Build trust with one-on-one meetings

By Nick Butler

Tags: ,

One-on-ones or coffee catch ups help build trust. Photo: rawpixel-com-423663 Photo by on Unsplash

Do you feel like you’re not fully engaged with your team? Are you only having catch-ups when there’s a problem or when their performance review comes up? Looking at regular, one-on-one meetings could be something to consider; they are a great way to create an inclusive culture and build trust. At Boost, each of us has a fortnightly meeting with one of our Agile coaches. As a coach myself, I can highly recommend it. Supporting and developing the people that make up your organisation or team is so rewarding.

Disclaimer time: Just so we are clear; this is based on my experiences as an Agile Coach at Boost. This is how I approach one-on-ones, but how you run yours may be different and that’s absolutely fine. The simple act of engaging with your team through regular one-on-ones is a step in the right direction. You do not need to be a coach to start this process; you simply need a team of individuals that you want to be more engaged with.

Why do it?

In previous places I’ve worked, annual performance reviews were the norm but this did not provide a collaborative environment. Instead, it created a culture of blame, fear and anxiety as we each worked towards the dreaded interview. Here at Boost, as coaches, we do fortnightly, 30-minute one-on-one coaching sessions with our teams. It’s a great way to bond, build trust, learn, listen and explore possibilities. It’s something I really enjoy and it allows everyone the chance to talk about anything that might be affecting them.

Scrabble tiles spell respect. Respect helps build trust. Photo credit:

Keep it safe

Making a safe environment where people can speak openly is important and is something I work hard to create. If these meetings come across as too clinical or formal, one-on-ones are unlikely to be help. They should be an opportunity to get to know the person and find out if there’s anything worrying them. It’s great to be able to foresee potential issues before they become problems. It takes time, trust and mutual respect, but the benefits of a good one-on-one meeting are priceless.

It takes time to establish trust, but don’t let this put you off. The journey of building trust and mutual respect is a journey well worth taking. It does involve actively listening to the person and having a genuine interest in what they have to say. In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown says, “Curiosity is a shit-starter. But that’s okay. Sometimes you have to rumble with the story to find the truth.”

I work hard not to dominate the discussion and instead try to leave plenty of room for them to talk or even for the dreaded silence. Silence can be uncomfortable so it takes time to master this skill; not filling in silences with talk allows quiet reflection and can be very effective.

Sometimes, getting out of the office is another simple way to get people to talk openly. The very act of leaving the organisation-bubble makes for a more pleasant opportunity to get these conversations going. Go grab a coffee or sit in the park. You might even try walking meetings to keep things dynamic!

Powerful questions

When I first start a one-on-one with a new person, I tend to do a lot of the talking. However, I offer a disclaimer, “I won’t talk this much normally because these sessions are about you, not me.” I do like to talk people through the meetings if it’s our first one to find out what their expectations might be and what they would like to get out of them.

I like to introduce the technique of Powerful Questions in these first meetings. Powerful questions are open-ended questions that require significant thought before they can be truly answered. When I ask a powerful question, I can dig deeper and get into more thought-provoking discussions. I try and bring a couple of these questions, pre-prepared, into my one-on-ones. I don’t always need to use them but they are a good way to focus on the individual’s personal or professional journey. Approaching these meetings in a pragmatic way helps ensure that we can get some value out of each session, and it helps me to have pre-prepared questions to throw into the mix if needed. My aim is that each person walks away feeling that they have been heard and challenged in a safe environment.

Build trust

A one-on-one is a great way to establish those strong trusting relationships but it is far more than this. There is no right way to run these meetings, as long as safety, mutual respect and moving forward are achieved. These meetings provide a way to truly engage with the individual, provide feedback in a safe and constructive way, receive feedback, work through any issues or concerns and generally get a strong sense of how that person is doing on a regular basis.

One of the most important things to be aware of, therefore, is that these meetings are not about you identifying and solving their problems; I focus more on working through any issues, concerns or goals together so they can find the way forward. Arming them with the confidence to work through their own issues and building the resilience to cope with them better has a much more far-reaching benefit than solving the problems for them. In the process, a stronger organisation and team results as well.Trust builds resilience. Photo credit: Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash


To kick off a one-on-one, I like to share some positive feedback or a positive observation of that person. It’s a great way to stimulate conversation and create safety. Hopefully, it isn’t too hard to come up with something positive for each session, but if you’re struggling, it may help to develop the habit of actively seeking out positive feedback and speaking with others may help with this. If you are finding it impossible to come up with something positive, perhaps there is a bigger issue to dig into!

Once we bask in the positivity of this feedback, it’s time to move on to any more active feedback. This needs to be worded in a way that is non-threatening and opens up, rather than closes down, discussion. Everyone wants to do their best and to offer feedback on how a person can achieve this is welcomed if phrased in a constructive and respectful way. This again will often lead to a productive conversation. For me, the goal is always to set the stage for useful discussion. Sometimes this discussion flows freely but sometimes it needs a bit more direction and that is where I find that powerful questions come into play.

Make it productive

I like to encourage a strong sense of self-motivated professional development (a personal passion of mine). This means that finding out what is important to them, what their ‘blue sky’ goal might be, for example, is a good starting point. It helps you find ways to discuss and support their development. You may need to take small steps at the start to build trust further, but this is an investment in the person and their future. I cannot emphasize this enough: having a genuine interest in them is vital to the success of one-on-one meetings. If you are simply going through the motions, you will not see positive results.

A key question that I like to ask regularly, in some way or other, is “How can I coach you better?” or “Is there something I can do to make our one-on-one’s more constructive?”. I know, this session is not about me, but I want to make sure that each one-on-one is offering value and is motivating. I accept all feedback as constructive in this situation and make sure that anything that’s offered is worked through and put into action. Again, this can become a catalyst for further discussion on exactly what the person needs and why. However, there is no point asking this if you have no intention of making the changes if required or becoming defensive. Remember, building and maintaining trust is at the core of these meetings.

I make sure I time-box one-on-ones are as much as possible to ensure we don’t move too far away from the focused discussions. However, if the conversation is uncovering some useful information, I’m not going to shut those discussions down after 30 minutes; we just have to use common sense.

Following through

To conclude my one-on-ones, I tend to ask “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”. I like to invite the person to bring up anything they might be feeling tentative about or have questions about; this is the opportunity for them to voice anything else they may have on their mind. Sometimes, it just takes a small prod to remind that person that there is something they want to talk through. My rule is, ‘ask anything’. If I don’t know the answer, I will find out or put them on to the person who can best help. But, I do make sure that I follow this up; it may be the difference between a trust breakthrough and letting someone down. Following through on promises is a way to maintain trust and make one-on-ones as productive as possible.

Lastly, I like to reiterate that they do not have to wait until our next scheduled meeting if they want to talk about anything. I am their coach and they are my priority and I want them to feel safe in talking about anything they need to at any time. Also, if the meeting needs to be cancelled, immediately reschedule it. It’s really important that the person knows that they are indeed your priority.


You can create a more inclusive, productive, safe and engaged organisation in many different ways; regular one-on-ones are just one way we like to do that. I have learnt a lot through just doing it. I would recommend and encourage anyone seeking greater engagement or connection with their team to consider trying this process. The sooner you start, the sooner you will start to build trust and respect amongst your team.

A few tips when running regular one-on-ones

  • Keep them fresh (change things up).
  • Take notes and review them regularly so you can revisit things that are important.
  • Be patient and supportive.
  • Take a genuine interest.
  • Silence is nothing to be afraid of, it uncovers truth.
  • Your role is not to solve problems but to build confidence and resilience.
  • Set challenges and goals together.
  • Actively listen.
  • Ask open-ended or powerful questions.

I hope this has offered you an insight into why to run one-on-ones and a few ideas on how to do them. There is lots of great information out there and finding what works best for you and your team is what’s really important. Good luck out there!

Learn more

How to make the most out of every manager’s secret weapon

7 proven ways to genuinely connect with your employees

Employee engagement: helping the team create company culture in one-on-ones

Build trust across a team with a Team Charter

Your business purpose: How to discover your organisation’s compass

Make a bigger impact tomorrow

Talk to us today