangular metal boxes, stacked like stereo components, sit between therapist and client, extruding wires that lead to a metal clip that each person wears on a fingertip. The wires to therapist and client feed a stream of readings revealing subtle shifts in their sweat response as they speak.
The sessions were part of a study of the hidden biological dance that glides along as the subterranean component of everyday interactions. The videos of the psychotherapy sessions depict those continuous readings as a wiggling line that floats under each person, blue for the patient, green for the therapist. The lines undulate with rising and falling emotions.
During those anxious, jarring exchanges of the first session, the two lines move like jittery birds, their ups and downs on private trajectories. They etch a portrait of disconnection.
But during the rapport of that second session, the lines fly like birds in formation, a graceful ballet of coordinated movement. When two people feel rapport, the gliding lines reveal, their very physiology attunes.
These therapy sessions are at the cutting edge of methods for studying the otherwise invisible activity of the brain while people relate. Though the sweat response may seem remote from the brain, a bit of reverse engineering of the central nervous system allows us to make an educated guess as to which brain structures are doing what during these interpersonal tangos.
That neural calculus was performed by Carl Marci, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, who conducted the study, lugging a suitcase filled with monitoring gear to the offices of willing therapists all over the Boston area. Marci has joined an elect group of pioneers who are finding inventive ways to cross what was once an impenetrable barrier for brain science: the skull. Until now neuroscience has studied just one brain at a time. But now two are being analyzed at once, unveiling a hitherto undreamed-of neural duet between brains as people interact.
Marci has extracted from his data what he calls a "logarithm for empathy," a specific interplay of the sweat response of two people as they enjoy rapport. That logarithm reduces to a mathematical equation the precise pattern of two people's physiology at that peak of rapport when one feels understood by the other.
The Glow of Simpatico
I remember feeling such rapport years ago in the office of Robert Rosenthal, my statistical methods professor when I was a psychology graduate student at Harvard. Bob (as everyone called him) was by reputation just about the most likable professor in the entire department. Whenever any of us went to see Bob in his office, regardless of our reason and no matter what our anxiety was at the outset, we came out feeling heard, understood, and-almost magically-better.
Bob had a gift for emotional uplift. But small wonder that he was so adept at spreading a mellow mood: the nonverbal links that build connection were his scientific turf. Years later Bob and a colleague published a landmark article revealing the basic ingredients of relationship magic, the recipe for rapport.
Rapport exists only between people; we recognize it whenever a connection feels pleasant, engaged, and smooth. But rapport matters far beyond those fleeting pleasant moments. When people are in rapport, they can be more creative together and more efficient in making decisions-whether it's a couple planning a vacation itinerary, or top management mapping a business strategy.3
Rapport feels good, generating the harmonious glow of being simpatico, a sense of friendliness where each person feels the other's warmth, understanding, and genuineness. These mutual feelings of liking strengthen the bonds between them, no matter how temporary.
That special connection, Rosenthal has found, always entails three elements: mutual attention, shared positive feeling, and a well-coordinated nonverbal duet. As these three arise in tandem, we catalyze rapport.
Shared attention is the first essential ingredient. As two people attend to what the other says and does, they generate a sense of mutual interest, a joint focus that amounts to perceptual glue. Such two-way attention spurs shared feelings.
One indicator of rapport is mutual empathy: both partners experience being experienced. That was how we felt when talking with Bob-he was fully present to us, paying utter attention. This marks one difference between mere social ease and full rapport; in social ease we feel comfortable, but we do not have the sense of the other person tuning in to our feelings.
Rosenthal cites a study where people were put in pairs. One of the two, who was secretly working with the researchers, had what looked like a painful splintered and bandaged finger. At one point he seemingly reinjured himself. If the other person happened to be looking the supposed victim in the eye during the injury, that person winced, mimicking his pained expression. But people who were not looking at the victim were far less likely to wince, even though they were aware of his pain. When our attention is split, we tune out a bit, missing crucial details-especially emotional ones. Seeing eye to eye opens a pathway for empathy.
Attention in itself is not enough for rapport. The next ingredient is good feeling, evoked largely through tone of voice and facial expression. In building a sense of positivity, the nonverbal messages we send can matter more than what we are saying. Remarkably, in an experiment where managers gave people unflattering feedback while still exhibiting warm feelings toward them through their voice and expression, those receiving the critiques nevertheless felt positively about the overall interaction.
Coordination, or synchrony, is the third key ingredient for rapport in Rosenthal's formula. We coordinate most strongly via subtle non-verbal channels like the pace and timing of a conversation and our body movements. People in rapport are animated, freely expressing their emotions. Their spontaneous, immediate responsiveness has the look of a closely choreographed dance, as though the call-and-response of the interaction has been purposefully planned. Their eyes meet, and their bodies get close, pulling chairs near-even their noses get closer than is typical during conversation. They are comfortable with silences.
Lacking coordination, a conversation will feel uncomfortable, with mistimed responses or awkward pauses. People fidget or freeze. Such mismatches torpedo rapport.
At a local restaurant there's a waitress everyone loves to have serve them. She has an uncanny knack for matching the mood and pace of her customers, gliding into synch.
She's quiet and discreet with the morose man nursing a drink at that table over there in the dark corner. But then she's sociable and outgoing with a noisy batch of coworkers laughing it up on their lunch hour. And for that young mom with two hyperactive toddlers, she wades right into the frenzy, entrancing the kids with some funny faces and jokes. Understandably, this waitress gets by far the biggest tips of any.
That wavelength-sensing waitress embodies the principle that getting in synch yields an interpersonal benefit. The more two people unconsciously synchronize their movements and mannerisms during their interaction, the more positively they will feel about their encounter-and about each other.
The subtle power of this dance was revealed in a clever set of experiments with students at New York University who volunteered for what they thought was an evaluation of a new psychological test. One at a time they sat with another student-actually a confederate of the researchers-and judged a series of photos for the supposed test. The confederate was instructed to either smile or not, to shake his foot or rub his face while they went through the pictures.
Whatever the confederate did, the volunteers tended to mimic. Face-rubbing elicited face-rubbing, a smile primed a smile in return. But careful questioning later revealed that the volunteers had no idea they had been smiling or shaking their foot in imitation; nor had they noticed the choreographed mannerisms.
In another part of the same experiment, when the confederate intentionally mimicked the motions and gestures of the person he was talking with, he was not particularly liked. But when the confederate was spontaneous in his mimicry, he was found more appealing. Contrary to the advice of popular books on the matter, intentionally matching someone-imitating the position of their arms, say, or taking on their posture-does not in itself heighten rapport. Such mechanical, faked synchrony feels off.
Social psychologists have found again and again that the more two people naturally make coupled moves-simultaneous, at a similar tempo, or otherwise coordinated-the greater their positive feelings. If you watch two friends talking from a distance where you can't hear what they're saying, you can better observe this nonverbal flow: an elegant orchestration of their movements, smooth turn-taking, even coordination of gazes. One acting coach assigns his students to watch entire movies with the sound off, to study this silent dance.
A scientific lens can reveal what the naked eye can't detect: the way that, as each friend speaks, the other's breath subtly falls into a complementary rhythm. Studies where friends in conversation wore sensors that monitored breathing patterns found the listener's breathing roughly mirroring that of the speaker by inhaling as the partner exhaled, or matching by breathing together.