Leadership Spotlight

Rapport and Empathy

Stock photo of a female officer intently listening to a co-worker.


Among the many skills necessary for effectiveness in law enforcement, understanding and applying interpersonal communication concepts and techniques prove essential. These proficiencies help determine an officer’s success during a career, from the academy to executive management. The various related topics, such as active listening, perception, persuasion, and conflict resolution, all depend to some extent on an individual’s ability to develop rapport and practice empathy while acquiring overall communication competence.

Rapport involves a temporary relationship based on some common interest. Officers need this connection, whatever its intensity or longevity, to communicate well with others. People more likely will share their personal information and true thoughts and feelings with individuals they feel an affinity for or connection with. Developing rapport is not complex or inherently difficult. For instance, interview and interrogation courses frequently recommend that common interests can be simple—perhaps a sports team or an upbringing in the same geographic area.

Sincerity on some level must characterize the relationship. Rapport based on a genuine desire to understand and connect with another person always should constitute a primary goal. Such relationships deliver considerable dividends, including information from a witness or an admission of guilt from a suspect.

Police professionals also must remember that building rapport can help develop bonds within the agency. It holds importance for law enforcement officers who have worked with or supervised the same personnel for years. Having honest rapport with supervisors, peers, and subordinates allows for an unvarnished view of the political landscape in a department, as well as the officer’s place in that environment.

So, how can police professionals develop greater rapport with and empathy for colleagues at all levels within the agency? Perspective taking allows officers to develop an understanding of others, as well as determine why something happened. It involves looking at the actions of someone else in a particular situation and putting oneself in the mind-set of that person at the same time and place. By doing so, officers can see why that individual made a particular decision or took a certain action.

This technique can help law enforcement personnel deal with difficult employees or convey the intent of executive managers who implement controversial policies. Understanding the mind-set of those making the decisions, as well as impacted personnel, increases empathy for why the policies were implemented and assists in shaping a message uniformly understood at all organizational levels.

Rapport and empathy constitute essential components for effective communication with others, especially as modern technology continues to make people better connected, but more physically isolated. Law enforcement professionals at all levels must strive continuously to develop and apply these qualities inside their organization and in the general public to avoid misunderstanding and distrust. Doing so can help police agencies and the communities they serve become true partners moving forward into the 21st century.

Supervisory Special Agent Robert K. Melquist of the Executive Programs Instructional Unit prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be contacted at rkmelquist@fbi.gov.