Mastering the Art of One-to-One Conversations

What are the important one-to-one conversations you’ve had recently, perhaps as a professional, as a friend or as a parent?

How could you have got more from that conversation, especially if it was with someone where the relationship is currently difficult?

A conversation between two people has the potential to be a dialogue where both parties benefit. It isn't just about presenting an idea; it's an opportunity to explore ideas and motivations in depth.

I have found the ideas presented in this blog invaluable to getting the best from important one-to-one conversations.

Firstly, I have found it helpful to approach one-to-one conversations with the right collaborative mindset and to consider a few ‘rules of engagement’.


  • Think win-win – How can you both get what you want from this conversation?
  • People will do things for their reasons and not yours – We often forget that everyone is different and therefore has different motivations.
  • Seek first to understand and then to be understood – If it’s true that people will do things for their reasons and not yours then it makes sense to find out what’s important to the other person before wading in with your own opinion.

Reminding yourself of these rules of engagement before any important one-to-one conversation is key. Imagine these rules on a post-it note on the other person’s forehead as you converse with them. With your mindset in the right place for a good collaborative conversation, there are three skills to use and develop.


1. Build Rapport

Rapport is important because it leads to trust, which is the foundation of success in a one-to one dialogue. Without trust, the barriers go up and it is hard to make progress. Rapport is built on commonality. This can be commonality in a number of areas, but interests and background are often the easiest to understand. Seek out what you have in common and start a conversation around this.

The acronym F.O.R.M can help here: Family, Occupation, Recreation and Meteo. Meteo may seem a strange topic of conversation, but ask yourself how often you get chatting about the weather, good or bad, and its impact on life. The most powerful rapport-building topics are often universals, i.e. things that are true for all of us.

You can also build commonality by 'matching' the energy or state of the other person. If, for example, they are excited, get excited too. If they are sad, be sad too. If they are angry, then empathise with that anger by showing that you are angry about something similar. Matching the other person’s state in this way is more likely to result in genuine empathy than matching simple body language (the more widely discussed interpretation of matching), such as crossing your legs in the same way. 


2. Understand Needs

You can uncover the other person's needs through effective questioning. There are three levels of dialogue with which we can converse.

  • Facts – uncover the facts using  open questions, i.e. “what, when, where, how.”
  • Emotions – explore emotions with questions such as: “How does it make you feel and how does it make others feel?”  “What emotions is this generating?” “What is the effect of the emotions on the situation and the outcome?”
  • Needs – draw out their needs by asking questions like: “What do you need to happen?” “What do others need from you? What do you need from them?"

It may take time to move from facts to emotions to needs, and it will require you to build trust first, but once we understand the other person’s needs we can truly help them.

It is best to ask open questions that require a full answer rather than a simple yes or no. For example, 'What is most important to you about this project?' not 'Is this project what you want to do?'


3. Listen

Of course, having great questioning skills is worthless without effective listening. When in conversation it's easy to fall into the trap of only half listening, making assumptions about what is coming next and waiting for your chance to respond. True listening is difficult but essential for building empathy, because when another person truly feels listened to they will talk openly and the conversation will move forward.

Listen clearly to everything means accurately hearing what is being said instead of loading it with personal assumptions. Paraphrasing and summarising help to avoid any misunderstandings. Reflect back what you heard and check your understanding.

It's also important to observe non-verbal messages as well as the spoken words. Most of the impact of someone's communication is carried by their body language, a large part by their voice and only a small part by their words. Therefore, if we listen only to what they say, we may miss the intent of the communication.

For example, is there congruence between what their body language and voice are saying and the words they are speaking? 'How was your day?' 'Fine!' Was it really? Watch for shifts in body language; is it becoming more open or more closed and what does that tell you? What do you need to do to get the conversation back on track?


A one-to-one conversation can be a great opportunity for both parties to walk away with what they need, as well as building trusting relationships, but only if handled effectively. With practice, the skills required will be a huge asset in any professional's toolkit.

So, next time you have an important one to one conversation that you want to make the most of, remember to keep in mind these key tips:

  • First, get yourself in the right mindset
  • Build rapport early in the conversation through finding commonality
  • Ask open questions to uncover the other person's needs and listen to their words and non-verbal signals
  • Summarise what’s been talked about and agreed, to check understanding.

Posted by Mark Procter


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