Once, I worked as an HR manager for a financial services firm. We introduced the idea of meaningful conversations. The aim was not to suggest that most of the conversations were meaningless, but to stress the importance of good, high quality conversations to high engagement.

We did not invent this concept on our “HR-cloud”. The idea was based on the analysis of many exit interviews. This analysis revealed very clearly that issues in the relations, conversations, coaching, chemistry and trust between boss and employee were the first reason why people become disengaged and leave.
Point taken, but how do you create or fix those things ?
You don’t.
Obviously you cannot create or fix a relationship of trust between people. They have to do that themselves. But you can create a context and culture that enables and stimulates all this.

Cultural Changes

There is another challenge: it takes time. Creating a (new) culture takes at least 5 years in my experience. It requires some tough changes in terms of leadership, behaviours, paradigms etc. As an HR professional you cannot just sit and wait for cultural changes. You need to take initiatives.

An excuse often heard is “Why bother introducing new tools and programs if our culture is not ready?” This may be a valid argument. However, it is also true that the creation of a new culture is never a linear process that needs to be completed first before anything else can be done. It is more a continuous learning and experimental process. This process can be stimulated by “adding” now and then something. Even when one may not yet be 100% ready yet. No guts, no glory…

That’s why we at that time decided to start building a “coaching culture”. The first concrete step in that direction was the launch of the meaningful conversation. We were fully aware that some line managers would probably react a bit confused or even resistant as if it were “again something new from HR”.

Meaningful conversations

After having read into the work of John Whitmore and having inquired with the internal stakeholders, we defined it like this:

Coaching is a meaningful conversation based on an attitude and a set of skills that help engaging with others, and help people develop the necessary competencies and confidence to improve their performance and achieve their potential.

We also made it part of a larger framework of possible situations where meaningful conversations are highly valuable.

Meaningful Conversations

At a first presentation, the management team showed appreciation for:

  • the bridge towards engagement and performance in the definition of coaching. Some managers perceived coaching to be very “soft” and not very performance related.
  • the suggestion, mentioned in the framework, that meaningful conversations are not only to be used towards employees and colleagues, but also towards clients and candidates ! One and the same concept for so many interlocutors !

Of course, it is not because this was positively welcomed, that a coaching culture emerges. Nor will one be overwhelmed by a sudden surge of meaningful conversations all over the place.


It is critical that organisational feedback flows from the CEO all the way to the employees on the field and back. Not only does this promote transparency and trust. It also fosters dialogue and conversation at the local level about how individuals and teams can improve employee engagement.
If the engagement and trust levels are low, I suggest getting outside help for holding these conversations. The most important outcome from these conversations is that the employees learn and dare to talk openly about whatever is on their mind. If the employees do not feel safe, then there is no point in having the conversations.

Average trust levels usually are the result of the fact that certain areas have less trust than others or that certain managers have earned less trust than others.

The key element of a meaningful conversation: Listening

I will not bore you with lists. Experience has learned me that a very important skill towards creating a safe environment and enabling meaningfulness is “listening”. Good, active listening. Nothing less and certainly nothing more, as an excellent, non judgmental start of a meaningful conversation.

How do you start with listening ?

Based on our own, already earlier used internal manuals, we created this overview. The first level is “attending” (listening for starters). The highest level is “Listening with intuition” (listening for the experienced).

Listening Skills

Last but not least, we created workshops with very easy, accessible exercises. This helps to make all this come alive.

Did we create miracles ? Certainly not.
Did we create a new culture ? Not entirely.
Did we offer some first steps towards new, more appropriate behaviour ? We certainly did.
And this was also confirmed by an exit ratio slightly going down and by some managers actively daring to share their positive experiences with listening and with meaningful conversations!

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Meaningful Conversations as Key to Engagement and Retention

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