How to Build Instant Rapport in an Interview

Job seekers who don’t get a call back after an interview often wonder where they went wrong.

One factor, new research shows, has a larger-than-expected impact on the outcome—the job seeker’s ability, within the first few minutes of a meeting, to spark an elusive form of interpersonal chemistry called rapport.

How do you forge a quick connection with a stranger? Bartenders, retail employees, stand-up comedians, and police investigators do it routinely, and researchers have studied their techniques.

Retail and service-sector employees who perform well tend to pay close attention to customers and engage them in pleasant, upbeat conversations, research shows. Christina Oswald learned to compliment customers on their watch or jewelry or ask friendly questions about their favorite sports while working her way through college as a bartender.

Those skills are helpful in a job interview. She pays close attention to whether a hiring manager is open to small talk, then starts the conversation on a positive note, such as asking about his or her commute and commenting on any shared experiences or neighborhoods, says Ms. Oswald, an analyst for Moncur, a Southfield, Mich., branding and digital-marketing firm.

Police investigators try to generate rapport with witnesses or suspects by finding common interests or shared experiences, according to a 2015 study of 123 law-enforcement officers.

Aldo Civico, a conflict-resolution expert and researcher at Columbia University, got off to a rocky start years ago trying to interview a guerrilla leader in a Colombian prison for a research project. After they discovered and began sharing information about a common interest—Italian cooking—the man opened up, Dr. Civico says.

Skills employed by improvisational comedians enable performers to bond with the audience, research shows. This includes picking up on other’s cues, empathizing, offering upbeat comebacks and giving others a chance to shine, says Clayton Fletcher. As “chief comedy officer” of Peppercomm, New York, a strategic communications firm, he consults with clients on using comedy to improve workplace teamwork and communication.

The transition between the first handshake and settling in for the interview can be “a time to show your personality,” Mr. Fletcher says. He and Peppercomm CEO Steve Cody were walking down a long hall with a prospective client recently when Mr. Cody joked, “This is great, I’m not going to have to get my cardio in today after all.” The client laughed, and “we felt like we’d already bonded,” Mr. Cody says.

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