Establishing rapport during online coaching

{Van Coller-Peter & Manzini, 2020. Strategies to establish rapport during online management coaching. SA Journal of Human Resource Management, 18(0), a1298.}


Building rapport is a prerequisite to establishing a trusting and productive management coaching relationship. Rapport is the core of the coaching relationship, enabling a genuine connection between coach and client that will support the client in reaching her full potentials.

What creates rapport between coach and client in a coaching relationship? Critical factors in rapport building are physical appearance, body language or gestures, quality of voice, language or use of words, and beliefs and values. Consumers evaluate the trustworthiness of partners based on the first impression of the initial face-to-face experience.

In an online management coaching relationship, the coach mainly relies on the quality of voice, intonation, and use of language and words; critical information about the communicator is lacking, such as character, attitude, and emotions.

Paradoxically, the constraints in online communication free the client to open herself up and speak freely, not feeling threatened by the intimate setting of a face-to-face session or the worries of misunderstanding that could come from non-verbal communication in traditional counseling settings.

The task is to explore strategies to guide rapport development that could contribute to more productive interactions in an online coaching environment. 

Benefits and challenges of online coaching

E-coaching allows coaches to be more flexible and interact with clients when needed. Less constrained by time or location, the matching of coach and client can be based more on compatibility and less on other demographics, location, or ease of access, enabling clients access to a bigger and more diverse pool of coaches.

E-coaching deepens the engagement between coach and client because e-coaching may reveal insights hidden in face-to-face coaching, enabling the client to reach the crux of the matter much quicker and in greater depth than in face-to-face coaching. The enhanced anonymity and openness may also enable more candid and objective feedback.

The disadvantages, challenges, and limitations of e-coaching increase the importance of alerting clients that they have been heard. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance becomes essential. Obstacles associated with telephone coaching, such as a lack of visual cues, can be overcome by verbalizing the process to the client and paying attention to the subtle parts of the conversation. Technology offers increased accessibility and communication frequency, which can facilitate a more human process than face-to-face coaching. Frequent initial contact will aid in building the partnership. 


Rapport is present in all forms of conversation. Key elements of rapport include chemistry, trust, mutual understanding, warmth, and mutual respect.

The coach’s competency to consider the client’s predicament through empathy and understanding should enable the coach to overcome challenges in establishing rapport. The partnership with the client is based on confidentiality, trust, honesty, and mutual respect, enabling coordination and buy-in about expectations and objectives.

In e-coaching, nonverbal cues are absent, or in the case of video calls, very limited, which affords possibilities to accentuate one’s identity and interpersonal relations. A lack of visual social information can promote participation, equality, friendliness, openness, and honesty.

Individuals adapt to online communication by infusing verbal messages with information about the communicator’s character, emotion, and attitude, thus allowing improved relationship-based communication to surface. Language in e-communication can be enriched through the use of stylistic tools that help to express emotions and state of mind, such as emoticons, sound words (“hmm” or “ugh”), action words, and font (boldface to emphasize), and capital letters (shouting). As the coach and client get to know each other better, they get to know each other’s communication cues.

Verbal cues are defined as the spoken and language-based form of communication between individuals and encompass choice of words, types of sentences, and flexibility of speech, as well as how the person speaks to another, including tone and quality of voice.

The skill of encouragement becomes central in verbal articulations that demonstrate acceptance, reinforce effort, or appreciate performance and contributions. Verbal articulations by the coach are an encouragement source for clients in building remote interpersonal relationships.

Ask feedback from the client: What made you choose e-coaching? How was your experience with e-coaching? Was there rapport between you and the client/coach? What led you to believe that there was rapport? What were the key factors that enabled you to build rapport during e-coaching? How did you promote rapport building? How did the client/coach demonstrate he/she had rapport with you?

Fully functional technology, such as connectivity, serves to build rapport.

Authenticity contributes positively toward rapport building. Honesty and being clear from the beginning of the expectations on both sides enhance rapport building.

Personal stories and interests, sharing and discovering personal experiences promote rapport. Storytelling becomes a powerful tool.

Assurance of a safe space online requires constant and explicit articulations.

Checking in with the client to verify, confirm, and reconfirm understanding and frequently summarizing will support listening and help to accentuate rapport.

{Insight is good. Insight followed by action is better. Learnings will fade, character endures. Make learnings into character of what you see fit for your journey ahead.}

It is essential for both coaches and clients in a virtual coaching setting not to make assumptions but instead verbalize an understanding, situation, or uncertainty.

Identifying clear guidelines, expectations, and parameters upfront, and explaining the boundaries, are instrumental in promoting rapport.

What optimizes rapport between the client and coach during e-coaching? 

The following strategies assist in compensating for the deficit of non-verbal cues during online management coaching and, with explicit articulation and consistent application, enable rapport to be established between coach and client in an online environment:

Online technology that is functional, comfortable, and compatible with both parties and the coaching environment.

Authenticity and honesty on both sides.

Personal storytelling and sharing of personal experiences.

Creating and holding a safe space.

Listening attentively and deeply.

Confidentiality and non-judgment to ensure privacy for the conversation.

Check-in and feedback to constantly seek, confirm, and affirm information while providing feedback.

Suspending assumptions and verbally articulating thoughts and actions.

Tone of voice and language with creative use of words, sentences, speech, and language.

Conversation flow, aiming for a natural flow and building-up of the conversation.

Passion, commitment, and experience are used to support the interaction and engagement of the parties.

Sense of humor.

Setting guidelines, expectations, and boundaries to have clarity up front on how the coaching engagement will be conducted as well as the end goal.