Friday, September 17, 2010

Building Rapport--aka Tell Me Again How To Like You???

Have you ever been in the middle of, say, a meeting at work or school or church, and you're listening to someone talking, explaining their point of view, and you suddenly realize, "I don't like you!"?

Sometimes that happens to me. The reassuring thing, as an adult, is that I have the perspective to understand that whether I like someone or not really isn't always relevant. I don't have to like someone to work successfully with them on a project. I don't have to want to hang out with you in order to cooperate to make something happen. I think this is because I've absorbed the idea that I don't have to like you...I only have to respect you.

As adults, we often confuse the concepts of liking, loving, and respecting. For children, this can be even more confusing. To me, these are all completely different ideas. Most of us want to do right by young children and are very uncomfortable with the idea of not "liking" or "loving" all children. I mean, we're kind of conditioned to it, right? Have you seen that Pampers commercial they show around Christmas, with all the babies from around the world, sleeping to Silent Night? Come on, what kind of person couldn't love all those babies?

Human ones, that's who. Children are people, and as I wrote yesterday, they have their own personalities, likes, and dislikes. Some are easier to get along with than others. And some--shockingly--don't like US.

It's been my experience that most adults, out of their own well-meaning sense of responsibility or guilt, try to force themselves to like or love children, when really, those are emotions that have very little to do with the equation. When you're talking about building a relationship with a child you don't mesh with, I would propose the key is building rapport.

Rapport, to me, has two very distinct, yet equally important, components. The first component is building trust. According to Erik Erikson, a psychological theorist, the first developmental challenge we all face is building trust. Trust is developed in infancy by warm and predictable responses to a baby's needs. If trust is not developed, it becomes difficult for the child to develop the trust bond later in life. Unfortunately, many children do not develop the trust bonds they need as infants to grow into well-adjusted adults. Surely, some of us are aware that we also have a problem with trust. It's a normal and good thing not to trust everything and everyone, but not so normal and good to trust no one, or to force our loved ones to jump through hoops to prove their devotion.

Building trust with young children is like building a castle. You have to start out with a foundational structure. You build trust by being stable, predictable, and kind. By being respectful and honoring and nurturing respect in others. By treating kids how you want to be treated. Yes, it's very golden-rule. But it's critical in order to assist kids to feel safe.

The second aspect of building rapport that is absolutely just as critical as trust is setting boundaries. When you tell a child "no", it should be because there's a good reason to set that limit, and when you follow through, you're demonstrating you mean what you say and you're going to follow through. A lot of adults falter in this, and for good reason. Many are afraid children will lose respect for them or not like them anymore. They fear that a difficult child will become even more difficult. In reality, challenging children need boundaries even more. Imagine, for a minute, if you were suddenly released into the world knowing that you could do whatever you wanted with no human-imposed consequence. Now imagine that you haven't had the life experience to figure out what natural consequences you might come across. Anything could happen. It's a frightening feeling for children to not know the boundaries, to not understand what is and isn't okay and acceptable. By setting boundaries, you send a message to children that you care about them enough to keep them safe. Setting limits and boundaries should always include a short explanation, such as, "It's not okay to throw the block because it could break something or hit somebody." This helps kids understand that boundaries aren't random.

Building rapport takes time. With some children, it can take a very long time. But once rapport is established, there's a mutual respect that almost always blossoms into liking, and even loving, one another.

Yesterday I mentioned a child who had said some rather unkind things to me. Actually, the gist of what he said was "F- You!" He spat and cursed and ran away from the classroom. He climbed on the tables and jumped at the overhead lighting. As I navigated the waters of building a relationship with this kid, I figured out that I needed to do more than just tell him what to do or not to do, and I needed to do more than show him that I cared about him. I needed to do both, in a consistent, caring way. This kid taught me about rapport. He taught me that if I invested in him, and invested in the beginning steps of our relationship, we could have a kinship that meshed as well as the most natural ones in the world. And what I learned from that experience was that once he knew I was on his side, that I meant what I said and he could trust me, that I could earn his respect. The behaviors I had struggled with initially dissipated, and any issues we had were more easily remedied through calm conversation. He knew he would be heard, and that's something we all need to know.

I don't want to send the idea that every kid comes around quickly, because they don't. But every kid is worth the time and investment of building rapport. And we, as the adults who have to live and work with these little people, are worth it too.

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