The psychology behind good conversations in the workplace 

Any manager can have a good 1:1 conversation if they follow the right framework – but why does the conversation funnel work? We dive into the psychology behind valuable 1:1s.

Do you think it’s important to give your managers time to have 1:1 conversations – or should they shoe-horn them ad hoc into their day-to-day?  

As a HR professional, it’s likely you have devoted a good deal of time and headspace to the question: “What makes a good conversation” (whether those conversations take place ad hoc or with scheduled time allocated to them). It’s also likely that by now, you know factually what makes the difference between a good conversation, and a less valuable one (or even a downright bad one).   

The next question is: why? Why do all of those things that you know facilitate valuable conversations – frequency, preparation, organisation, etc – have such an impact on the way that employees respond and engage in 1:1s?  

We’ve written this blog for HR professionals like yourself, to both reinforce what you already know and delve further into what makes an effective 1:1 conversation: not just from a practical perspective, but a cultural and psychological one.  


The psychology behind the ‘conversation funnel’ 


As a people management technology vendor, we’re fully immersed in the conversations that are taking place between managers and employees across hundreds of organisations. We’ve analysed 1:1s to help others replicate what works, building a ‘conversation funnel’ designed to give every conversation value and purpose (you can read more about OpenBlend's conversation funnel here).  

Good 1:1 Conversation Infographic Button

 OB_Conversations funnel infographic_May 23 Fv2


Yet the funnel is intended to do more than just provide a practical checklist for conversations (although that is part of it). It also works at a deeper level to enhance relationships between managers and employees, improving trust and honesty regardless of the social relationship between the two. In any organisation, managers’ approaches can vary wildly, with employees getting a very different experience depending on the individual they report into. The ‘chemistry’ between manager and employee is left to potluck, meaning that some employees feel more able to express and advocate for themselves than others. In a workplace that’s supposed to be people-centric, it’s just not fair.  

While you can’t force chemistry, you can level the playing field, providing a structure that allows everyone to be heard, feel supported, and engage in the same way with their managers. As for why it works, that’s what we’re going to answer here.   

Below, we break down the conversation funnel and examine the psychology behind each phase, helping you to understand not only how these steps work, but why they have such a significant impact.  

Organise: creating a safe space for discussion 


People are more likely to be truly open and honest when they have a space that they trust is free from judgement and recrimination. A one-sided annual appraisal where someone is confronted with all of their strengths and failings in the space of an hour doesn’t open discourse or prompt honest dialogue: it creates a sense of fear, defensiveness and distrust. Research found that 25% of men and 18% of women said their annual review had driven them to tears. Not exactly the basis for a productive conversation, is it? 

By organising regular 1:1s you establish a consistent channel for communication. Employees come to know what to expect, can always see the next conversation in the calendar and begin to trust that the objective of the 1:1 is genuinely to have an honest, two-way conversation. In essence, you’re creating a sense of psychological safety – a “critical factor in helping people to learn new behaviours and overcome defensive routines,” according to Psychologist, Coach and Learning Consultant Dr Celine Mullins.  

“Many employees resist sharing their opinions and ideas, because they don’t feel psychologically safe,” explains Dr Mullins. “Psychological safety can be defined as the degree to which people view the environment as conducive to inter-personally risky behaviours, like speaking up or asking for help.”  

Dr Mullins goes on to explain that good communication lines between managers and employees build confidence, encourage the sharing of new ideas and create a sense of safety for concerns to be expressed.  

By organising regular 1:1s, managers are building a psychological safe space for employees.  

Prepare and focus: inspiring confidence through preparation 


Giving employees and managers alike an opportunity to prepare and focus their thoughts before a conversation is vital to inspiring confidence. A shared agenda is vital to making this work in a 1:1, as it gives visibility to both parties on what topics will be on the table. Suddenly facing an important conversation that you weren’t expecting – negative feedback on performance, or an employee looking to leave the business, for instance – can instantly cause people to feel blindsided.  

When we’re blindsided, at work or elsewhere in our lives, we don’t always respond in a rational, considered way. If an employee is thinking about leaving their role, for instance, a manager’s instant response may be anger. If an employee is faced with harsh, unexpected feedback, their response may be to cower away from these conversations in future. Yet with preparation, both of these instances could be very different. With time to psychologically prepare, consider the subject rationally, and assemble your own questions and talking points, you can have a more measured and productive conversation. How many times have you reacted in the heat of the moment, but felt differently later when you have time to process? Preparation allows this to happen before, not during, a 1:1. 

Ariadne Platero LMSW – a therapist, consultant, and coach – comments, “It’s vital to fully understand the situation or have a preparatory conversation so that you can manage all the variables that different people bring to a discussion.” Ariadne also advocates the importance of preparation in managing tone of delivery and manner – something that can have a big impact on how a conversation is shaped.  

Preparation and focus allow both parties to process and gather their thoughts on a topic before a conversation – leading to more considered and less emotionally reactive responses. 

Guidance: bringing consistency across all managers  


Firstly, we have to admit here that it can feel weird to have a ‘guide’ for a conversation. In our lives, we are used to conversations being an ad-hoc and deeply personal exchange. Yet how often do those conversations result in progress or change? How many of us haven’t had a heated discussion with a partner or flatmate about the bins or the laundry or something similar: a conversation that soon spirals into blame, defensiveness or a slammed door, with nothing learned or gained? It’s why relationship counsellors exist: they are there to guide people to have productive, valuable conversations.  

Why wait until it’s got to the door-slamming stage, though? Why not tackle important, not just difficult, conversations in this way? Yes, in day-to-day life it might be a little odd (“I’d like to schedule a meeting about the bins with an agenda and action points” might not go down brilliantly) but in the workplace, it’s a must-have.  

By applying the GROW framework (Goal, Reality, Obstacles, Way Forward), every manager can become a coach to psychologically guide employees from identifying a goal to making it a reality, whether that goal is as tangible as improving performance in a certain area or as intangible as ‘I want to feel more confident at work’. This goes back to our point earlier about chemistry. You can’t force it, but you can steer the relationship with guided conversations, bringing consistency to employee experience across all managers. 

Even the most intangible goals can feel achievable and worthwhile with the right guided framework. 

Actions: bringing transparency and long-term fulfilment to the manager/employee relationship 


You can have a conversation that feels good while it’s taking place, but if nothing comes from it, it’s ultimately an empty experience. As a result, it loses its value – and it can have a disastrous cultural impact, with 1:1s across the board becoming a frustration rather than a valuable opportunity. Clear, timebound actions allow manager and employee conversations to continue into long-term development, providing transparency and visibility into growth. This is particularly important when it comes to areas like career progression, where it’s worth noting that 82% of employees would quit without clear progression.  

Actions also help to further that sense of trust between employees and managers. If you are facing complex subjects, like wellbeing or personal development, having a practical outcome can give a sense of fulfilment and show the other party that they are being listened to.   

Andre Keil, Director of Coaching Talent, puts it brilliantly. “Often, conversations tackle complex challenges with no “right” answer. In these cases, declare one small next step that will move the issue forward. Committing to this follow-up shows your support for the other person and demonstrates that you value the facts and emotions they shared.” 

Actions are essential to adding real value to a dialogue and illustrating long-term development.  

Applying this psychology to workplace 1:1s


Training every individual manager to fully understand the psychology behind good conversations just isn’t feasible – we’ve barely scratched the surface here. Yet with the right framework in place, you can apply the basis of these concepts to every single manager/employee interaction. You can read more about the science of good conversations, including practical advice, in our comprehensive guide for managers. 

Finally, if you answered ‘no’ to our question at the beginning, has this changed your mind? Head over to LinkedIn to tell us what you think.  


Discover a holistic, people-centric approach to performance management. 

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