This conversation guide continues a series of Campfire resources on trust. As we’ve written in previous posts (like this one), establishing strong, trust-based relationships with employees is one of the most important things a manager can do.
And conversations—especially 1:1 conversations—are a great way to build trust. But actually having those trust-building conversations (and doing them well) is a skill that takes practice.
That’s why we created this conversation guide. It’s meant to be a practical and hands-on resource: a list of questions and conversation topics managers can use to build trust with those around them, both at work and in their personal lives.
When to use this guide
The prompts in this conversation guide do not need to be used only in formal 1:1 meetings. Indeed, a lot of them work better in the flow of casual conversation.
Here are a few situations where you might use the prompts in this guide:
• Waiting for others to join a Zoom meeting
• Over lunch / coffee / snacks
• In weekly 1:1 meetings
• At the water cooler (or wherever your team congregates)
• At the end of a work conversation
• It’s a good idea to review the prompts and keep them in the back of your mind for use when the occasion arises.
The three elements of trust
Before jumping into the specific conversation prompts, let’s review the three elements of trust:
1. Intent. Demonstrating to the other person that you aim to help them succeed.
2. Credibility. Following through on commitments and being honest with others.
3. Empathy. Knowing your employees as people. Demonstrating you care about them at a human-to-human level.
As you engage in 1:1 conversations, keep these three elements in mind. Consider how you need to show up to the conversation to demonstrate intent, credibility, and empathy. Asking the below questions inauthentically, while you’re too busy, or when you’re half distracted can actually break trust, rather than build it. It’s painfully obvious when someone is just checking the box or asking these questions because they know they’re supposed to—not because they really care or are actually curious. Make sure you have the right mindset before you engage.
In this section, you’ll find a number of ideas for questions to ask and info to share in 1:1 conversations to build trust with someone. Most of these prompts apply to any relationship at work, whether it’s with someone more senior, more junior, or a peer. Your follow-up actions might differ depending on the nature of the relationship, but the initial conversations are similar.
With that, here are four ideas for building trust through 1:1 conversations with anyone at work.
Ask about their goals and challenges
With any colleague—leader, peer, or report—asking questions to understand their goals and challenges is a great way to demonstrate intent and build empathy.
For example: I once worked closely with a graphic designer who was responsible for doing the layout of all company documents. I would send the graphic designer a Word document with text, the graphic designer would lay it out using design software, and then we’d go through multiple rounds of edits before finalizing the document.
One day, I got curious about the designer’s work and asked what her biggest challenges were. “Honestly,” she said, “I struggle with all those rounds of edits. The design software isn’t great for edits. I have to retype all your changes.”
Aha! I realized I’d been unintentionally creating extra work for the designer. I liked seeing the text laid out before finalizing it, but not at the expense of so much extra work. “What if I finalize the text before sending it to you for layout?”
“That would be great!”
These kinds of simple questions and conversations can go a long way toward building trust with your colleagues. You might ask about the goals of their current work, their strategic goals (especially if they’re your leader), or their career goals. What are they working toward? And why? Here are some specific questions you might ask:
• What problem is [their project] solving?
• What’s your biggest challenge right now?
• What’s the biggest thing on your plate right now?
• What’s the biggest thing you’d like to achieve this year?
• What do you hope to achieve in your career?
• Why do you do what you do? What’s the purpose behind your work?
Solicit candid feedback
Another way to build trust is to ask the other person for candid feedback.
It’s fairly common to ask for feedback from bosses and those above us in the org hierarchy. Asking for feedback from peers and reports is less common, but it can be a powerful trust-builder—especially if you make changes based on their inputs.
At one org we know, employees regularly meet with colleagues to understand their impact on one another. They ask: “How am I affecting your ability to do your work? How can I be more helpful to you?” These conversations are helpful because they allow employees to get in one another’s heads, develop empathy for each other’s challenges, and follow up to help one another more effectively.
To ask for feedback in your 1:1 conversations, get curious about what your blind spots might be. This is an opportunity for you to learn a lot. Consider asking questions like:
• How have I hindered your ability to do your work? What can I do to help you instead?
• What did you think of [recent project]? What could have been better?
• I’m struggling with [problem] on [project]. What would you suggest?
Get to know them personally
There’s a lot of research indicating that knowing colleagues on a personal level increases engagement, job satisfaction, and productivity.[iii] People who know one another tend to trust each other, work better together, and get more done.
I once had a direct report who had children older than mine. I took an interest in them and made a point to ask her for parenting advice. She took such joy in telling me about her kids and sharing the lessons she’d learned! It was a fantastic way to bond—and I noticed that our working relationship improved.
With that in mind, here are some ideas for questions to ask colleagues to get to know them more personally:
• What did you do this weekend? (Probe as appropriate.)
• What are your family members’ names? (If they have kids—how old are they?)
• Do you have pets? What are their names?
• How do you recharge?
• What's the most important lesson you've learned in the last year?
• How do you handle stress?
Reveal what you’re struggling with
Unlike the previous sections, this part of the guide doesn’t have specific conversation-starters. Instead, it describes a way to build trust through vulnerability. As managers, being vulnerable–exposing your own “humanness”–can enhance your team’s sense of belonging.
Years ago, I worked closely with a colleague who reviewed a lot of my work. I was convinced he thought I was incompetent because he sent back lots of constructive criticism, fast. The story I told myself was: “He must glance at my stuff and think it’s terrible, or he’d never send it back so fast!
As it turned out, he didn't think I was incompetent at all. I was imagining it.
In truth, he was drowning in his own work—struggling to do everything on his plate at the speed and level of quality he expected of himself. He judged himself as incompetent and was trying as quickly as he could to finish everything.
When my colleague revealed his struggles, it completely changed my perception of him and our relationship. I was finally able to let go of my ego and think about how to help him.
To build trust, consider sharing something like my colleague did in a 1:1 conversation. What are you struggling with? Reveal something personal about yourself as a way of inviting your colleague to do the same.
Here’s the thing: A single 1:1 conversation isn’t going to build trust. In fact, one conversation with no follow-up will likely do more harm than good. To truly demonstrate intent, credibility, and empathy, managers must follow up. That means having these conversations on a regular basis, showing you remember what you’ve talked about before, and taking action to help the other person however is appropriate.
For example, if a colleague shares that they enjoy recharging by reading books over the weekend, on Monday, ask what books they read. If you ask a direct report about their career goals, find ways—assignments, learning opportunities, promotions, etc.—to help them develop toward those goals. And so on.
We hope this guide is a helpful resource for you in these ongoing conversations. If you want more ways to build trust with your team, sign up to attend our free Campfire session, "Foundations of Trust".
P.S: Applying this guide to personal relationships
Many of the work-related ideas in the previous section can be applied or modified to build trust in your personal life, too. You can get curious about what drives the people closest to you (which, if you think about it, isn’t something we often ask). What are they most interested in? Why? What do they hope to achieve in life? These questions and the conversations that follow can help you get to know the people closest to you better than ever. Try it and see what happens.