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How to build rapport in museum and gallery programmes


What is rapport, why is it important and how can we build it in our museum and gallery programmes? Read or listen to this article.

I recently wrote an article for the Journal of Museum Education inspired by the coaching training I did in 2022. The course I took covered a wide range of important coaching topics and we explored various approaches, practitioners, and models. During the course, we got to coach others, be coached ourselves, and watch coaching in action. We also got feedback from tutors and classmates. 

Going through this process helped me grow personally and professionally. It made me think deeply about how I work as a museum educator, facilitator, and trainer. I learned so much more about my own style and what guides it. 

In ‘ Fostering a coaching mindset: applying coaching competencies to enhance museum educator practice and visitor experience‘ I’m not exploring how museum educators can benefit from receiving coaching or from becoming coaches themselves.

Instead, my article focuses on how museum educators can benefit from using coaching skills to enhance their teaching and improve the visitor experience. Because when you train to become a coach, it’s really not just about collecting a whole new skillset. Coach training really helps you to understand yourself and this self-awareness helps you to grow.

I explored how five key coaching competencies, coupled with a coaching mindset, can empower us as museum educators, improve our teaching methods, and enhance overall visitor experience. 

One of the competencies I talked about in this article is building rapport

Rapport is something that I bring up frequently in my facilitation workshops. And I frequently get asked “What is rapport?” or “What do you mean by ‘rapport’?

Rapport is quite a subtle or nuanced concept. It’s also not something that comes up  in everyday conversation. 

People often intuitively sense when there’s a strong rapport in a situation or, equally, when it’s lacking. However, they may struggle to pinpoint exactly how it came about. 

When rapport is present, people feel at ease, comfortable and connected with others. When rapport has been established, a flow in conversation and interaction is more likely to occur. This is when there’s a seamless and effortless exchange of ideas, where participants are fully immersed and engaged in the interaction. 

When rapport is absent, interactions feel strained and disconnected, with participants exhibiting more guarded behaviour. Communication may be superficial, and nonverbal cues often signal discomfort or disinterest, The atmosphere might feel stilted and one that hinders genuine connection and engagement.

What is rapport?

From various definitions: Rapport refers to a friendly, close, sympathetic, harmonious, relationship; especially a relationship characterised by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy. 

People or groups that have a good rapport are “in sync” with each other, understand each other’s feelings or ideas, and communicate smoothly.

Essentially, rapport refers to a good relationship where there’s mutual understanding, trust, and connection between people. 

Why is it important?

Rapport is important because it creates positive relationships, makes communication easier, and helps people work together better.

Rapport has been shown to be beneficial in many areas like psychotherapy, medicine, teaching and education. This positive relationship helps people work together better and form what is often called a “working alliance.” Rapport matters in all sorts of activities because it makes the whole experience better for everyone involved.

Rapport is super important for museum educators because it helps to create a welcoming and engaging environment. When we establish rapport with visitors, we can build trust, understanding, and connection, it makes it easier to communicate effectively and facilitate meaningful learning experiences. 

When participants have a positive rapport with the museum educator or facilitator on their programme, they are more likely to feel comfortable asking questions, sharing their thoughts, and engaging with the objects, ideas and themes in the museum. When participants feel rapport in the group, they are more likely to participate. 

So, building strong relationships and rapport among participants is incredibly important for making your programmes not only successful but also memorable

When participants feel valued, understood, and supported by both the facilitator and their peers, they are more likely to form positive memories associated with the experience.

When we focus on rapport, we make visitors or the participants in our programmes the main priority, creating an environment that revolves around their needs, interests, and experiences.It means we prioritise CONNECTION over CONTENT, placing the emphasis on establishing meaningful relationships and fostering a sense of belonging with participants, rather than solely focusing on the information or knowledge we are sharing. 

How can we build rapport in our museum programmes?

So we now know what rapport is and why it’s important. How can we build rapport in our museum programmes?

 To build rapport, think about doing the following:

  1. Be welcoming and approachable: Create a warm and friendly atmosphere that encourages visitors to engage with you and each other. Work on your 4 part introduction so that it actively sparks connection and  make sure you include time to warm up your group to help participants feel comfortable and begin interacting with each other.Observation activities are great for this. 
  2. Coordinate with your group:This means getting into rhythm with your group. You can do this in a number of ways. You can subtly mirror the body language, tone of voice, and pacing of participants to create a sense of connection and rapport. This doesn’t mean imitating the group, but mirroring the general message of their posture and energy. You can also work on your attentiveness – this can be done non verbally by smiling and nodding your head, or looking at the person speaking. Teachers in the classroom use things like physical proximity, and using gestures that create a sense of closeness and connection. By physically positioning themselves closer to students and engaging in behaviours that convey warmth and connection, teachers can establish a sense of closeness and rapport with their students. These techniques are immediately applicable to our work in museums too. 
  3. Build commonality: this is about finding shared interests, experiences, or beliefs, in order to build rapport. This doesn’t have to be exclusively between you and the group, it can also work between group members themselves and between group members and the exhibitions, objects and artworks you are exploring. When people discover they have something in common with others, it creates a sense of connection and understanding. Show genuine interest in your group members when they share their thoughts and share your own experiences to establish a connection with your group. 
  4. Listening: In coaching, listening, attentiveness, and rapport are often interconnected. We all know that listening is such an important part of our work but are we aware of the extent to which listening helps to build or break rapport? In my training workshops, I often use an exercise called attentive listening in pairs. One person speaks about an easy subject such as ‘my last holiday’ while the other listens carefully, maintaining eye contact and using non-verbal cues like nodding and mirroring body language to show they’re engaged. Afterward, we reflect as a group, sharing observations from both perspectives of the speaker and the listener. We discuss how it felt to be listened to attentively by someone. This first part allows participants to experience how active engagement and support from someone listening can enhance the quality of communication and create a sense of connection. Then, we repeat the exercise, only this time the listener intentionally breaks rapport with the speaker at some point during the conversation. They might do this by interrupting, looking at their phone or coughing. However they choose to break rapport, it’s a powerful exercise in demonstrating what disengagement feels like. It shows the importance of maintaining rapport for effective communication and relationship-building.  When we actively listen, it creates a sense of connection and rapport, enriching interactions and making museum experiences more meaningful.
  5. Following up on what someone has said: The last way to build rapport I’d like to touch on in this episode is by paying attention to how you follow up on what someone has said. In participative museum programs, it’s important to acknowledge and value what participants say. Museum educators are often taught to ‘paraphrase’ what participants have said. Paraphrasing is repeating in your words what you understood someone else to have said. It can be a helpful communication tool that showcases active listening. However, paraphrasing is not without its critics – In Nancy Kline’s book Time to Think she writes that paraphrasing is flawedby re-phrasing we might be seen to improve on what someone else has said, rather than believing that the best wording is their own. She says that this can damage rapport by unintentionally suggesting ‘our words are better’. I would urge you to try a mix of restating and paraphrasing – what I like to call ‘reflecting back’ in order to keep building rapport with your group. 

By taking the time and effort to build rapport, we can we can create more engaging and enriching museum programmes, foster deeper connections with visitors and enhance their overall enjoyment and memories of their museum experience.

How do you build rapport in your museum programmes?

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