How to structure a 1-on-1 conversation?

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In order for any relationship to grow there needs to be consistent and clear communication. This can make or break a relationship. Many organizations are so focused on communicating with their customers or clients, they don’t stop to think about it when it comes to their employees. 

As a leader, a manager, even as a coach, I believe 1-on-1 meetings are essential for the growth of your team, as well as the health of your organization. Which is why one of the most common questions I have been asked is:

How do you structure your 1-on-1 meetings? 

First, ask yourself: why am I creating this 1-on-1? These conversations are not meant to be a top-down, one-directional experience. If this is your perspective, you are missing a lot of potential growth opportunities all around–for yourself, your teammates, and your organization. 

Second, start to see 1-on-1’s as essential to your communication pipeline. These conversations are a great place to cast vision, share information, do some coaching, and exchange personal reflection with members of your team. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when starting 1-on-1 conversations:

  • Rhythm: Consistency is key. The rhythm that works best for me and my team is every other week for 60-90 minutes at a time. If someone needs more support in a particular season, I will make it once a week. (I’ve typically done this with interns or with individuals who are struggling in areas of performance management). Every other week creates enough space to have purposeful and focused conversation without getting lost in the weeds of daily details. Now, you may be wondering why you should have a 1-on-1 because you have a team member who constantly stands outside your door, asking questions or wanting to share their latest thought. This is exactly why you need to have a 1-on-1! From my experience, I’ve found that asking that talkative team member if the conversation can wait until your 1-on-1 is helpful for managing time. Sometimes what they have to say is urgent, and that’s okay. But if it’s not urgent and they have a tendency to hijack your day with conversation, you can now politely tell them their updates or random questions can wait until your next 1-on-1 meeting. (Hear the coaching that happens even in those little conversations?) This prioritizes your time, and helps them prioritize their time, too.
  • Setting: Find a place that feels safe & comfortable for conversation. Remove barriers that create leadership distance. Get out from behind your desk and sit in more of a casual seating arrangement or in a neutral space outside your office. Depending on your workplace policies, meeting in a common area or conference room maybe be helpful as long as the conversation can be confidential as needed. And turn off phone or email notifications, if possible, to give your undivided attention. A team member should feel safe in every interaction they have with you , but especially when you are meeting 1-on-1.
  • Intentionality: Be intentional about your time together. Communicate the expectation and flow of conversation ahead of time. And don’t have meetings just to have meetings. Bring intentionality to your conversation and you will be surprised how much it impacts their growth and development.

Now it’s time to get started with the actual conversation.

Here are 5 questions I typically ask in each 1-on-1, and I include these in the calendar invitation so my teammates know what to expect. I also make sure they know this is their time, too, and it’s okay to talk about other things that are important to them, even if these items are not on my list of questions: 

  1. What are you celebrating?
    • People have a hard time bragging on themselves. This gives them an opportunity for them to share what they are doing well without feeling like they are being self-centered. 
    • This is also an opportunity for you as a leader to call out what you see them doing well. 
  2. What needs attention?
    • As a manager you might know what needs attention in their world, but do they. This creates an honest conversation about what is most important right now.
  3. What are tensions?
    • This gives space for them to share the tensions they are facing. And you might be surprised! It could be tension with a coworker, with a task, or even something personal they are facing at home which is impacting their work. 
    • This is also an opportunity for you as a leader to name the tensions you might be feeling or experiencing with this individual, and have an open, honest conversation about it. 
  4. What are questions?
    • This gets at the questions they have as well as the questions they get from others. Often times, these questions reveal a communication gap, which can help you redirect what needs to be communicated. I have been amazed at things I thought myself or our organization communicated well, only to find out we were missing a few important pieces.  
  5. How can I better support you? 
    • This is a tough question to ask, because you need to be willing to be big enough to hear the honest answer. If you want a team member to be open to coaching then you need to be open to coaching yourself. Asking this question and owning the answer will make you a better leader. I asked this question at every 1-on-1 I had with a former boss, and never did he reciprocate the question. My sense is he never asked me because he was too afraid of the answer he was going to get. Also, asking how you can support someone is different than asking if you can help them. Support communicates that you will support them while they do the tasks, and help communicates you will do the tasks for them. A small but significant difference.

If you’re just starting your 1-on-1 rhythm or you’re switching things up and trying something new, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what’s working and not working, or feel free to ask more questions about my 1-on-1 rhythm @matthewgraybill

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