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How to make the most of one-on-one meetings

Simon Slade shares five tips for making the most of one-on-one meetings without rushing or dominating them.

One-on-one meetings provide precious time for a leader to connect with their team members individually. There is a lot of pressure on managers and bosses to make the most of these rare, quick, and highly valuable meetings.

Because of the power differential in these meetings—between a supervisor and their direct charge — a delicate balance must be struck in order for this engagement to be productive. Here are five tips for making the most of these meetings without rushing or dominating them.

1.  Balance Preparation with Informality

There is no need for the formality of minutes and agendas, but some preparation is necessary to ensure the one-on-one is productive. Allow yourself five minutes of privacy immediately before the employee’s arrival and after their departure.

Prior to the meeting, direct your focus onto the employee. The next hour is about listening more than speaking. If there are specific things you’d like to ask or discuss, keep it to one or two items so that the employee has plenty of time to share.

After the meeting, jot down notes you can refer to before your next one-on-one with the same person. Having a solid reference to the previous meeting demonstrates your investment and allows for more constructive discussions. If they share a particular challenge or problem, stay updated on their progress with that struggle and how you can help.

Your first one-on-one with an employee sets the tone for the rest of them. Try to keep the timing consistent, but allow for flexibility with the location. Perhaps sometimes they come to your office, and other times you go out for coffee or a change of scenery. Flexibility in the environment can make these meetings more comfortable for both parties.

2.  Ask the Right Questions

Questions are a central part of a manager’s role in a one-on-one. These questions might take on a theme for each meeting, such as goal-setting, work satisfaction, team dynamics, or managerial development (as in, “How can I be a better manager for you?”).

Always start the meetings by soliciting direction from the employee. They might have a burning question or concern they’ve been waiting to discuss with you, and it’s important that they feel this is the proper platform to express themselves. If nothing seems to be nagging at them, you can take the reins with your own questions.

3.  Create a Safe, Honest Environment

While your contribution to the meeting should be minimal when compared to the employee’s, it shouldn't be nonexistent. In fact, if your contributions are pointed, powerful, and candid, they will make for a far more effective meeting.

When your employee opens up, respond in kind. Share vulnerable moments in your career and admit when you’ve messed up. You can even feel free—without too much detail—to tell them about your current struggles and challenges. This will create a precedent that allows the employee to feel comfortable with opening up more, which will make your one-on-one time with them more fruitful.

4.  Use the Power of Thanks

These meetings might not always be easy and care-free—progress is very rarely painless—but they should always end positively.

Find a specific behavior, characteristic, or achievement of each employee that you can praise at the end of the meeting. This shouldn't be hard at all—in fact, it might be tough to choose just one thing!

Highlight their progress and effort on a project or the way they expertly navigated a challenge. This type of affirmation can go a long way in creating a more positive feeling around the one-on-one meetings.

Every meeting should end on a high note, even if the conversation has been one of general frustration.

5.  Never, Ever Cancel

When executed properly, one-on-one meetings will experience steady improvement. The meetings you’ll be having with the same employee a year from now will be more productive, more efficient, and more enjoyable.

The only way this improvement can happen is with consistency. Make it a rule that you never cancel a one-on-one. Instead, reschedule it. If you have to miss a meeting, don’t take it off the calendar until you have set a new date.

If you stick with it and follow these tips, it’s possible that your one-on-ones will become your favorite part of the week.

Simon Slade is CEO and co-founder of SaleHoo, an online wholesale directory of over 8,000 prescreened suppliers, and Doubledot Media Limited, which provides seven different training and software applications to over a million customers worldwide.