'These are becoming lost skills that we need to recapture’

The new book Rapport, by Emily Alison and Laurence Alison, offers ‘The four ways to read people’. Jon Sutton asked them about it.

Promising evidence-based ways to read people: that’s a pretty crowded market. What makes your approach stand out?

Emily: Two aspects make our work very distinct. The first is that it draws on a number of foundation theories within both social and clinical psychology – from Leary’s Interpersonal Circumplex, Birtchnell’s theory of Relating, Miller and Rollnick’s Motivational Interviewing approaches and of course Carl Rogers person centred philosophy. The second is that our work is based entirely on the analysis and study of real-world interactions between people, including the largest corpus of police/suspect interviews ever compiled. And of course, by ‘reading people’ we mean using what we know about relating to make a connection – that is as much about reading the situation as well as the person.

What has changed in the world of interrogation? 

Laurence: Well, straight away we would change the term to the world of ‘interviewing’. Interrogation has an immediate association with adversarial questioning (at least in UK Law enforcement). What we have known since the introduction of The Police And Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act to UK police interviewing is that combative, coercive and manipulative strategies have no place in the interview room. Similarly, in the US and in the wake of 911 there were appalling acts of dehumanisation and torture conducted at hands of some US interrogators (aided and assisted by some US psychologists). 

Emily: Not only are these approaches morally repugnant, unethical and fraught with legal issues, they are also ineffective. If what you are seeking is the truth, elite effective interviewers know that rapport is the only approach that works. Our job was to pin down exactly those aspects of communication that make up rapport. Since our specific work in this area on suspect interviewing we have shown how 

it is much more effective to try and understand the other person and take their perspective, rather than judge them or have any preconceived ideas or assumptions about their involvement. Police have generally been receptive to these ideas and have seen them work first-hand. 

What still needs to change? What stands in the way of the ‘rapport revolution’?

Emily: Twitter! In all seriousness, we are in a time where conflict seems to be both promoted and applauded – by the media, by politicians, by the public, and even by social media algorithms. Shouting down and bullying your opposition seems to have replaced rational debate and critical thinking. Rapport building, at its heart, requires objectivity, curiosity, a desire to understand others, and, most of all, the ability to listen. These are becoming lost skills that we need to recapture in how we speak to others. Arguments now seem to become increasingly binary – leave-remain, mask-no mask, catastrophe-scaremongering. There is so little effort to find nuance or subtlety in anything, nor to think objectively and seek another perspective. There seems to be more interest in conflict than compassion, and eagerness to divide rather than connect. 

How did you find the writing process, as a couple?

Laurence: Writing a popular general consumption book is tough… whether alone or as a couple. You have to balance the science with the message and make it lively and successful as a narrative. Combining all that with what is actually a complex model is tricky and took time. 

Did you use your own advice in managing that? 

Emily: Of course! Our main aim was not to appeal to an academic audience but a very wide non-specialist one. With that in mind you have to ignore any urge to talk about the method, design or rigour of any of the studies, nor even justify any of the claims. The objective is to present what is known in a way that will keep the reader turning the pages and getting the basics of the model right. It has to be easy to digest and have a very wide appeal. That means everyone from a young adult seeking a romantic partnership, to a CEO having to give a member of staff bad news, has to be able to get something out of it. We had to be constantly mindful of the breadth of the audience in order that we didn’t leave anyone out. 

In your experience, are psychologists any better or worse than other groups at building rapport in their professional and personal lives?

Laurence: As in any profession there is huge variation. In some ways it’s bewildering that psychologists don’t apply their research more. We know a lot about communicating and deciding… two key features we all have to do every day, sometimes several times a day. We do see some psychologists that are bad at both! However, psychologists are often in the business of analysing people, so I think it gives them a leg up on how they view the world and the significance of interactions with others. But again, and I think we point this out in the book, we both admit to making many mistakes ourselves. You can’t get things right all the time and maybe not even most of the time. Fatigue, stress, time pressure all get in the way. But if you do have some knowledge of these things then you can plan ahead for tricky conversations, or repair things if they’ve gone awry. 

Which of the lessons in your book has the firmest foundations, in terms of research evidence? And is that in any way associated with how easy or effective it is in implementation?

Emily: There are now very many studies of motivational interviewing, including a fair number of decent meta analyses. Stephen Rollnick has been very complimentary about our work and he has been an inspiration to us. Part of our model draws heavily on the concepts that underpin that therapeutic approach… authenticity of the interaction, the provision of personal choice for the client and a non-judgmental sense of professional curiosity. These seem to be critical in police interviews with suspects in order to successfully gain information. However, we are finding they are fundamental principles of how we all connect with one another, regardless of the relationship or the context.  

Do those concepts have an important flipside?

Emily: Yes – we also need to recognise the even more powerful negative effects of the opposite aspects of these principles, such as manipulation and deception, force and coercion and judgement and bias. If anything the key and overwhelming message is to stop any of these negative attributes as far as possible. They have an asymmetric negative effect on connecting with others so whilst it isn’t possible to avoid ever going wrong, recognise when you do and make efforts to repair it.  

Laurence: Interpersonal skills can be a hard thing to train people in. It’s something people often consider innate – you’re either good at it or not. However, our challenge has been to take quite a complex model and distil it into a format that is understandable and trainable for anyone. For example, Emily has been training parents and children in the circumplex structure by animal type (Conflict: T-Rex, Cooperation: Monkey, Control: Lion, Capitulation: Mouse) for 20 years. The animal archetypes allow children as young as five to understand the backbone of communication styles (what sort of animal is mummy most of the time? What sort of animal are you?). The message is about understanding what you are already good at and then focusing effort on improving those areas that don’t come naturally.  

Tell me about Project ARES – has that drawn on the ideas you cover in the book?

Laurence: It has drawn on some of the concepts in ‘Rapport’. For Project ARES I was very fortunate in pulling together a small team (some from Liverpool Uni as well as contacts I had elsewhere amongst the emergency services and defence) to provide online support for the response to Covid. This included folk in the ICU as well as people working in residential care, the morgues, paramedics and so on. The team were able to pull together practical tools based on the research as well as extensive experience of working for very long durations in extreme environments. Part of that requires effective communication skills, reading situations accurately and making connections that enable teams to work under intense pressure. 

But there are also very clear decision-making elements that emerge in these environments. My other area of research involves the examination of how we make hard choices and select between least worst options. Often, decision makers revert to various forms of inertia when presented with these extreme environments. I’ve been fortunate insofar as, due to the success of Rapport, I’ve secured another book contract with Penguin that will focus on that and on how we can push past sluggish decision making. The working title is ‘Decisions, Decisions’.

- Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People is out now on Penguin. Keep an eye on @psychmag on Twitter for your chance to win a copy.

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