Photo by Ashish Thakur on Unsplash

By Jeff Meerman, APR – Posted: June 18, 2020

In addition to doctors, nurses and care-home workers, public health employees, numbering in the thousands worldwide, have been key in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. Often the unsung heroes of the health system, they may never see a patient in person but are using effective communications skills to help those who’ve been impacted.

I recently attended a course offered through Coursera and taught by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on COVID-19 contact tracing, which gave me some insight into the important communications skills required by public health workers who must deliver difficult news during stressful times.

Contact tracers are trained to be effective communicators through something known as “rapport” or the ability to establish a feeling of mutual understanding, trust and general agreeableness between people.  This is important for contact tracers because they must be able to get accurate information from cases, educate people about COVID-19 and be persuasive enough to ask people to list close contacts and to follow mandatory isolation or quarantine instructions, all at a time when people might be under considerable emotional distress.

Public health employees must understand the importance of effective communication skills in order to do their jobs and to connect with people.  More importantly, they learn to understand the importance of building rapport.

As professional communicators we must constantly communicate with our key stakeholders, share important information and engage with them, but are we building rapport to communicate more effectively?

Why is rapport important?

Rapport comes from the French word “rapporter” which means to “bring back” or latin “to carry.”  It’s a way to build a relationship with someone through agreement, empathy and mutual understanding.  Once this is established, communications with that person becomes easier. You can communicate, but it’s only effective when you have established rapport with the audience.  Essentially, do they trust you and want to listen?  Have you earned that trust?

Think of Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer for the Province of B.C.  Why was she so effective in getting her message across during the pandemic?  Partly it was because she was humble, empathetic and recognized the appropriate emotions people were feeling during a difficult time.

How do we establish rapport?

The good news is there are ways to build mutual understanding and trust and it’s all in our attitude:

  • Be empathetic.  This means listening and taking the time to understand a person’s perspective.  Try and put yourself in that person’s shoes.
  • Be an active listener.  Are you finishing someone’s sentences?  Is your mind wandering because it’s almost lunch time?  Really listen, offer feedback when appropriate, acknowledge that you’re listening and refrain from passing judgment.  
  • Reflect on people’s emotions.  As humans, we all have emotions and it’s important to recognize these emotions during a tough conversation.  Be sure to label the emotion.  For example, you could say, “it sounds like you’re upset” or “I can see how this news is worrying for you.”
  • Be observant and show interest in the other person but avoid being pushy or a push-over. It’s best to be polite and assertive.  
  • Ask the right questions.  Communicating often involves conversations and to truly engage, we must be inquisitive by asking questions in the right way.  Are your questions open ended?  The way you ask questions will determine the responses.  Asking closed ended questions that can be answered by a yes or no will not lead to a meaningful conversation.  The aim is to have a polite two-way conversation and to establish a relationship.

How is this relevant for communications professionals?

Oftentimes, communications can seem formulaic, transactional and a one-time effort.  For example, sending out a memo to all employees, responding to a media request, hosting an event or sending something out through social media.  Sure, these activities (tactics) can be measured quantitatively, but did they hit the mark?  It’s even more important to ensure the message was understood by or influenced the audience.  This is something that can be built over time by making communications an ongoing conversation where we seek to establish mutual respect and understanding.