Rapport Building 101: Rules for Earning Trust and Cooperation – Forward Observer Shop

Rapport Building 101: Rules for Earning Trust and Cooperation

Merriam’s Dictionary says rapport is a “relation characterized by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity.”  I can’t even begin to describe the importance that this ability to build rapport brings to the team.  It’s one of the most overused words when talking about Foreign Internal Defense (FID) or Special Forces, but so many times it’s not really understood or it’s completely ignored.  And even though the word may be overused, there are not many who truly understand it or are capable of applying it in real-world situations.

The ability to build rapport is one of, if not the most, important skills Special Forces brings to the table. This importance starts in the training exercise known as Robin Sage. After the brutally long infil, you have to conduct a link-up with a couple of guerrillas, known as G’s, sent to guide you to the vicinity of the guerrilla base, or G base. When you do finally get there, however, you won’t be allowed into the G base. You probably won’t be allowed to even meet the G chief for a few hours, or maybe not even until the next day.

So you set up your own patrol base near them, but you are not allowed to move into the camp until you have built rapport with, specifically, the G chief. If something happens, or doesn’t happen, then the team will find that their new found rapport has been burned, and you will be kicked out of the camp and have to start over. You’ll start back at square one, working just to be allowed to move back into the camp.

Many of the scenarios are designed to test your ability to teach and lead foreign troops, but ethical questions will pop up, and your reactions will be judged by the instructors, the Gs, and the G chief. As often is the case, these scenarios deal with human rights violations, and you are judged both on how you handle the situations internally and what happens after.

These ethical scenarios are important for two reasons. First, if you have developed a good relationship with the Gs and have strong rapport, you may be able to convince them not to perform an act — an important lesson. Second, the instructors can see how you react, or how you deal with difficult situations. What did you do or say that would negatively affect your future relationship with the Gs, and most importantly, the mission?

My mission during Robin Sage was to secure and set up the drop zone (DZ) for a resupply operation. Two Gs and I went early in the morning to conduct reconnaissance on the DZ. Our job was to initially make sure it was clear, watch it throughout the day; then, at night, set it up and receive the bundles.

My guys were playing the part of the surly Gs perfectly. Initially, nothing came easy with them, and I had to use all my powers of persuasion to get them to do anything. As we were sitting on the edge of the clearing all day, bored out of our minds, something changed. They realized they liked me, and things became easier. They opened up, and eventually I even got them to break character. One of them worked at the hospital, and this was his fourth time role playing for Robin Sage. I was able to get some good info from him for the rest of the exercise.

Rapport, Not Just for Foreign Troops

I learned something incredibly important during that exercise: Rapport building is not only important for working with local nationals (LN), it can be used in pretty much every part of your life.

When I first got to Special Forces Group, the command sergeant major told us, as part of his in-brief, that he wanted us to “practice your rapport skills with the conventional soldiers here on base.” He was kind of a turd (we couldn’t wear our issued cold-weather gear or issued boots on main post, we could only wear it in the field or at a range), and I’m pretty sure he just said that so we wouldn’t piss off the conventional 1SGs or sergeant majors, but that line always stuck with me.

I started implementing it with the support guys (especially the communications section) and other sections, units, or individuals I came in contact with. Sometimes it was because I needed something from them right then, sometimes it was because I might need something from them in the future. Sometimes it was because I’m just a friendly person, and once or twice it was because she had big boobs.

The difference between building rapport and “just being a nice guy” is the motivation behind it. Often, those two will intersect nicely; other times, they will clash. When someone goes out with the intention of building rapport, there’s usually a reason behind it. The reasons run the gamut from “I want them to follow me into a house where bad guys are,” to “When I leave, I want them to have good thoughts when they think about America.” You may need them to protect your life, or you may be asking them to risk theirs.

Just because this sounds very calculated, manipulative and selfish, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. It usually is like that because it has to be. Just because it’s calculated doesn’t mean it’s not real or honest. There are many reasons someone chooses to help you, but when push comes to shove, and the shady shit starts to happen, the only reason they will help you is because they personally like you.

People can sense when they are being used, and often can sense how you really feel about them. If you walk around with a big ego, thinking you are better than everyone, it won’t take you far. I am still friends to this day with some of the commo guys. I started out knowing I would need their help someday, and I wanted to have a relationship with them. Just because there are calculations behind it doesn’t mean it has to be phony.

I believe rapport-building skills can and should be utilized in all walks of life. It is not just for the Special Forces soldier teaching basic rifle marksmanship in the Philippines – it can also be used when you are dealing with Afghan tribal elders, the colonel from the 101st who owns the battle space you want to work in, your coworkers, or Bianca, the really hot chick who works at the coffee shop.

Loren’s Rules for Building Rapport

1. Understand their culture.  This is so important.  Without an understanding of the rules, how can you ever hope to play the game?  The culture could be a multi-ethnic religious tribal understanding.  You might be dealing with a conventional army unit whose senior leadership “hates those guys with beards.”  It could be office politics, understanding the unofficial hierarchy where you work, or wooing the cute girl in your building who looks great in yoga pants.  You have to learn the rules, or you will blow your rapport before you even start.

2. The Golden Rule: Treat others like you want to be treated.  Know that people around the world may be very different from you, but if you look hard enough, you will realize that there are similarities.  All people want to be treated with respect and dignity, and feel that they are valued.  They need to believe that they have something to offer, and be listened to.

This is probably the most important.  This has to be real, or at least as real as you can possibly get.  If someone is just a generally worthless human, with few redeeming qualities, try to find at least one little thing to focus on.  People often know if someone is pretending or lying, so when you interact with them, think about the things they may do right, or a positive quality.

It’s not a time for egos or attitudes. If you go in with the “ugly American” attitude, not only are you headed for failure, but you could be developing an environment ripe for the enemy to use.  By disenfranchising potential allies, you are giving the enemy the environment needed to co-opt your soldiers for intelligence purposes or for direct attacks.  The Institute for the Study of War studied green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan from 2007-2012, and they suggest that:

There are two main narratives purporting to explain why green-on-blue attacks happen and why they are happening more frequently: grievances and infiltration. Grievance-based insider attacks occur because of cultural misunderstandings between foreign and Afghan troops, low morale, and revenge for perceived insults or provocations. Attacks caused by insurgent initiative are pre-planned violence organized by groups like the Quetta Shura Taliban or their Haqqani Network associates who have infiltrated the ANSF or influenced existing members to execute attacks.

3. In all your interactions, be genuine (or as genuine as you possibly can).  This goes right along with rule number two.  People intuitively know when you aren’t being real.  They can sense when they are being used.  Sometimes that’s okay.  When you both have something the other wants, then that can be used.  But understand that the relationship will only last as long as it is mutually beneficial.

4. Find out their motivation.  Even before the first time you meet them, you should be studying.  Learn as much as you can about their culture and their society.  Try to learn the rules.  If you know people who have been there and know the different personalities, talk to them and ask them questions.  From the first time you meet, you need to listen and assess what is said, learn to hear what wasn’t said, and try to understand them.  Try and see what makes them tick.  What is their motivation?  What do they want or need?  Don’t go in with your preconceived notions set in stone; everything must be fluid.  Very often, the truth on the ground is different than what you originally thought.

5. Come up with a plan.  During every interaction, more information or data will come to you.  Learn to be able to see those little pieces, and understand what they are and what they mean.  Some information may not be useful now, but it very well might come in handy in the future.  Figure out what you want, what they want, and then try to come up with a plan where all parties win.  This is not espionage or trying to get dirt on someone – this is attempting to build relationships with people where everyone benefits.

The best analogy to explain the difference between building rapport and building relationships for more sinister motivations such as espionage, is the act of trying to meet girls.  Take, for example, those who are just trying to meet girls to get laid, have a one-night stand, and then bounce, versus those who are trying to meet a girl because they think they could have a real relationship with her.  The latter would be what I consider rapport.

6. Be willing to invest time, money, or assets.  For this relationship to be real, for it to be more than just both of you temporarily using each other, it takes time.  It doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time, energy, trust, and coming through with what you promised.  Helping them without expecting anything back, eating dinner with them, drinking tea, participating with them through hard times and common struggles. When they know you are willing to put your money, time, energy, and body on the line for them, they will start to open up.  That is when the important stuff happens.

I will finish this up with a couple of points.

•    Never promise them something you are not 100 percent sure you can deliver on. If you say you can do or deliver something, be damn sure you can follow through.

•    Never go more than 49-percent native. You may empathize, sympathize, and genuinely like the people you are working with. That’s good. That’s what you want. But in a military setting, never forget that you are an American, and a representative of America. It’s easy to get sucked in with those men you’ve sweated and bled alongside, but in the end, you do what you are told. In the civilian world, don’t give up so much of yourself that you forget who you truly are.

This video is textbook in what not to do when conducting FID and attempting to build rapport: How not to do FID [NSFW].


  1. Reference the video at the end… somebody buy that soldier a copy of “How to win friends and influence people”. I can’t believe they didn’t bum rush that guy and kill him right there.

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