'Free' Coffee & Rapport


Rapport building is often cited as critical characteristic of a successful mediators. As a mediator, I agree, and think it must also be genuine. Additionally, establishing rapport, or building it, is something that mediators probably do and use not only as a tool in their Mediator's Toolbox but rather something they use throughout the day during daily interactions.

Now of course this is written for mediators, my usual audience, yet take out the word "mediator" and change with the work you do. I am fully confident it applies to your profession as well.

I think rapport, when genuinely used most times, is something that comes naturally, and in order to be natural, it is displayed without wanting or expecting something in return other than a friendly, respectful interaction.

Elements of rapport include verbal and nonverbal elements such as:
  1. Friendly tones
  2. Open hand gesture
  3. Empathy and concern,
  4. Back-channel/paralanguage to display you are listening ("mmm", head-nodding, etc.),
  5. Smiling and
  6. Eye contact (not playing on your mobile device!).

I experienced a great un-intended result of building rapport the other day. I live and work in New York
I often do work in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn and part of my usual morning ritual is to make sure I have 4 quarters (25 cent coins for my foreign readers!) in my pocket along with my paper currency. Two of the quarters are to buy the newspaper, and the other two go towards the $1.50 coffee I buy from the coffee cart on the street corner near my office.

Well, a few days ago I recalled, while after ordering my coffee that I successfully put the quarters in my pocket while at home but I forget to take my money clip with the paper money. I asked the "coffee man" if I could pay him the dollar tomorrow and explained the 50 cents is all I had as I forgot my money at home.

He replied in his thick yet fully understandable middle eastern accent, "Of course, not a problem. I can lend you some money too if you want for today."

I smiled and said thank you, I can go to the ATM to withdraw cash later but I appreciated the offer.

Why did the "coffee guy" allow me to get the coffee without paying the full price? Why did he offer me money for the day?

I like to believe it is due, despite neither of us knowing each other's name, the rapport we have developed. Not necessarily a friendship but rapport. A few month's prior he was was not there one day. The following day I asked if everything was ok, and he said he overslept.

Another day he heard my voice affected by a cold and allergies, and asked how I was doing. He then told me how his wife was sick and had to go the doctor. The following day I asked how she was doing and we engaged in brief conversation.

On a different day, again briefly, he explained to me how he had another job and how when his son gets a little older, he will take over the food cart business.

Rapport is developed over time. Picture a screen with hundreds of different little circles of all different colors with a black background. Taking away one little element of rapport, a circle, and no big deal- right?

Take away enough of them and you all of sudden you have less bright color circles and just a black screen. [See the video below for the circles!]

So why did this "coffee guy" give me my coffee despite not having the dollar to pay? Why am I discerning this interaction? because I think the little things matter.

If we work towards creating an environment where rapport building is natural, then wonderful, unexpected "little things" happen.


  1. Jeff, what I took from your post is that rapport is developed naturally over time. More importantly, I got the sense that it is worth being deliberate in developing rapport as well. I think the more intentional we are about using those elements of rapport you listed, the more practice we get and the more rapport we can develop naturally. Enjoyed your story!

  2. Jeff, this is a great NYC story and one that many of us here can relate to. I also see this as a form of urban community building. Having grown up in a small town (pop.1500) I sorely missed the acknowledgement of our interconnectedness when I moved to NYC. What you've describe seems to me to be one of the bubbles of acknowledgement and connectedness we have the opportunity to create that may seem unrelated but serve to define who we are and how we choose to interact with the people in our world.Rapport seems to be too small a word to describe what the two of you have accomplished. Thanks for the post.

  3. Great article. The little things do matter and it's too easy to forget about all the coffee guys out there.


Popular Posts